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Movie Review: Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen

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I was born in the 1970s and spent many of my formative years in the '80s. So it should go without saying that my favorite cartoon memories revolve around Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man (somehow I missed Robotech). I can remember tuning in and watching them for hours. The adventures contained within those 30-minute commercials held my rapt attention so many years ago. Sure, I never really pieced together the big pictures of their tales, but I never really needed to, as my imagination would run wild and build stories around the pieces of the shows that stuck in my head. Now we have Hollywood attempting to take those tales of decades past and bring them to vivid life on the big screen. Unfortunately, all of them have missed the mark thus far. In particular this new Transformers sequel fails to hit the mark with any type of success. I am not asking for much, and not to reach that is just sad.

transformersBefore going into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen I went back and re-watched the original 2007 film. As I sat there watching the transformations and explosions and contemplating the tale, it dawned on me just how much of this makes no sense, is just flat-out silly, and how forgiving I was of the project as a whole at that time. Now, I still enjoy it for the attempt and the fact that it really is kind of fun. However, the story of the All Spark, the Cube or whatever you want to call it is just flat-out goofy. Beyond that, the movie contained a lot of out of place humor, including much of the parents' role, "Sam's special time," and Autobot Jazz being more hip hop than jazz.

With that viewing out of the way, I was completely prepared for what was certainly going to be a mind-blowing experience. After all, it is a new Michael Bay movie and who knows more about blowing things up than him?

There I sat, watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with my mouth agape, chin clanking off my chest, mind reeling from what was going on up on the gigantic IMAX screen in front of me. No, none of this was in a good way. Sure, there are some positives, but this effort falls well short in key areas, not the least of which is the story. I know that some will make the excuse that it is a summer popcorn movie that exists more for the whiz-bang than any sort of intellectual enlightenment, but seriously, is it really too much to ask for something that makes sense and at least pretends to have a brain? I am capable of shutting down the thinking part of my brain, but some movies take my willingness to do so a little too far.

transformersRevenge of the Fallen picks up two years after the first film, pretty much in real time. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is out of high school and heading off to college. Bumblebee is still serving as his protector, but since the battle for the Cube, the war has been pretty quiet in terms of the big picture. While Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) have become a genuine couple, Optimus Prime and his newly expanded team of Autobots have formed a special forces team with the US military, where they hunt down Decepticon signals and proceed to terminate the intruder.

In order to have a movie, this status quo needs to be shaken up a bit. Things get underway when a shard of the Cube, or All Spark if you prefer, falls out of one of Sam's old sweaters, he touches it, gets zapped, and it starts turning the household appliances into killer robots. This brings him back into contact with Optimus, who was warned that "the Fallen will rise again." These two happenings are a precursor to increased Decepticon activity, the resurrection of Megatron, and the introduction of The Fallen, who is something of the Emperor to Megatron's Darth Vader. Together, the newly expanded team of bad-bots set out to find a new source of Energon… I think.

Anyway, the movie tells that Transformers have visited us a lot earlier than two years ago. Our shared history dates back to ancient Egypt where the Decepticons, led by The Fallen, tried to farm Energon, but were defeated. In the present The Fallen is attempting a comeback and it is up to Optimus, Sam, and the whole team to beat them back and save the day. At least, that's what I am pretty sure the story is. There is not a whole lot of that story stuff here. Michael Bay is much more concerned with getting to the next explosion.

transformersThere is a lot of running and clanging in this movie, plenty of yelling, and not a lot of anything else. The story can be followed, but after a few minutes you really won't care because there is no reason to. Yes, there are characters getting beat up, bloodied, and threatened, but none of it feels real. I never felt anyone was truly in any danger. I guess when it comes right down to it, the story doesn't matter much, evidenced by the lack of one being told here.

The writing is downright atrocious, I am surprised that this same team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman was also responsible for the Star Trek restart. The screenplay throws character after character at you, scarcely taking the time to even give them names, much like X-Men: Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Throw in some explosions, a finale that doesn't really feel like a finale (save for a somber voice over inviting another sequel), and you have your movie.

On top of the lack of story (despite a two and a half hour run time) there is a disturbing amount of off-color (not cursing so much, but definitely unclean) language that is not necessary. I understand they are trying to court the teen crowd, but this is not what the Transformers are about (the same issue afflicted Land of the Lost). Why is it necessary to resort to this? It isn't funny, appeals to the lowest common denominator, and is not true to the source material.

The characters are shallow, one-dimensional, and do not inspire me to care about them. Whether or not that is due to the writing or the acting is up in the air — it's probably some combination of the two. You can throw as many explosions and effects shots as you want at me, if the story is not compelling, I will not care.

transformersI particularly enjoy how the events of the first film have seemingly been ignored. In particular, it seems that no one saw the complete destruction that went down in the first movie, a government cover-up was successful, and the possibility of alien robots has been relegated to conspiracy sites. What? I understand a desire to cover things up, but this is ridiculous. Also, couldn't the Autobots have a better "base" than an empty hangar where they just sit around? I mean, they possess advanced technology that I am sure could be used to better their Decepticon hunting. This is essentially the creative team deciding not to use their characters in favor of making sure we see all the GM and Chevrolet cars. Makes sense to me.

I have something important I want you all to know: "bigger" and "more" are not the words that should be used when developing a sequel. I know this is a common formula, and there is nothing wrong with making it bigger, but you need to focus on the story and let the action and everything else sprout organically from the tale. This sequel seems to be more about cramming in more robots and more action any way possible.

Now, back to those characters for a moment. I would like to just say they were completely and utterly mishandled, but that would be overly simplistic. The humans are cardboard with zero depth. Megan Fox is almost human — she could possibly be a CGI effect, I am not sure. Of course I am kidding, but she is not convincing at all, especially with her glassy stare and singular expression. LaBoeuf does not fare much better in this film as the bulk of his role seems to be running around screaming "OPTIMUS!" It is a shame, as I think he has a good future, but he is not given anything to work with.

The supporting cast is not all that great either. Sam's parents are saddled with some goofy sexual innuendo, lame jokes, and pot brownies. Yes, very funny, but not really. I guess John Turturro playing the now former head of Sector 7 in the first film fares a bit better here; he is still goofy, but not quite as over the top. The rest of the human cast are just there to spit out a clever one-liner or deliver a brief line of exposition.

As for the robots, themselves? They sort of look familiar, but they are not always acting quite right. Optimus Prime seems all too content to take a Decepticon life with extreme prejudice. The scene between a scheming Starscream and Megatron strikes more as a bit of fan service than character development. Then there is the case of Skidz and Mudflap. Why? Was George Lucas consulted on how to add comical sidekicks that are devoid of comedic value? These guys are utterly worthless. Slang talking, gold tooth having, illiterate robots? Really? What were they thinking?

transformersAll right, we know the story is bad, we know the characters are thin, and we know the robots are not quite right. Is anything in this movie good? Yes, there is some good, but it is borderline enough to make it worthwhile.

So, what's good?

If there is one thing Michael Bay is good at, it is blowing stuff up. Nobody can stage an action sequence quite like he can. Unfortunately, action scenes are about all he can do, forget about any character work. On this level, the action in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is spectacular. Although the outcome is easily predictable, the action shows us things never seen before. He definitely put all the money on the screen (although I would not have been against putting some more into the writing). As good as the action is, it is the surrounding content that will ultimately define whether it is good or not. In this case it is not good.

Bottom line. The potential is there for the source material to spawn a good movie. Michael Bay has the right visual style for the movie. What is needed are writers who can deliver a story that is action-packed yet has characters to care about in a story that you can be invested in (look at what James Cameron did with the Terminator films and Aliens). This movie fails to deliver in an engaging manner, yet I was still taken with the effects, which makes this movie watchable once.

Mildly/Not Recommended.

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