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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an exhausting experience. It’s an assault on the senses, a visual blur of incomprehensible, never-ending action. It’s like standing in the middle of a dust storm and opening your eyes to let the grit pour in. Car parts fly around the screen as if in a scrap metal tornado, a tornado which we’re told is a group of robots beating the hell out of each other, but without a pause button it’s impossible to comprehend where one robot’s fist ends and the other’s face begins. It is of course accepted practice that any sequel must take everything the original did and make it bigger, faster, and more explosive. Revenge of the Fallen does that and takes it much, much too far.
This is probably a good time for a positioning statement. I’m not some critical snob who sneers at Michael Bay movies and only gives good reviews to films in which people stand around talking. I grew up with the Transformers, I love the Transformers, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I loved the first movie… Michael Bay mega-ego and all. By using the simple, somewhat universal story of a boy and his first car as a starting point, Transformers connected with the audience and drew us in. Perhaps even more importantly in this kind of film, the action was exciting, interesting, and in its own way innovative.
Enter the sequel. Remember all those minor problems in the first one? Sometimes the camera would move too fast or occasionally our view would be too zoomed in to really tell what was going on. Or what about those random subplots involving Jon Voight and the world’s hottest computer nerd, which never really went anywhere? Take all of those flaws, make an entire movie out of them, and you’ll have the sequel. Where the original film was held together by the simple notion of a boy and his car, the sequel is all over map. There’s Sam, back again and off to college. That would have been the perfect thing to hang this movie on, the idea of a kid growing up, leaving home, and becoming a man. Revenge of the Fallen explores that for all of five seconds before yanking Sam off on some endless chase across the desert in pursuit of we don’t really know what to stop some vague, ancient, evil Autobot nemesis.
Truthfully the plot is impossible to sum up. Suffice to say there are bad robots and there are good robots and Sam Witwicky is the key to which side will end up winning. Sam brings his girlfriend along with him, for no particular reason other than that she’s Megan Fox and she’s really hot. Fox’s character in this film couldn’t be more superfluous. After the first hour or so she serves no purpose in the story and if Sam were even a halfway decent boyfriend he would long ago have forced her to go home rather than repeatedly throwing her in the face of machine gun fire. The film’s robot side characters rarely receive any better treatment than their human counterparts. Jetfire, a fan favorite from the cartoons, is introduced and gets a fully fleshed out storyline, but with the exception of Optimus and Bumblebee everyone else is merely background noise. Characters step on screen to take the spotlight and then suddenly vanish for no particular reason, never to be seen again.
Luckily the impotence of most of the movie’s supporting cast is rendered all but irrelevant since so little of the film is devoted to character development. Mostly it’s two and a half hours of non-stop, absolutely endless action action action. There’s not a five minute stretch in the entire film that isn’t filled with guns being fired, metal colliding with metal, and buildings being blown to hell. Unfortunately at no point in this violence fog is it ever entirely clear what’s going on. There’s a decent sequence towards the middle of the film in which Optimus single-handedly takes on three Decepticons. It’s fun, but that’s the last fun to be had in the movie as it quickly devolves into characters, both human and alien, standing around in the desert and shooting endlessly at each other.
You’ll see robots grappling, blasting, screaming… but most of the time you won’t know which robots are screaming or shooting or dying or grappling. The first movie at least had the decency to give some of the main transformers names, gave us a few minutes to see them and figure out what each different character looked like. The sequel has dozens and dozens of basically interchangeable robots who exist primarily as cannon fodder to get shot, fall down, and then be replaced by another robot who magically falls out of the sky and looks pretty much the same.
This isn’t a just problem of the way Bay chose to edit Revenge of the Fallen, but also in the way most of the transformers are constructed. When they change into their robot forms they’re all crevices and creases and gears and constantly changing parts. They’re all extremely complicated designs. It’s not the sort of thing you can see flash in front of the camera for only a microsecond, and still understand exactly what it is that you’re looking at. Bay though, treats them as if they’re all basic flat surfaces and flashes past robots in battle as if we already know what each bot looks like and so he doesn’t really need to waste much time showing it.
It’s actually a huge relief when the robots transform into their vehicle mode, since it allows you to stop straining and struggling to figure out what that is flailing around in front of you. When they’re in their vehicle modes you can sit back, relax and whisper to your friend “oh yeah, that was Bumblebee all along”. Except you should have known it was Bumblebee all along, otherwise how do you know what’s going on? It’s frustrating and burdensome, laboring to figure out what that is in front of the camera when you should be sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying.
It’s almost as if standard film projectors aren’t up to displaying the level of detail Bay uses in his action sequences or keeping up with the speed at which he runs them, and so it all ends up as a useless battle haze. Worst of all, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen clocks in at over two and a half hours. It’s unforgivably long and a brutally tiring, unrewarding experience; a torrent of random action thrown up against the screen without purpose or thought for the audience sitting there watching it.
This time Michael Bay has gone too far. While it’s hard not to be at least a little impressed with the sheer volume of effects wizardry going on here, and while fans will almost certainly still find something to love simply in seeing their favorite characters back up on screen, it’s hard to consider Revenge of the Fallen anything but a failure. What should have been the ultimate summer spectacle is the ultimate in blockbuster over-indulgence, an already excess prone director given too much freedom and too much money to do everything he wants all at once. Someone put a muzzle on Michael Bay, before he eats his audience.