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Out of Energon: Josh Reviews Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

July 3rd, 2009

I was pretty forgiving when I saw Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie in theatres for the first time, two summers ago.  Sure, it had its flaws, but nevertheless it was just an enormous amount of fun to see a live-action Transformers movie realized, complete with amazing over-the-top Michael Bay-style mayhem.

Even through my enjoyment, though, it was clear to me that this wouldn’t be a movie that would hold up well upon subsequent viewings.  (And, indeed, when I watched Transformers on DVD last year I was much less captivated that I had been that first time seeing it on the big screen.)  I immediately began to think of Michael Bay’s Transformers as a movie just like Independence Day — a sci-fi action spectacle that was a TON of fun to see in a packed theatre on an enormous screen, but one that would be hobbled, upon repeat viewings, by the simplicity (and often-times stupidity) of its script.

So what did I think of the recently-released sequel, Revenge of the Fallen? Well, to an astonishing degree, it has exactly the same strengths and weaknesses that the first film had.

As in the first film, Bay’s ability to stage enormously complex, epic action sequences filled with intense, visceral robot-on-robot combat is pretty jaw-dropping.  These movies look EXPENSIVE.  There’s no trickery used to hide a limited effects budget.  No, what we get are wall-to-wall chases, explosions, exotic locales, and a staggering array of CGI characters (mostly beating the stuffing out of one another).

Also as in the first film, sadly, there is a lot of annoying, unfunny attempts at comedy that feels like time-wasting to me.  And, as in the first film, I was constantly frustrated by the movie’s unwillingness to allow us to get to know any of the robot characters other than Prime and Bumblebee to any sort of degree.  There are an ENORMOUS number of robots in these films — and it’s a strength of Bay’s that he is unafraid to think BIG — but it’s a terrible shame that I couldn’t tell most of them apart from one another, and even if I could, I didn’t get a chance to know or care about any of them one whit.

Let’s flesh out the above statements a little bit.  (Some minor spoilers ahead.)

There were definitely a lot of things I liked about Revenge of the Fallen.  There were so many robots of so many different shapes and sizes, that it was a lot of fun to keep seeing what new robot would be in the next scene.  I particularly enjoyed getting to see Soundwave this time (who was utilized very well by the story, by the way — very “in character” for Soundwave — and I was THRILLED that he was voiced by Frank Welker, the original voice from the cartoon).  I also really enjoyed seeing Ravage (the Decepticon who takes the form of a jaguar).  I also think the great Tony Todd (Worf’s brother Kurn from Star Trek: The Next Generation) was a terrific choice to voice the Decepticon master, “the Fallen.”

As noted above, the action sequences are plentiful, and they are spectacular.  Optimus Prime gets a lot more time in this film to mix it up with a variety of Decepticons — it was great getting to really see just why he is the Autobots’ greatest warrior.  The fights are bone-crunching and very intense, and the visuals are just gorgeous.

But I was totally confounded by the complete lack of development given to all the rest of the robots (particularly the Autobots).  OK, we get to spend more time with Bumblebee, but he doesn’t really have much to do in the story, other than drive Sam (Shia LeBoeuf) around all the time.  The only other Autobots that get any sort of screen time are two new charcters, two “twins” that are terribly annoying, not to mention being horribly offensive, lowest-common-denominator African-American “ghetto” stereotypes.  Just terrible.  We get no time at all with the rest of the Autobots.  C’mon!  I wanted a LOT more time spent with Prime’s core “command team” — Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl, etc.  Why couldn’t some of THOSE guys have been the ones to accompany Sam, Mikaela (Megan Fox), etc. on their adventure?  How could we not get even a brief scene to show those Autobots’ reactions to Prime getting taken out in the middle of the film?  That’s a failure of storytelling, and very disappointing.  I was really hoping that, in the sequel, these characters (who were so central in the original cartoon) would get some attention.

Speaking of failures of storytelling, as with the original (and as with almost all of the big-budget films that have been released this summer) where this film falls down is with the script.  Oh, there’s plenty of story, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that none of it makes a lick of sense if you stop to think about it even for a moment.  The whole idea of the Fallen having landed on Earth — the SAME PLANET where the all-important Allspark landed in the first movie — is an astounding (and ridiculous) coincidence.  Further stretching my disbelief:  Sam just happened to never notice an enormous shard of the Allspark in his sweater for the past TWO YEARS??  The Fallen hid their enormous sun-eating machine right in the center of one of the Egyptian pyramids?  (Haven’t, you know, one or two archaeologists taken a look at those pyramids over the years??)  If Energon can be created by a machine, then why go to all the trouble of finding the one from thousands of years ago — why don’t the Autobots or Decepticons just build another machine?  If the original Primes all sacrificed themselves, thousands of years ago, to defeat the “evil” Prime (the Fallen), then where did Optimus Prime come from?  Just why can only one Prime defeat another?  Just when did the elderly robot Jetfire get to Earth, and what the heck has he been doing all of this time?  (How did he wind up in a museum, anyways???)  I could go on and on.

In the end, the movie doesn’t really have any soul.  The action is amazing, sure.  And the filmmakers do have the right idea about taking the action and intensity up a few notches here in the sequel, and trying to push our heroes into a more desperate place.  But because we haven’t been given a chance to get to know or invest in any of the characters, those moments feel hollow — because we don’t really care!  There’s no emotion when robot x gets taken out, because if one can even tell which robot that is (often an impossibility), then it doesn’t really matter because one don’t have any emotional attachment anyways.

As I said at the beginning, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has, down the line, almost exactly the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor.  It’s just that I’m much less forgiving this time around.  A sequel has to improve on the original — otherwise what’s the point?

I still really love the Transformers — I have ever since I was a kid.  Despite the silliness of the very concept, and of so much of the original cartoon series (when seen through adult eyes), I really do believe that the right people could make an awesome live-action Transformers movie, one that is fun and exciting as well as emotionally engaging.  I just haven’t seen it yet.

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