Film Review | Sunday, 28 June 2009
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Dubya’s last stand

Strange as it may sound, the films of Michael Bay certainly serve a purpose. They serve a multitude of purposes. Firstly, to those of us who approach our cinematic entertainment distractedly, with a fatigued, foggy pair of eyes after a hard day’s work, they make for a messy collage of explosions and melodrama, to be enjoyed with the gray matter turned off, supposedly.
We could call them ‘dumb, populist entertainment’, but these terms are always deceptive. Even the most low-brow, unassuming of stories require a certain amount of craft to draw you in: just re-watch any number of old Looney Tunes cartoons and you’ll see what I mean. In the debate of what is simply bad vs. what is so-bad-it’s-good, Bay’s films (Armageddon, Pearl Harbour, Bad Boys I and II) annoyingly stray from classification: it is technically impossible for them to be ‘badly made’, in the crudest sense of the word, thanks to their humungous budgets, although any care for world-building (an essential requirement for any genre film), suspense and - particularly in the case of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – comprehensibility becomes lost in the studio ether each time Bay is regaled with the director’s chair. Who cares for these wooden characters? Who cares for the myriad of CGI set pieces thrown together with alarming laziness, ambling and rushing back and forth across the screen to cover up the pot holes of a dreadful committee-written script? Judging by the film’s $55 million opening day, I’d hazard a guess and say it’s largely pre-teens, among the older members of the audience (and this is the bracket I fall under) who were lured to the sequel to 2007’s Transformers out of a sense of nostalgia for the cartoon and its parent Hasbro toy line.

The infuriatingly unconvincing Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam, who is called upon by the Autobots to help out with yet another Decepticon invasion: this time, the evil robots seem to be hatching some sort of plan involving ‘The Fallen’ and its/hers/his ‘revenge’. Sam, however, is reluctant to help out at first, considering how getting into college is his new priority, along with his inexplicably attractive girlfriend Kayla (Megan Fox). A lot of stuff happens in between (most of it explosions interspersed with Z-grade toilet humour gags), but what basically needs to be done is to kick some Decepticon robo-rectum before they harvest our sun away. And so the American military steps in, and boy, wouldn’t they make George W. Bush proud. There certainly is a lot to be said about the film’s politics, if one would wish to go there. The only real presence of ‘President Obama’ comes to us through clips of news footage (edited together with Bay’s customary cack-handed MTVism), and an antagonistic character who, sent by the president, suggests that a full-scale war is hardly the best way to go about safeguarding the planet, and that the robots (from both sides of the camp) should take their fight elsewhere. Reasonable advice, surely? But Bay makes you hate the bespectacled weakling, who stands in the way of Optimus Prime and co. in delivering us some high-octane robotic gladiatorial battlemaking. And sure enough, the effects-work on the ‘non-biologicals’ is impressive enough. In fact, the film would have made an excellent straight-to-DVD CGI release, with a steady stream of robot action and little need to divulge upon and ‘humanise’ the characters; not to say that animation is an inferior medium, but this is a Bay blockbuster that aims to be as broad as possible, and even if a kid-and-fanboy-friendly feature animation would be a natural home for Revenge of the Fallen, Bay and co (the film is disgracefully co-produced by Steven Spielberg) aren’t having any of it. So we’re subjected to robots farting, Sam’s bimbo mom swallowing a chunk of weed and embarrassing him in front of his prospective female classmates, a comedy-relief Autobot duo who communicate solely in ghetto speak (as inexplicable as it is borderline racist)…the list goes on. And on. This is a film of set pieces, not of plot, and certainly not ideas. Which would be fine if it was done with any kind of stylistic finesse, but Bay can only stack things together, he cannot make them flow. There are some meager attempts to root it in monster movie tradition: see the mini-Decepticon invasion on Sam’s house, which has clear echoes of Gremlins. But this is so lazily executed that it comes across as nothing but a cheap ripoff and, like anything else in the film, disappears without a trace or any consequence. But don’t hear it from me: as the film’s second half rolls away with a cantankerous, metallic lumber, even the characters seem to notice. John Turturro, returning to the franchise as Seymour Simmons to offer genuine comic relief it hardly deserves, becomes frustrated with an aged, dissenting Decepticon attempts at relaying the backstory of the conflict upon which the film hinges and yells: “Beginning. Middle. End. Facts. Details. Condense. Plot. Tell it.” It stands almost too perfectly as an internal criticism of the entire narrative mess, even if Bay stuck it in there as a lame attempt to cover up the unnecessarily vertiginous plotline of his overlong (it clocks in at 149 minutes) pseudo-epic.

The million dollar - or $55 million - question is, of course: does it have any redeeming features at all? Sure it does, for under 10s (though sadly, it carries a 14 rating) there’s plenty of chunky CGI action and lots of noises. They don’t have to worry about the plot, which exists only in theory anyway, nor do they have to concern themselves much with the dialogue, as it is largely just glorified sound effects. And for us old-time Transformers fans, seeing Optimus Prime in his full glory is bound to bring a tear to the eye and a swelling in the breast, though I didn’t really want to hear him say “punka** Decepticon” (it kind of felt like hearing your father swear for the first time) and, sadly, he is comatose for most of the film anyway.

What we get is a film that seems to be made entirely out of disgruntled devotees of the Bush administration, joining forces for one last push. The Autobots do very little as the army valiantly pulls no punches and money-shots of Megan Fox’s anatomy are squeezed in between everything else. Michael Bay defended the films excesses by claiming that all he wanted to create is some ‘good, clean, fun’. The end result yields none of the three: it is cinematically sloppy in every sense, contaminated with insulting, silly toilet humour and with an unjustifiably long running time, you’re just left praying for it all to end.


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