Issues of personal taste usually shouldn’t be a factor when engaging in legitimate movie criticism. The good movie critic should be able to aptly assess a film’s merit regardless of their own personal preferences for what they like to see on screen. Yet when it comes to a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, personal taste is the major factor that will determine the response of everybody who sees it. Those who embrace the aesthetic of Michael Bay or were a fan of the first film are most likely going to have a good time with this one. For those who think Bay’s films are emblematic of everything wrong with contemporary Hollywood cinema, Transformers 2 will prove to be further evidence to fuel their fire. While many will defend this film and many others will despise it, there’s one thing this film is sure not to do: disappoint. Whatever expectations you have going into it – whether it be a bombastic summer-fun explosions-and-cleavage fest or a bloated schizophrenic mess of incomprehensible noises and images – Bay delivers fully on these expectations.
I think there’s an argument to be made that Bay’s films are often artless trash emblematic of, if not directly detrimental to, the current state of popular cinema. But this argument I think holds more weight regarding Bay’s past work that pretended to be something it wasn’t. The cheap weeper ending of Armageddon (1998), for instance, left me feeling bitter and manipulated, and the totally misguided Pearl Harbor (2001) forced skin-deep profundity down our throats when all we really wanted was to bask in how cool Bay made it look to get our asses handed to us by the Japanese. In these films Bay gave us popcorn spectacle and pretended it was cinematic filet mignon. With Transformers 2, however, Bay doesn’t pretend he’s making anything but a silly blow’em-up kids movie overflowing with eye candy (of both the flesh and metal variety), and we’re all better off for it.
Revenge of the Fallen finds the Autobots working in line with the US military to hunt down the world’s remaining Decepticon population, but the bureaucrats in Washington want the Autobots gone because their very presence seems to lure the Decepticons to Earth soil and thus represents a threat to civilian life. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his oh-so irresistibly misadventurous parents prep his move to college and resulting long-distance relationship with Mikaela (Dame Megan Fox), who is now, naturally, a motorcycle mechanic with a predisposition to putting her ass in the air. When Sam encounters a leftover shred of the AllSpark, he unwittingly obtains Cybercryptonian knowledge. This makes him a direct target of the Decepticons, particularly a millennia-old curmudgeon named The Fallen who wants to use Sam’s knowledge as a means to, um…destroy the sun. In the meantime, Megatron is resurrected, the gang reunites with John Turturro for some (necessary?) historical contexualization and exposition, the army does some badass stuff, and an old flip-flopping former Decepticon named Jetfire directs our heroes to Egypt in search for the material source of the AllSpark: an emblem called (*ahem*) the Matrix of Leadership. All of this is peppered with extensive action setpieces predictably leading to a mammoth showdown at the pyramids.
If there is an appropriate punctuation analogy for any movie, Transformers 2 is the cinematic equivalent of the exclamation point. The film seems to be as urgent to please the viewer as it is pleased with itself, and Bay designates the quickest route to such pleasure through sensory overload. Bay has never been comfortable with a static camera or a long take, and every frame of this film is brimming with some sort of sensory appeal to the point of possible diagnosis with attention deficit disorder – many moments feel like they’re there to entertain, while others simply distract until the next action setpiece arrives. Even prolonged scenes of exposition – like the entire role of Jetfire – are coupled with the spectacle of effects and cinematography. It’s as if the filmmakers know how secondary a comprehensible plot is with a film like this. Which brings me to a question: If the accepted critical philosophy states that sequences of action or special effects should work in service to the story, what is it that we say of the type of film that never slows down enough to even let the audience realize that there’s hardly a story being serviced?
To slow down in a film like this would allow the audience to realize how little there is, not below, but on the surface. But because Bay jets through those exhausting-but-never-boring two and a half hours at such breakneck speed, the ridiculous nature of the whole venture hardly comes into full effect until the credits role. If there can be an achievement to bestow upon Transformers 2, it’s that it can easily put the willing spectator into the appropriate state of juvenile mindlessness necessary to enjoy such mindless entertainment.
One thing I think Bay detractors don’t understand about Bay fans is that most Bay fans are just as aware of how ridiculous his films are as anybody else. The heightened and self-aware state of excess is exactly what can be so appealing about films like this. No, it doesn’t make sense than Megan Fox would paint a decal on a motorcycle by standing over it with her ass in the air, but the obvious over-the-top nature of such an image is just as much an entertainment factor as is the shameless spectacle of her body. The same can be said of the logic of the entire film, and going into Transformers 2 expecting exactly what should so obviously be expected from the outset – silliness, excess, overstimulation, noise – allows one to accept all the film for exactly what knows itself to be: simple adolescent fun.
This is not to say there aren’t some problems on these terms as well. Characteristic of Bay, most of the film’s human performances are just as robotic as those of the transformers – save, of course, for Julie White as Sam’s mom, the only true comic relief in a film with about half a dozen characters attempting to play that role. The dialogue is predictably awful, hardly covered up by the film’s many visual distractions. But perhaps the film’s biggest problem is its uneven balance between the human and robot characters throughout, most evident in the climactic action sequence where it doesn’t quite know who to focus on and for how long. The first film, as a sort of origin story for the rules of human-robot interaction that exist in the Transformers universe, more effectively achieved this balance while establishing characteristics unique to each ‘bot in the process. With the exceptions of mainstays Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron, and new characters like Jetfire or the controversial twins Skids and Mudflap, every ‘bot in Transformers 2 is interchangeable. I found myself, like with the first film, merely watching big, indistinguishable chunks of metal clash by the end, indifferent to which side they belonged to.
If Transformers 2 is worth seeing on IMAX for any reason, it’s for the robot ninja fight scene in the forest, a truly beautiful sequence and the only one entirely filmed in IMAX; too bad the best action scene occurs halfway through the film. IMAX shots elsewhere are spotty and random, causing a sometimes abrupt and distracting shift in aspect ratio.
It seems too easy to point a finger at Bay and accuse films like this as being mindless trash, because these films don’t purport to be anything more significant than what they are, and thus are far less threatening than Bay detractors make them out to be. On the other side, Bay-lovers state that yes, all he does is make movies for entertainment’s sake, and he does this one thing well. I would argue here that Bay too often confuses excess with entertainment, resulting in a bloated aesthetic in desperate need of some moderation (he could take a tip or two from J.J. Abrams). That being said, Transformers 2 is exactly what one would expect from a summer movie called Transformers 2: it’s fun and it’s stupid, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.