Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a blockbuster of the most egregious variety. As a stand-alone film, it’s noisy, vapid and bloated. As a sequel to the first film — which was, as you might recall, a surprisingly entertaining popcorn flick — it’s disappointing and borderline offensive. It’s the sort of sequel that was all too common in the 1980s — a continuation of a story without a story; about as necessary as Weekend at Bernie’s II or whatever other marginally tolerable cash-in you can think of. The movie was clearly built from its predecessor’s success, with little consideration given to the dynamics of what’s actually occurring on-screen. For some people, this may seem a minor complaint — after all, as its stars willingly admitted in junket interviews, people don’t go to see films about giant fighting robots for the storylines — but at nearly two-and-a-half hours, you’re likely to find your patience put to its test, especially when you can’t even wrap your head around what’s happening half the time.
The actors are all given thankless tasks to perform. Shia LaBeouf is one of the most likable and convincing actors of his kind — perhaps not the sort of deeply committed artist you’d rank as a great actor, but amiable and charming enough to carry blockbusters. His performance in the first Transformers helped add human conflict to an otherwise robotic (pun intended) string of action sequences. Here, he’s given quite little to do. Why’s he even in the story at all? It’s never fully explained, beyond the obvious (um, he has to be, because you don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?). The plot: He finds a piece of shrapnel left behind from the first film and has a bunch of alien data magically ingrained into his brain on the day he leaves for Princeton University; suddenly the Decepticons are after him, to extract the information that will apparently lead them to the location (in an Egyptian desert) of a device that can, like, blow up the sun or something.
None of it really makes sense. Most of the characters from the first film return (bar Jon Voight), and the roles seem pointless. Megan Fox, god bless her, tries to do more than just pout for the camera, but she appears and disappears at the will of the screenplay, which disregards her altogether for half the movie. She is, of course, a bad actress; but she openly acknowledges this, which makes me respect her far more than I otherwise would. I want to see her do well based solely on the fact that she’s not the typical politically correct, wholesome Hollywood starlet. Brutally honest, self-deprecating beauties don’t come around very often. To witness her fighting against the underdeveloped typecasting of her character is a struggle. To watch her openly describe Michael Bay as a “tyrant” to his face during a press conference is delightful; I’d more gladly pay for 2 1/2 hours of that.
Most action films have one form of comedic relief; Transformers 2 has four. John Turturro returns to his role as an obsessive and wacky CIA agent (he provides the most laughs, which are hardly plentiful), but there’s also three regrettable new sidekicks: a pair of unintentionally racist gangsta Transformers (perhaps the most offensive animated ethnic stereotypes since Jar-Jar Binks), and a perpetually whiny college kid played by newcomer Ramon Rodriguez, who has promised us that his role in Transformers 3 will be greatly expanded. No, thanks.
Then, at least, there’s director Michael Bay. What on earth inspired him to create such a laborious, boring film? Perhaps the same level of vanity that propelled him to feature close-ups of a poster for Bad Boys II here? Another filmmaker — Steven Spielberg, for example — might be able to get away with this sort of apparent self-love on the belief that he’s being tongue-in-cheek. We never quite get that feeling with Bay. When he shows us the Bad Boys poster, it’s self-idolotry — not self-deprecation or even just self-reference. And it’s that ego of his, I’d imagine, that caused him to make his worst film since Pearl Harbor — and that one’s really only worse because of its blatant disregard for the historical aspects. If Transformers: RotF were based on a true series of events, I’d be inclined to say this is even worse, because it felt even longer than Pearl Harbor, which is no easy feat.
The saddest part about this whole mess is that you realize countless hours were invested in its technical craft. The special effects are superb; animators gave healthy portions of their lives to making this thing look good, and then when you see it up on screen, it’s all so barely decipherable; between the shaky camera, split-second cuts and constant panning, the intertwining robots are virtually impossible to get a handle on. Who’s beating whom? I couldn’t even tell half the time. The last 45 minutes of the movie are so painful, dull and monotonous that I just kept checking my wristwatch in anguish, trying to calculate when the film had actually started and how long the previews had lasted. I saw The Dark Knight a year ago — a film of comparable length — and don’t recall glancing away from the screen a single time, much less to check the time. The era of superior action thrillers has only rendered Michael Bay’s inadequacies all the more obvious; it’s clearer now than ever before that this guy really doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. There are elements of his style that I admire, and certainly no one can claim he isn’t distinct — the problem is that he’s currently distinctly awful, and cutting his running times down by about an hour and learning how to handle his actors (I haven’t yet mentioned his complete misuse of Rainn Wilson) might be a step in the right direction.
So, let’s summarize: this is a boring movie, a polar opposite of its prequel. It feels haphazard, scattered, wandering — like the script was still being written during production, and they just decided to hang out in Egypt for the second half until they could figure out a way to wrap it up. When Shia dies and goes to Transformer heaven and meets the Transformer gods, I called bullshit. What a stupid movie.