by Scott Mendelson
There's a little fast-food chicken joint called Star Chicken right next to the Bridge Theater in the Howard Hughes Promenade. I had never been there before, but for less than ten bucks I got a decent baked potato, a soda, and a rather large chicken caesar wrap. It was a hell of a sandwich... tons of tasty white meat chicken, rich caesar dressing, large tomato chunks, plenty of real romaine lettuce, fresh cheese, and yes, actual croutons. Should you decide to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I suggest you make a point to either try a new restaurant or eat at a beloved favorite. That way, your evening won't be a total loss.
A token amount of plot -- The Autobots have spent the last two years working side by side with the US military to track down remaining Decepticon forces that got away after Megatron perished. But an increased number of Decepticon attacks, plus an ominous warning, has Optimous Prime (Peter Cullen) and the military worried about a coming invasion. Meanwhile, human savior Sam Witwicky (Shia Lebeouf) is off to college, but he immediately stumbles upon a lost sliver of the 'AllSpark.' Contact with the artifact causes a flood of Earth and Cybertron knowledge into his head, once again making Sam a target for the Decepticons.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen represents a shocking amount of effort and skill going into a product of little entertainment value and even less significance. The plot is both insanely complicated and absolutely beside the point. The film is as long as The Dark Knight or Sex and the City but contains a full middle act where nothing of consequence occurs. Director Michael Bay once again, possibly out of budgetary constraints, keeps the focus on the human characters while giving them almost nothing interesting to say. While there is a token amount of increased robot on robot fighting this time around, it is so randomly edited and the characters are so poorly defined, that we never know who is fighting who and who is winning.
Ironically, the three most annoying characters in the first film, John Tuturro, Kevin Dunn and Jule White (the latter two as Shia LeBeouf's parents), provide the sole entertainment this time around. Sam's climactic scenes with his parents provide the only genuine emotional content in the film. Megan Fox returns as Shia's girlfriend, bringing new meaning to the term "token love interest." She plays absolutely no role in the story and is there only because the target demo thinks she's the hottest thing since Marilyn Monroe. The army is relatively bland, existing only to get massacred at every given opportunity. For someone who rants about how much he loves the military and how good he makes them look onscreen, Michael Bay sure loves showing our fighting men and women getting slaughtered wholesale.
Barack Obama is seemingly slandered as well, as he is name checked as the current president and thus the appointer of a wrongheaded bureaucrat who shows up, questions everyone, and then interferes whenever possible (yes, Bush was gently mocked in the first film, but he wasn't named and his underlings were shown as competent). Obama is also indirectly blamed for a second-act executive action that hinders the heroes' ability to save the world. Most inexplicable is the first-act debate that the evil Theodore Galloway (John Benjamin Hickey) and Optimus Prime engage in, which ends up becoming a justification for why the US should stay in Iraq forever. Though to be fair, despite looking like his cartoon counterpart (who was apparently good guy), Galloway ends up closely resembling a young Donald Rumsfeld.
And the only remotely interesting robot, Optimus Prime, has far less screen time than you'd think, giving the spotlight instead to Mudflap and Skids (both voiced by Tom Kenny), two bickering robots who look like monkeys, talk in the most stereotypical Ebonics jive possible, and apparently can't read. To say that these two are the most astonishingly racist caricatures that I've ever seen in a mainstream motion picture would be an understatement. The rest of the robots make little impression. Starscream is once again a vehicle for abuse. The Devestator is a speechless giant of a robot, whose sound effects are apparently voiced by Frank Welker (the cartoon voice of Megatron). Ah, poor Frank Welker. Not only did he lose out on voicing Megatron to Hugo Weaving, but Tony Todd was hired to voice the new villain, The Fallen, and apparently instructed to do his very best Frank Welker as Dr. Claw impression.
What of the robot action? Well, there are two genuinely stunning bits, both shot on IMAX film (fair warning, there are about ten minutes of IMAX scenes in this film, compared with over 40 minutes in The Dark Knight). The highlight of the film occurs at the hour mark, as Optimus Prime faces off against a pointlessly resurrected Megatron and two other Decepticons in a forest. In IMAX, the fighting robots are apparently shown to scale, and the richness of the visuals, plus the overall coherency of the fight, makes this a tour de force sequence. The only other action scene of note is the arrival of the Devestator, as he shows up in Egypt during the finale and proceeds to suck everything in sight into his giant robot mouth (much of this is also shot in IMAX film). The rest of the action suffers from the same problems as the first film. It's either impossible to follow and comprehend, or the action is overly comprised of military men shooting at offscreen targets.
Other minor and major problems abound in this mess of a movie. Sam is saddled with a completely unnecessary college roommate, who inexplicably tags along until the end of the film. The comparative absence of Optimus Prime leaves the film hollow at its core, since he was the only robot who had any kind of dramatic impact and/or character (think of it as a Batman film where Batman was sidelined and the film then showcases Robin and Batgirl). To be fair, the humans are much less campy and overtly comical this time around, but now the robots are completely "off the wall zany," which again robs the film of any drama. And what little IMAX footage the film contains is so stunningly rich and visually gorgeous that it makes the surrounding moments look cheap and ugly in comparison.
I don't know why I thought this film would be any better than the original Transformers. My false hope was akin to investigating a murder and failing to notice the burglar standing over the body with a smoking gun. I'd imagine that the many critics who inexplicably gave the original Transformers a pass will now question their tolerance of that equally terrible film. We may not have gotten the Transformers sequel we wanted, but we got the one we deserved. But, hey, the evening wasn't a total loss. That chicken caesar wrap was fantastic.
If you like what you see here, please check out Mendelson's Memos.