Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen: Monster mash

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) • View trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for smutty dialogue and relentless action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.25.09
Buy DVD: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen • Buy Blu-Ray: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

While certainly no classic of American cinema, 2007's Transformers at least took itself fairly seriously ... or as seriously as any movie about two warring factions of shape-changing extraterrestrial robots could take itself.

The just-released Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in stark contrast, injects so much numbnuts slapstick  devolves to such a clumsy, desperate parody of itself  that the result is neither exciting nor funny. To put it in the story's own terms, it's neither battle-bot nor muscle car.
Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela (Megan Fox) spend a lot of time in this film
running ... running from giant robots, running from explosions, running from
each other. One hopes they were paid by the mile, because they sure don't earn
their paychecks with any sort of acting talent.

Frankly, this film is a mess ... and, at a stultifying 149 minutes, a very long mess.

Back in the day, every time Universal Pictures wanted to squeeze one more entry out of a sagging monster franchise, Abbott and Costello would put a comedy stake through the undead remnants: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and so forth.

Well, this flick feels like Transformers Meets the Three Stooges.

Bad enough that the utterly incomprehensible script  blame Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, although I've no doubt countless uncredited hands helped spoil this soup  stitches together unrelated scenes and half-baked sci-fi clichés so poorly, that the resulting film feels cobbled together from at least half a dozen disparate projects.

Bad enough that these same writers also inject the smarmy humor and coarse dialogue that also plagued the first film in this series, apparently in an effort to secure the more marketable PG-13 rating, and to please the arrested adolescent males who represent the target audience.

I mean, really, aren't scenes of humping dogs  eventually followed by a scene of a little robot humping Megan Fox's leg  the stuff of bad Will Ferrell comedies? This is the height of humor?

What's truly lamentable, though  and what really turns this flick into a brain-paralyzing endurance test  is that director Michael Bay and his editors (no fewer than four of them!) have done sloppy work. The continuity between scenes frequently is absent, as often is the case with the continuity within scenes. Characters shown to be sitting suddenly are standing when the camera angle shifts; characters hiding from bad robots in this spot suddenly are running away from that spot when camera two takes over.

Worse yet, the very soul and essence of the Transformers universe has been subverted by the tiresome insistence on gag humor. Suddenly Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and all the other noble robots have been saddled with comic cut-up robots that spout one-liners as if they're auditioning for a Saturday Night Live stand-up routine.

I was reminded, and not pleasantly, of the way George Lucas similarly changed the tone of the thousands of identical Empire 'droids in the new Star Wars cartoon series. Once deservedly scary, soulless adversaries, the robots were turned into bumbling, whining cretins good for no more than comic relief ... and poor comic relief, at that.

Because this has been done with the newly introduced minor robot characters in Transformers, it becomes difficult to accept the larger, more menacing robots as a credible threat ... even if they do destroy impressive chunks of Earth's real estate. How can we be nervous about our heroes' safety, when we keep expecting the next robot to break into a song-and-dance routine?

Messing about with what should be a suspensefully grim tone also destroys any emotional resonance with these characters, human or robot. A scene of noble sacrifice in a forest setting obviously should tug at the heartstrings, but it's impossible to care about robots  no matter how large — that have been reduced to pathetic shadows of themselves.

Then, too, the ground rules have changed too much. Perhaps envious of Summer Glau's sexy android protector in the recently canceled Terminator TV series, this second entry in the Transformer franchise introduces a pouting hottie (Isabel Lucas, as Alice) who seems to exist solely to get our young hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), into trouble with his girlfriend, Mikaela (Fox).

But no, it turns out that Alice is no more flesh and blood than the average toaster  good trick, that  which begs a rather glaring question: If the bad-robot Decepticons can do that, then why are they wasting time concealing themselves as, well, toasters?


The plot, such as it is, begins with a prologue in Earth's wayback past, when prehistoric men and women have their first visit from these otherworldly robots. The situation turns nasty, which sets up the careful concealment of a technological whatzis which, should it fall into the claws of the bad robots, would lead to Earth's destruction.

Left unexplained is how our spear- and rock-throwing ancestors ever survived this encounter. It's not as if this film bothers to tell us.

Flash-forward to the present, as Sam prepares for his first day of college, much to the dismay of his sobbing mother (Julie White), who soon embarrasses herself  and everybody in the viewing audience  when she chomps into some marijuana brownies and humiliates her son as he checks out his new dorm room.

One has to feel sorry for White, stuck in this film's most thankless and juvenile role.

Kevin Dunn also isn't given much to do as Sam's father, but at least manages to retain his dignity.

Sam, meanwhile, has left Mikaela behind; she is, you may recall, an auto-shop babe  one wonders why she isn't on half a dozen calendars somewhere  and she clearly wouldn't fit into the college environment. Or maybe she would, given this film's depiction of college women, who apparently do nothing but dance at frat parties and parade about dorm hallways clad only in towels.

Sam quickly meets his new roommate (Ramon Rodriguez, as Leo), a dim-bulb meathead who screams like a girl and seems on the verge of wetting himself in every other scene. Come to think of it, Rodriguez gets humiliated far more than White, as this film progresses.

College life doesn't remain normal for even a single day. Having accidentally exposed himself to a shard of the all-knowing something-or-other, Sam becomes the target of all Decepticons, who want to extract the contents of his brain in order to revive the "fallen" and then find and activate that long-dormant machine that will destroy our planet.

Optimus Prime and his team of good-guy Autobots, of course, are determined to prevent this.

After destroying great chunks of the United States and Paris  where Sam's parents are vacationing, after taking him to college  the story lurches its way to Egypt and Jordan, where Sam, Mikaela (who has joined the fray) and Leo unexpectedly encounter Simmons (John Turturro), a returning character from the first film.

Although demoted after those events, Simmons nonetheless has retained both his conspiracy theory tendencies and all his helpful CIA contacts. He proves useful.

Useful for more comic relief, that is, starting with a head-scratchingly gratuitous scene that forces Turturro to strip to his (very) briefs.

One begins to wonder if Bay takes unholy delight in demeaning every actor in this flick.

The story builds to an all-out melee in the Egyptian desert, involving Autobots, Decepticons and two other returning characters  Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel, as Epps and Lennox  who lead the U.S. military forces that have, over the past few years, forged strong bonds with their Autobot buddies.

Needless to say, all heck breaks loose.

Not that you'll care.

Oh, sure, this film's special-effects team does amazing work, as these huge robots wreak havoc with countless easily recognized world landmarks: everything from France's Arc de Triomphe to the Egyptian pyramids. It's an all-stops-out spectacle, no doubt about it; production designer Nigel Phelps and the special-effects crew clearly had their hands full.

But the film's jokey tone, not to mention the thoroughly ludicrous odds involved, make it impossible to develop any sense of suspense. The notion that Sam and Mikaela could survive any of this is sheer lunacy. We may as well be watching a cartoon, because the result is too fabricated to take seriously.

This problem also sabotaged last year's big-screen version of Speed Racer, where all those CGI car races just became silly.

The same is true of all these CGI robot battles.

A few isolated scenes  generally quieter ones  hint at what this film could have been, had adults been in charge of the production. When, as he's packing to leave home, Sam finds a magical shard that burns its way through the floor, it immediately causes every electrical device in the kitchen below to become a vicious little Decepticon.

It's a truly clever and creepy scene, and good-guy robot Bumblebee's eventual destruction of these little monsters is capped by a genuinely funny exchange involving Sam's mother, as the enormous Autobot is "punished" by being sent back to the garage.

More sequences like that, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen might have been a contender.

But no: We get stuck watching Turturro drop his pants.

And, the admittedly ingenious manner in which these many robots transform into their other identities notwithstanding, this film's most impressive special effect is orchestrated by costume designer Deborah L. Scott, who somehow manages to keep Megan Fox's ample assets from spilling out of her low-cut top, despite all the running, tumbling, jumping and buffeting from countless explosions.

Now that, folks, is true Hollywood magic.

No comments:

Post a Comment