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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen The IMAX Experience (**1/2)

June 24, 2009

More than meets the eye. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen says to go ahead and lose the last four words of the previous sentence. More is the operative word here. More robots, more lowbow, backwater "comedy", more forehead-slapping absurdity, and more movie - 157 minutes of mostly nonsensical heavy metal Michael Bayhem. If you liked the first Transformers in 2007 (I did), there's more heaping helpings of everything. Eat up. Ultimately, I would call this super sized junk food meal a bit much to swallow and I'd say the first movie was the better one overall. Still, I continue to have nothing against this franchise. I ask little of Transformers and (to some lament) they deliver above expectations in every regard.

Might as well get the full disclosure out of the way: If I were to break down why I showed up for a second Transformers movie into simple percentages, it would go something like this: 22% giant robots, 78% Megan Fox. There is much more Megan Fox in this sequel, so in that regard, I can't be unhappy with Revenge of the Fallen. I got what I paid for. That percentage breakdown also reflects how the base interests of adult me overwhelm the base interests of 11 year old me who still wants to see Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons. No, I mostly came for the girl, the greatest girlfriend a guy who giant robots from outer space want to murder could ever have.

After opening in 17,000 BC with a riff on 2001 where cavemen in Africa make first contact with the Transformers, Revenge jumps forward to present day. Two years have passed for us and for Sam, Mikaela, Optimus Prime, and the rest. The Autobots have formed an alliance with the soldiers from the first movie and strike against Decepticons hidden across the globe. After laying waste to Shanghai in a fun opening sequence that re-established the badassery of Optimus Prime, we check in with Sam Witwicky, on his way to college without his blazing hot girlfriend or his amazing robot car.

From there, a whole lot of whateveryousayMichaelBay (and some truly horrible, unwatchable "comedy" with Sam's parents) kicks in involving a shard of the Allspark Cube from the first movie downloading alien symbols into Sam's brain, Sam meeting a geek squad in college, sitcom-level misunderstanding about whether Sam is cheating on Mikaela with what turned out was a really hot fembot played by really hot Isabel Lucas, Sam getting captured and operated on by the Decepticons, and a noble sacrifice by Optimus that spins the rest of the story into second gear. This involves the secret of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (the mere mention of those words in that order can't help but bring forth a little geekgasm), culminating in all-out war at the Pyramids of Giza for the fate of the sun, no less. (Since the beginning of time Decepticons have dreamed of destroying the sun...)

As for Sam's college, I may be mistaken, but it looked suspiciously like Marshal College, the venerable institution where Indiana Jones used to teach archaeology. There was that strong sense of deja vu seeing Mutt Williams in the old stomping grounds, only without his gay Marlon Brando leather and his perpetually combing his ducktail. Even funnier was how the search for the ancient device that could destroy the sun hidden in the Temple of the Primes (whatever) lead them to Petra in Jordan, the very same cave where the Grail Knight guarded the cup of Christ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If the Grail Knight really was there at one point, he's now long gone, and I guess he never noticed the giant robot skeletons hidden behind the fresca on the wall.

What I most enjoyed in the first Transformers was the triangle of the boy, his girl, and his car, which was a robot pledged to protect him as they find themselves in the middle of an alien machine war. Revenge of the Fallen does away with that happy triumvirate for really no good reason. Bumblebee becomes an afterthought, shafted aside for much of the movie, and is instead replaced with a new, whiny, annoying human sidekick for Sam. I never caught his name, but I know I hated him. So did Sam, Mikaela, and John Turturro, back again as the disgraced agent from the first movie. Mikaela also gets a sidekick of sorts in the form of Wheelie, a Decepticon who undergoes a trademark change of heart, decides to become an Autobot (the Autobots themselves are never informed of this), and commemorates his newfound Autobotity by humping Mikaela's leg. (At some point in the last act, Wheelie is forgotten altogether. He doesn't appear in the final battle and is never mentioned again. But who really cares about Wheelie.)

Joining Wheelie as new robot characters are a whole bunch more robots. I caught some of their names. Jetfire shows up as a cantankerous old Autobot coot who needs a walking stick, doles out wheezy exposition, and spent centuries asleep transformed as a stealth fighter plane (no mention of what he hid transformed as in the millennea on Earth before fighter planes were invented.) There was Arcee, the female motorcycle Autobot (although there was a second one of those too; no idea if they were both Arcee). Soundwave was reinvented as a satellite, which makes a whole heap more sense than him as a cassette player like in the cartoon. There's also Rampage, who was renamed from Ravage from the cartoon for no good reason. (No Laserbeak, sadly). The Constructicons (not identified as such or as individuals) show up and merge to form Devastator, the Transformer with the biggest set of testicles (seriously, big brass balls. A worse visual than when Bumblebee peed on a human in the first movie).

One of the major complaints from the fanboys (who care nothing for humans and want a Transformers movie to be about the robots) is that too much time was spent with the humans in the first movie. In Revenge of the Fallen, despite the presence of way more robots, it's even less about them and more about the humans. Most of the Autobots have little to say and are remarkably content to follow along with whatever the human soldiers order them to do. The Decepticons are even worse as there are even more of them and only Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, and the Fallen have any dialogue or personalities. The many questions we might have about the Transformers' social structures, culture, and the nature of personal interactions (even something as simple as how the Autobots spend their downtime when they're parked as cars in a hangar - are they sleeping?) go unanswered.

The humans complain at one point about how the Autobots have not shared their technology or weaponry, but human tanks and missiles seem to work just fine against the Decepticons. Humans even have a super laser weapon called a Rail Gun that can take out the biggest Decepticon. Meanwhile, Transformers can kill each other by ripping limbs off or stabbing each other, yet Megatron can have half his face ripped off and still be perfectly operational. Some Transformers can be shot several times and die, others withstand getting shot the same amount of times and keep going. There's no explanation behind anything.

The Worst New Characters in Movies award goes to the two twin Autobots who were racist chararicatures of blacks. Everyone remembers the jive-talkin' black Autobot who Megatron ripped in two in the first movie. This time, an even worse black stereotype is shoehorned into a Transformers movie, complete with Buckwheat teeth. Ten years after Jar Jar Binks, sci-fi popcorn blockbuster tentpole movies have set a new low standard. Weesa learned nothing, bombad Michael Bay. I don't know if it's supposed to be a consolation or not that the Twins weren't destroyed by Devastator, but I know I took no solace in their survival.

New human characters include the welcome presence of Glenn Morshower, who played "General Morshower". Why not just rename Sam "Sam LaBeouf" and Mikaela "Mikaela Fox" while they're at it. Or John Turturro's character "John Turturro" because virtually no one in the audience, even after two movies, remembers his character's name is Agent Simmons. There's also a hardass new Secretary of Defense character who wants to kick the Autobots out of America. He claims to represent the President, which it later turns out via news report is Barack Obama. I guess the Autobots' costly, property-destroying incursions in other nations have been giving Barack some real headaches.

Megatron is quickly resurrected (despite how in the first movie, his body was dropped in a trench specifically because the water pressures would crush him - nope, didn't happen) but the first thing he does is fly off to one of Saturn's moons where Starscream has been hiding out in Deception City. Once there, we find Megatron isn't quite the Big Bad we thought he was. No, he's the apprentice of an even Bigger Bad, the Fallen. That's his name, the Fallen. He was named that because he used to be one of the Primes that Optimus is descended from, but he went evil and was kicked out of Primehood by the other Primes, so now he's the Fallen. He seems to be okay with being the Fallen. Trouble is, the Fallen is a big bitch. He just sat around for thousands of years while the other Decepticons did his dirty work. Only a Prime can kill him; when Optimus was killed, the Fallen comes to Earth finally, but he doesn't do anything. Then Optimus comes back to life and promptly kills The Fallen. The Fallen sucks. I don't know what Megatron ever saw in that loser.

Yes, in a page straight out of Transformers: The Movie, Optimus Prime dies. He dies pretty well, heroically fighting off three Decepticons to protect Sam no matter the cost, before Megatron stabs him in the chest. With Optimus Prime out of the movie for well over an hour, Sam's story becomes about finding a way to bring him back. Optimus' eventual resurrection (to light their darkest hour, sort of) was a moment that demanded Stan Bush's "The Touch" playing in the soundtrack, but those of us who are Transformers: The Movie diehards have to settle for playing it in our heads while we watch.

Not content with one major character death and resurrection, Revenge of the Fallen adds a second one, with Sam himself finally killed by Megatron as he tries to get the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Optimus' robo corpse. This leads to the most emotional moment of the movie (or closest approximation of emotion) where Mikaela finally says the "L word" to bring Sam back to life, paying off their big relationship issue. Listen, those two are made for each other. Sam's affable, manic everyguy charm is perfectly matched by Mikaela's detached, blistering hotness.

The last half hour of Revenge of the Fallen is an all-out battle where thirteen Decepticons descend on the outskirts of Giza and engage in loud, senseless violence with the human/Autobot coalition. By the end of the conflagration, we have no idea what the state of the Decepticons or Autobots are, how many were killed, etc. There's no sense of tactics or strategy, just guns firing, missiles launching, and lots of explosions. While all that's happening, the main plot point is Sam and Mikaela running for miles across the desert, avoiding Decepticons, so that Sam can get the Matrix of Leadership to Optimus. For no good reason, they decide to make this journey on foot instead of riding in Bumblebee. While all that's happening, Devastator is climbing up the Pyramid of Cheops and ripping off whole chunks of it to reveal the Decepticon Sun-Killer Machine. (It's really a rather awesome-looking spectacle in IMAX.) Somehow, no one ever noticed that thing was in the Pyramid. Did the Egyptians know when they built the Pyramid over the machine?

By the time Sam triumphantly stands side by side with Optimus on an aircraft carrier, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen guarantees a third movie in the franchise, if Megatron's breathless "You think it's over? It's not over!" threat can be believed. It seems like if there is a third movie, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox might not necessarily be part of it. Sam's destiny, which was first to find and safeguard the Allspark and later became to find the Matrix of Leadership and resurrect Optimus Prime, has been fullfilled. How much more can the Autobots ask of this kid? In the end, Sam gets settled back in college after his unexplained absence, secure that the world has been saved once again, and that he's in no danger of losing either of the hottest rides on the planet.

When it's all said and done, it's good to be Sam Witwicky.