Steven Spielberg reportedly convinced screenwriters Ehren Krueger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to script the current sequel in the Transformer’s franchise by telling them not to think of it as a story of robots from space but the story of a boy and his car.
In 2007, Transformers exploded on Earth, straight from the 1980s (Hollywood is so in love with the ’80s), and after its huge box-office success, it easily earned a sequel in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The studio was so eager to establish its new tentpole that it took less than two years for the sequel to follow the original into theaters, complete with the same cast, crew and director. When these things happen, the question becomes one of whether the sequel has learned lessons from its predecessor, or whether it’s running on fumes just to keep the cash cow milking. So, true to the spirit of the Transformer series, today’s Smack is a knock-down, intergalactic, cinematic fight as we ask which film does robot-on-robot action better? And, yes, there is a boy and a car…
With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay spares no expense ensuring audiences get more bang for their $14 movie ticket. This time, a college-bound Sam Witwicky finds himself trapped in the ever-escalating war between the Autobots and Decepticons… again. See, a prehistoric Transformer called The Fallen intends to drain our sun to obtain the Transformer’s life-force, Energon. Naturally, he’ll then conquer the cosmos or achieve some equally impolite end (like chewing with his mouth open). But only Sam knows the location of this Energon machine due to a series of psychic visions. Now, Sam must lead the Autobots to Egypt where they wage war against The Fallen, his Decepticons, and Megatron… yes, that’s right, Megatron’s back too. Still want more plot? Don’t worry; I just gave you half. Clocking in well over two hours, Transformers: RotF has enough plot for three trilogies. It’s the only type of sequel you’d expect from Michael Bay: one that’s bigger, louder, and dumber.
The Defending Champion
Transformers was pitched to Michael Bay as a film about a boy getting his first car. Sounds nice. Really, it’s about a boy caught between two groups of alien robots whose intergalactic war has crash landed on Earth. Everyone’s searching for the Allspark, a techno-mystical cube with the power to animate any mechanical form. By the end of the movie, I think I got that Megatron wanted this cube so he could create a new mechanical army to take over Earth… but that was after two brain-busting hours of claustrophobic action, syrupy slow-mo shots, self-aware jokes, and bombastic explosions.
Both Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen brim with elaborate action set-pieces, campy humor, and hyper-sexuality. Industrial Light and Magic struggles in both films to design the Transformers in such a way that we can distinguish one from the other. Whenever a fight erupts between Autobot and Decepticon, the on-screen action tumbles into a jumbled mess of flopping, indistinguishable mechanical parts. Sure, I appreciate the high level of detail, but not at the cost of coherent action scenes. Transformers: RotF especially suffers from ILM’s designs as Bay introduces a whole slew of new Transformers that simply blend together. It’s hard to appreciate large-scale action sequences when I can’t tell the good from the bad guys and thus, can’t tell who’s winning.
Now both films embrace Bay’s typical low-brow humor. Again, Transformers: RotF probably suffers most in this category. Gags like Sam’s mom lolly-gagging around a college campus after eating pot-brownies or the dangling wrecking ball testicles on a construction Decepticon aren’t just dumb, they’re insulting to the audiences’ intelligence. Transformers had some corny moments, many centering around the Autobots fitting into Sam’s suburban life. However, none proved as gregarious and useless as those in Transformers: RotF where the jokes simply exist onto themselves and are cracked at the most inappropriate moments.
While on the topic of insulting our intelligence, let’s not forget Sam’s girlfriend Mikaela, played by Megan Fox. When we first meet her, Mikaela is bent over a motorcycle in daisy dukes, applying lip gloss as she flirts with Sam on the phone. This scene alone establishes Bay’s general outlook toward women in Transformers 2: RotF. Every female — from college students to lip-lassoing Decepticons — exist either as a love-dumb airhead or sexy vixen. In the first film, we at least got to see female Defense analysts and agents. Even Mikaela, struggling to be more than just the popular girl, had a journey in Transformers. She doesn’t just make pouty-kiss faces at the camera as she does this time around.
But so far, both these films are guilty of the same crimes, with Transformers: RotF being a bit more to blame.
Now, while Transformers had its healthy dose of claustrophobic over-plotting, Transformers: RotF proves that bigger is not always better. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman scribed both films, with Ehren Kruger joining them for this second outing. How much Michael Bay contributed to story, I don’t know. However, there seems to be constant tension between Bay’s military sensibilities and the retro-camp feeling the scribes hoped to achieve. Looking at the dialogue (especially The Autobots’), one will notice its on-the-nose feel. What at first can be seen as just poor dialogue is really an homage to the 1980s cartoons, where Optimus Prime spoke in verbose monologues about sacrifice, virtue, and friendship. The writers spend a hefty amount of time establishing this cartoony world, only to have Bay come in and try to merge it with real world military grittiness.
In all his films, Bay has a clear love of the military. Even Transformers suffered from the “I love the military” attitude of Bay. But in Transformers: RotF, I actually began to wonder if this movie was financed by the United States Military. As the Autobots square off against The Decepticons, Bay continually forces the US military to have a role in the action. Whole portions of the climax play like “Join The Army” ads, showing extreme sports style camera POVS of soldiers parachuting into combat. We watch Higgins boats and jet bombers do their thing. And we spend way too much time listening to “Delta Four, you are cleared to blah blah blah at Vector blah blah bleh.” But yet, at the same time, there’s this evil alien robot with an energy spear hopping around The Great Pyramids, reveling in his plan “to destroy the sun and kill mankind!” It just doesn’t gel. It doesn’t feel natural or organic–or balanced!
Plus, isn’t this a movie about big-ass robots?
Where this really hurts Bay is that the military, at times, is actually more competent than Sam or the Autobots. Example: while a huge Decepticon destroys a pyramid, another character calls a battleship off the coast and orders them to use their “rail gun.” What is this rail gun? I don’t know. First time we’ve ever heard about it. So, the battleship unveils this hi-tech rail gun and proceeds to destroy the huge Decepticon (from miles away!) when all of the Autobots could barely handle it. But, as a contrivance, they never use this gun again. Even as smaller, more exposed Decepticons continue to fight and threaten mankind, the good guys never think, “Hey, that rail gun worked really nifty that time. Hm, how about…”
Moments like these seem too hammed and forced. This, matched with the constant intercutting of military procedures and lingo, create a climax that’s like a geriatric patient wadding through mud.
Next comes character.
When the movie begins, you see that Sam’s journey is going to be one of becoming a man. He’s young and going off to college and his parents struggle to let him go. Now, more on his own than in the first film, Sam must rise to the occasion and lead the Autobots. Yet, isn’t this essentially the same journey from the first film? What you soon realize in Transformers: RotF is that you are watching Transformers all over again–only with more robots, more action, and more dialogue. Sequels like The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2 demonstrated that you must ask a new dramatic question of your characters. The characters and the world must be explored differently, with new conclusions reached because of it. Transformers: RotF just retreads its predecessor’s ground, adding nothing new.
And don’t count on the Autobots to make the story feel any different. For spending so much time humanizing the Transformers with intricate facial expressions and body features, Bay and his writers fails to apply that same level of attention to their character arcs. Optimus Prime and his Autobot friends do not change. Optimus is always the loyal, headstrong leader. Bumblebee is always the loyal, childish robot. Megatron is always uber-evil. They don’t grow, they don’t evolve as a result of their conflicts. They simply move through a set of action pieces toward the film’s bombastic end.
So now we’re left with strict plot.
Transformers was fairly standard in terms of its plot. We have a sympathetic character. He gets in trouble. Whoops! Bad guys. Comedic moments. Action. Damn, things look severe. What? Yay! Good guys win! So while I can’t forgive the plot paradox of the Allspark being an object that can both restore and kill Transformers, I can say Transformers at least tried to give a cohesive movie-going experience. On the other hand, Transformers: RotF takes poor plotting to another level. The movie spends forty minutes establishing itself (which for a sequel, riding the world set down by the original, is sort of odd). It’s beyond convoluted. Here, just watch:
Sam is going to college and Mikaela is staying behind, and while Sam’s gone his parents are going to Paris to get some free time now that they’ve finally let their son go. But Sam touched a fragment of the Allspark from the first movie and now is having these mental breakdowns in class and drawing weird Autobot hieroglyphs everywhere. Meanwhile, The Autobots are working for the US government but at the same time they may be exiled by the government because the Decepticons are still causing a ruckus, and the public is becoming more and more aware that there are gigantic robot aliens warring on the planet. But see, the Decepticons are spying on Earth in order to locate and resurrect Megatron (who died) so they can bring him to The Fallen who is the master of Megatron and wants to find this ancient machine that was left on Earth and will allow him to harness the sun’s rays to get Energon, which will then enable him to create an army and take over the universe.
We wait nearly an hour and a half for all of that to get set-up….just so we can understand what the hell is going on. What’s worse? It doesn’t stop there as Sam must journey to find an ancient Prime Transformer who space-jumps them to Egypt where they go on an Indiana Jones adventure trying to solve an ancient riddle about three kings so as to obtain a legendary alien artifact.
Along the way, as we trudge through this near incomprehensible plot, we lose track of any character arcs, any themes, or any nuances that would make us appreciate this film as anything more than eye sex (and even still, it’s that awkward, first-time sex). By the time we reach Egypt and the film’s climactic battle, you actually find yourself rooting for the film to end regardless of who dies in the process. I was actually rooting for The Fallen to destroy the Earth so that the damn movie could end!
So yeah, I know, Transformers is not a great film. But it was understandable in terms of plot and character. There was something to hold onto in the journey of a boy becoming a man. But Transformers: RotF is just spectacle, and jumbled spectacle at best. It retreads its predecessors ground with more action and less class. So when it comes down to these two films, it’s Transformers that offers us something more than what meets our eye!
Editor’s Note: Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen had a five-day opening gross of $201.2 million from 4,234 theaters domestically. This trampled the $152.4 million earned by Spider-Man 2, which previously held the five-day record for a Wednesday launch. Plus, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen nearly matched the best five-day gross of all time which was $203.8 million for WB’s The Dark Knight.