Thursday, June 25, 2009

Revenge of the Tylenol

I suppose whether or not you should see "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" depends on what you're seeking in a film. If you want a headache and to hear so many explosions that all sounds become meaningless, this film is for you. If you're looking for an entertaining—or simply coherent—story, compelling characters, well-played drama, funny gags or thrilling action, go elsewhere.

Of course, director Michael Bay's previous "Transformers" film was a gigantic hit despite resembling a gigantic shit, and the director's reputation for incomprehensible, fast-cut, noisy action has long followed him.

His new film's prehistoric prologue illustrates Bay's storytelling missteps. Some spear-armed hunters discover a giant alien ship with the founder of the Decepticons, whose name is The Fallen (or maybe just Fallen? Did he have a different name before he fell, or was it one of those self-fulfilling thingies?). Then the Fallen stomps on our ancestors. Admittedly not much of a scene, but the only part of it that matters is the surprise of the hunters when they find the Decepticons. The revelation comes via clunky editing and voice-over when it should offer some sort of magnificent reveal, or at least a good reaction shot. Instead it looks like this: hunters hunting, wide shot of of space ship and the Fallen (short for Fallonious?), various loud noises and smashing of your great-great-great-great-great-great granddad. It pains me to see Steven Spielberg's name under the Executive Producer credit and think that the master of the reveal shot didn't at least suggest an alternative approach.

I can muster up enough faint praise to say that some of the action scenes in the sequel are slightly easier to follow than in its predecessor. The underwhelming improvement derives from a few wide shots that actually follow the action long enough for the viewer to discern it (which isn't to say you won't see plenty of Bay's trademark awkward angles, meaningless close-ups and hack assemblies).

Unfortunately, he makes up for any mild visual improvements with some of the most grating scenes of all time. The film oscillates between over-serious pomposity and fourth-rate sitcom humor. I could spend pages describing everything wrong with the scenes depicting hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) as he prepares to leave for college while his dad acts giddy and his mother cries like a lunatic, or after he arrives at his dorm and his mom accidentally eats brownies with…well, I don't want to ruin the surprise. I could discuss the solemn gravity with which the film treats deaths whose permanence feels tenuous at best. But what's truly remarkable is how poorly the two elements mingle. Either Bay shovels nonsensical melodrama at full speed or he bashes us on the head with painfully unfunny bits, sometimes scrotum-inspired, delivered by either obnoxious, pretty people or obnoxious, ugly robots.

The ineptitude at work in these alien robots' character-design cannot be overstated. An extremely unpleasant feeling washed over me with every close-up. They're like dully lit vomit after an all-you-can-eat surplus-parts buffet. I wouldn't blink if you told me they were designed by the same second-graders who continue to add details to their drawings simply because empty space remains on the page. Yes, I realize I'm supposed to be blown away by every computer-generated nut and bolt, but I'd be much more amazed to detect some genuine emotion on the face of one of these drones.

So lifeless are the characters visually that they can't even match the weak caricatures suggested by the screenplay and voice-work. I'm sure no one could forget the Black Robot from the first film (and there were two yellow ones!), but the sequel tops his vaguely stereotypical dialogue with a pair of compact-hatchback-ad-bots who speak in hip-hop slang, have gold teeth and cop to illiteracy. It was near-impossible to distinguish most of the bots from one another in the first film, so instead of refining their design, Bay went and added a bunch more. It's generally impossible to figure out who's who, what they want or why they want it.

This film creates a rule about a mystical key in one scene and contradicts it less than 10 minutes later. It expects you to care about things when it hasn't given you a reason to. And the process takes two and a half hours. Take into account travel time and trailers and you could spend the time it takes to see "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" watching any of these films, among many others: "Nashville," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Magnolia," "The Big Parade," "Goodfellas" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's possible you've seen all these. I suggest you watch one of them again.

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