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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009)

 

     Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a summer blockbuster so reviled by most mainstream critics, yet so anticipated by the masses, that it almost seems capable of igniting a real-world dispute to dwarf its considerable on-screen pyrotechnics. This epic but relatively empty-headed movie has had its importance inflated by box-office expectations, its prominent release date, and the eternally infuriating touch of director Michael Bay. It now has become some kind of line in the aesthetic sand, separating those who crave only sensory overload and mindless escapism in their movies from those that seem deeply offended by the existence of cinema that feels no need to aspire to greater goals.

 

     Such a binary opposition is oversimplifying, of course, but itís exasperating that even a small squabble in the culture wars is being waged on the battleground that is Transformers 2. Is this what film discourse has become? There was once a time when such a movie would not dignify too serious a response from critics, but there is bizarre urgency present in this filmís reviews. John Anderson describes it as ďsimply despicable.Ē Roger Ebert concludes his hyperbolic, one-star review of the movie by dismissively calling it ďthe biggest something of all time.Ē A simple shrug would have been better than such empty overstatement. 

 

     Even those critics that admire the filmís senseless bravado seem to apologize for it. The rampant defensiveness and snobbery that one can find within the average write-up about the film is perhaps indicative of the tenuous grasp that most film critics feel they have on the mass audience these days. Still, criticsí complaints, even if they ring true, arenít being particularly well-substantiated. Most reviews, positive or negative, arenít engaging with Revenge of the Fallen as a film so much as a media event. Writers are spinning their wheels, simply resigning themselves to or complaining about its existence. Itís a sorry, predictable state of affairs, and a disservice to the audiences that film critics supposedly exist to guide.

 

     The case against director Michael Bay, like the case against film critics, is familiar. Bayís movies have been remarkably popular, yet they are continually attacked for being too loud, too long, too violent, too commercial, and too crude. His mind-bludgeoning slickness, which reminds many of advertising, continues to leave most critics cold. His utter lack of depth and his complete avoidance of pretension seem to strike many film writers as a personal affront. These complaints are probably as applicable to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as anything Bay has directed, but they accomplish nothing beyond audience alienation. In their complete tone-deafness toward readers, this filmís reviews would make a solid test case for proving how irrelevant much of current film criticism can be.

 

     One could insist, I suppose, that Bayís latest adolescent fantasy isnít worth writing about, but it clearly is a deviation from the normal Hollywood blockbuster in scale, tone, and formal approach. As a visual and cultural phenomenon, it begs for more in-depth analysis than itís been receiving from daily critics. These detractors often gripe about Bayís many excesses, but it must be conceded that he achieves his excess through some remarkable editorial economy. Bayís movies are an endless barrage of money shots, itís true, but they are able to shift tone without sacrificing energy. Bayís overblown visual style, whatever its drawbacks, manages to homogenize all action as it unfolds. Everything takes place at a fever pitch. Everything demands the cameraís rapturous, glorifying attention. Itís utterly pornographic, or at least capitalistic, in its desire to constantly offer the audience something to consume.

 

     Itís true that if Bay was better at paring down his scripts, and better at separating what worked (the scale of his battle scenes, the kinetic moments of action, his embrace of the virtual camera) from what did not (clumsy exposition, crude comedy, hackneyed emotional payoffs), he would be a more formidable filmmaking force. Still, his style remains distinctive, even in its signature sloppiness. Anyone watching even a brief sequence from one of his movies would know it immediately. Edgar Wright had no trouble mining the directorís visual obnoxiousness for laughs in his action movie send-up Hot Fuzz.  Bayís rapid-cutting techniques and always-glistening cinematography may be garish, but they are unmistakable. Whether one likes or dislikes the manís work, one must admit that it fits at least some definition of cutting-edge.

 

     Perhaps Bayís obvious potential is why he disappoints so many. Despite his singularity and total reliance upon the image, the moments of awe, or moments that even feel visually fresh when removed from their frenetic pacing, are few and far between in his movies. Thereís so much visual excitement over so little that actually matters. His latest movie is not much different in this respect. There are few highlights. A trip to the robotsí home planet momentarily endows Revenge of the Fallen with an exotic, metallic sci-fi sheen. An early espionage mission sees the evil Decepticons infiltrating a government base using a creature made of liquid metal and a robo-panther. Circular pans briefly liberate us from the uncomfortably close framing. These sparks of vision are exceptions, however. Most of Bayís images flit by, scarcely making a lasting impression even though they depict catastrophes.

 

     Furthermore, the price that Bay pays for his trademark rapid cutting style is a reluctance to splice scenes together. Intercutting so many snippets, it seems, would be too disorienting to the audience. As such, his movie plays out as a series of discrete, self-contained set pieces. He sets up a single, small group action, and allows it to play out completely before moving on to the next. When he attempts to stage a mass invasion, as he does in Revenge of the Fallenís multi-battle finale, the limits of his style become completely apparent. The seams show and each segment of the action becomes obligatory. Each character gets a moment to assault another, and during every moment, weíre asked to ignore all other, supposedly simultaneous, action. This is a major failing of a director of so-called ďaction moviesĒ, yet it seems curiously unobserved.

 

     Even moving beyond Bayís personal style, Revenge of the Fallenís content seems too singular to write off with simple accusations of crassness and immaturity. The film is tonally schizophrenic, incorporating elements of slapstick and pathos that seem wholly subsidiary to the globe-spanning war at the plotís center. Bayís action blockbuster unfurls in bizarre directions, making one feel like itís straining to be more than wish fulfillment or macho posturing at times, but nothing is developed much. How odd that this is the first major movie with the balls to take pot shots at Obama (he hopes to arrange  a diplomatic sit-down with Megatron; he flees to safety early on) yet is regressive enough to include Skids and Mudflap, two supposedly heroic robots that will be more likely to strike most viewers as repulsive racial stereotypes. The screenplay here is far more complex than it needs to be, invoking creation myths, political baggage, robot spirituality, and empty nest syndrome. One canít tell if itís inspired in its attempts to find something that will draw us in or just colossally sloppy.

 

     Thereís a lot going on in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So much, in fact, that itís probable that critics and audiences are seeing different films entirely. As the Los Angeles Times review of it said, itís a movie that is ďexhilarating or excruciating, depending on your point of view.Ē Itís also a work that, however flawed, needs to be given deeper thought, be more rigorously examined from a formal perspective, and be more honestly contended with. By this point it should be clear that simply ignoring Michael Bay wonít make him go away.

 

33

Jeremy Heilman

06.30.09