Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: Bigger, Louder, Goofier

When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences extended its best picture category this week to include 10 nominations for 2010, instead of the usual 5, perhaps they had in mind pictures like this weekend's Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. This is the kind of big, massively viewed film that the Academy hopes will grace its awards so it can draw more viewers to its struggling ceremony.

Already, this movie is being compared to Batman: The Dark Knight - at least in terms of the one measure that counts most in Hollywood, weekend box-office. Clearly, this film is a successful tent pole for the Hollywood entertainment machine. The only question, I suppose, is whether it's any good.

From the reactions in the theater, it's certainly a successful crowd-pleaser. For some people, I think, this will be enough. Basically this is a re-hash of the story in the first movie: the good transforming Autobots battling the bad transforming Decepticons (both of whom were - in the last movie at least - advertisements for GM cars) on the battlefield of Earth, all entangled with the life of one boy, Sam Witwicky, who holds their destiny in his hands (played with gusto by Shia LaBeaof, who's beginning to nicely fill out the leading action-man role and obviously has a secure future in blockbusters ahead of him), and who's helped along by his hot, hot-rod-addicted girlfriend (played by Megan Fox, who gets to do a little bit more this time than being Michael Bay eye-candy).

That's all you need to know of the plot (except, perhaps, to know that the Transformers are a Hasbro toy turned into a franchise, and where you can go buy the merchandise for your kids. Disclaimer: I own 3 shares of Hasbro stock, bought before this movie's release.)

The idea behind this outing of Transformers, then, seems to basically be this: take everything that worked in the first film, and do it bigger, badder, goofier, and more often. Audiences loved the goofy, smothering parents in Transformers 1, so here they get to be even more goofy and smothering (the mother gets a hold of some wacky weed while dropping off young Sam at college). The kick-ass Marines, led Josh Duhamel as Major Lennox, get to be even more kick-ass, teaming up with the Transformers as a "special squad" whose job it seems is to go around creating destruction in some random place in the world somewhere. There are more Transformers on both sides and the battles are bigger, longer, more explosive, and with much more massive collateral damage, which requires really precise special effects machinery to lay-on all those explosions and ordinance around flying actors and stomping CGI Autobots. The budgets were obviously loosened on this film, and everyone on the special effects teams has done a great bang-up job blowing up towns, cars, highways, monuments, and just about everything else from Shanghai to Paris to Egypt, and training actors to go flying, turning, and hurling against a green screen somewhere. It all feels pretty seamless and I felt like taking the F/X crew all out for a beer just to say, "good job."

Much like the mega-Transformer which appears mid-movie by assembling itself from dozens of Decepticons to become a massive, whirling wind-sucking machine, Michael Bay has essentially borrowed tropes here from dozens of summer movies and assembled them into a loud, whirligig of a movie, cobbled from pieces of CGI destruction, officious characters, cartoon baddies, and goofy interludes. One can recognize pieces of everything from Close Encounters to Team America to X-Men 3, Independence Day to Fifth Element to Indiana Jones. And by "transform," I mean, he turns this all into a specially flavored type of confection that is typically Michael Bay: strong emotive music signaling when we should have our patriotic feeling, a 360 degree camera whirl around the characters that leaves you with mind-numbing vertigo, and the classic Bay "hero shot" of the dream team walking slow-mo into the sunset. If you've never seen a summer movie before (let alone a Michael Bay movie like Pearl Harbor, The Rock, or Armageddon), I imagine this must be impressive - which is why, I suppose, the youngest people in the audience seemed to be having the best time. For the rest of us who have some familiarity of the Bay oeuvre, the technique in this movie borders very close to self parody...and makes some scenes physically unwatchable.

As for what it all adds up to, well, this is left intentionally vague, I believe. The Transformer formula, I think, is to let the audience fill in whatever meaning it cares to: all the better to sell the toys to youngsters, who can let their imagination go wild. There is a sniveling government baddy, Galloway, played by John Hicky, as a replacement to John Turturro's black-suited agent nerd (who's turned into one of the good guys, in this film). Galloway is an officious oaf presumably sent by President Obama to stupidly shut down the heroic Major Lennox's operation with the Autobots. We're mean to root against him, and he gets his comeuppance at the hands of the more macho military types, who know what to do with sniveling sissy-men. I couldn't figure out, however, if this was a right-wing anti-government take ("don't trust your leaders," says one wise Autobot - while an Obama picture flashes by in the background - and much of the action in fact requires that the various heroes take matters into their own hands). At the same time, much of the purpose of the action requires just the kind of inter-species cooperation, out-of-the-box thinking and non-conformist initiative that would characterize an Obama's defence approach much more than Bush's. In fact, the person I was with in the movie thought Galloway was there to represent Bush Administration thinking: rigid, top-down, cover-your-ass. I, however, saw this as the film-maker's attitude to the current "leaders."

Clearly, then, Bay has constructed this to mean whatever you want: leaders simply are not popular, whoever they are. We need to trust our feelings, and it's the boys who put themselves on the line who are the heroes, who have a great destiny in store to save the world (and get laid by beautiful babes), no matter how goofy their parents might seem.

That message has clearly found its audience. I don't think the word for this kind of summer entertainment should be, as many commonly say, "mindless." More like, "visceral." The experience in the theater is meant to jar us: scramble our eyes and pound our ears with a two-hour ride through an amusement park of casual destruction, embarrassing parents, meddlesome aliens, explosive battles, and a race to save the world.

So is it good? I had a mildly good time, but I think it's particularly great training for the next generation of Army recruits.

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