In Theaters: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen minutes after emerging from an advance screening of Brüno -- the latter of which is under strict review embargo -- and while the two releases couldn't be more different, the double feature offered a vivid cross-section of the current state of American mass-marketed pop culture. What's clear is this: If you expect to make a dent in the summer blockbuster landscape, too much is never enough.
In the case of Fallen, that meant clearing a sensory-overload bar set abnormally high by its 2007 predecessor -- a cortex-rattling hunk of Hollywood entertainment marrying the latest advancements in CGI character design, terrible dialogue, and gearheads with smokin' racks. For director Michael Bay -- whose very soul it seems has morphed throughout the years into that of a mindless popcorn movie -- that simply meant piling on more of everything. Prepare to emerge from Fallen's two-and-a-half hours on your knees, one eye twitching involuntarily as you attempt to drown out the relentless onslaught of clanking robot aliens and meaningless combat-dialogue drivel still echoing off your skull.
The story begins somewhat incomprehensibly, then proceeds to grow increasingly convoluted from there. Way back when, cavepeople did something to piss off The Fallen, the Supreme Exalted Ruler of the Bad Guys, who does indeed look like the love child of John Kerry and a George Foreman Grill. That starts a thousands-year grudge match between Fallen and the peace-loving peoples of U.S. Earth.
Our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, turning his commitment dial to 11 despite lugging a crushed hand around for half the movie), meanwhile, prepares to attend a prestigious Bush League University, where the female student body is populated entirely by nubile academics pursuing advanced degrees in Starleting with minors in Modeling and Applied Waitressing. Sam's girlfriend Mikaela Banes, played by celebrated improvisational actress Megan Fox, prods him to say the dreaded L-word -- that would be "love," not "Line!" Equally sad to see him leave the nest are his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), who engage in a lively vaudeville bickering routine that I can only imagine grew out of Bay shouting, "Hey, Jule -- could you go broader with it?" into a megaphone a dozen or so successive times.
Sam soon meets paranoid college roommate/comic relief Leo, played by Ramón Rodríguez, whose genuine glee at being thrown into this megabudget chaos actually manages to leave a lasting impression through all the morphing metal. The guy's pretty funny -- especially in the scene where he accidentally tases himself in a Smithsonian bathroom with his pants around his ankles. (Um -- yeah. That happens.)
At some point you meet Mudflap and Skids, who are indeed as jive-talkin' and gold-toothed as Kyle said they were -- as well as several other brown-skinned characters with various physical and developmental impediments -- and you just grip your armrest and cringe, cringe, cringe, hoping the crowd doesn't erupt into a full-on race riot. (Ours didn't, but it was the premiere, and you know how they stack those things.) Then you see John Turturro from behind in nothing but a jockstrap, and things quickly start going downhill -- both plot-wise, and for humanity in general. Things end in Egypt, with Sam nearly losing his life performing CPR on Optimus Prime, who saves the day.
And yet, and yet -- why is it harder for me to dismiss the sequel than it was the first Transformers? First off, there's no denying the effects: That someone actually conceived of these hulking, twisting, Rubik's contraptions, choreographed the battles to the inch, and executed them as flawlessly as they did -- well, it's pretty amazing. Then there's the script, stitched together by the screenwriting dream team of Kurtzman and Orci. Yes, it's a sprawling, incoherent mess -- but it's not completely without merit. These are the same guys who wrote the beloved Star Trek, let's not forget, and they manage to weave some inspired business into several of Fallen's "smaller" -- if you could use that word -- moments and set pieces: LaBeouf having his mouth probed by a Decepticon doctor, Fox having her leg humped by a horny toy truck, even the minor, weird touch of Leo's dorm room kitten-calendar-printing business. The movie actually earns some genuine laughs when it isn't pounding you in the head mercilessly with a Hasbro wiffle ball bat. Thirty minutes shaved off the final cut and it could have been the perfect summer tune-out flick -- as filtered, of course, through Bay's shamelessly adolescent mind. Rating: 6.5.