The Thinking Person's Guide to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

You know about its fall from critical grace. You know about its shamelessness and robot minstrelsy. You also know it's already one of the biggest blockbusters ever. For these reasons and a few others, I can't quite get Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen out of my head. Shell-shocked as I was upon exiting the theater, I refused to believe for the two-and-a-half hours prior that Michael Bay's latest spectacle was beyond comprehension or without some sort of critical merit. Not that I'm here to be contrary -- by any conventional critical or technical standards, RotF is not an especially "good" film, and Bay is not an especially "good" director.

Nor is it simply a binary, thumbs-up/thumbs-down experience, and to dismiss it out of hand would be to engage in the same cheap cynicism Bay's critics attribute to him. But what is in it for the everyday, rational filmgoer? I've got five observations to start with after the jump; add yours as you like, and let's discuss this like adults, shall we?

· East vs. West: Much more than the first Transformers, RotF boasts some fairly breathtaking exercises in War-on-Terror ethnocentrism. Images of Decepticons climbing New York towers and snapping the American flag from the Brooklyn Bridge are garish enough without having to center the climactic battle in Egypt -- on whose soil, of course, Optimus Prime is revived and good-guy hegemony is restored. But was it just me, or did the evil Megatron's worldwide TV broadcast -- rigged from the top of the Empire State Building -- play like a grainy, 2002-era Osama bin Laden tape? And in that context, did the wretched sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier seem less a throwback to Pearl Harbor than it was an invocation to remember the USS Cole?

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· The Resurrection of Industry: A fun drinking game in years to come will no doubt emerge from swigging beer every time a corporate logo appears while viewing RotF. You'll probably need a keg; at the end of the day, this is the most expensive toy commercial ever made. Bay dismisses accusations of shamelessness with the observation that the whole world is a commercial, and he's just doing business. Assuming he's right (and he does have a case), are viewers mad because such blatant ads violate the sanctuary of cinema? And if so, shouldn't we applaud him for realistically reflecting the encroachment of brands, logos, and corporations in our everyday lives? Or do we also just hate him because he takes home $80 million for pointing it out? And while we're on the subject, what does GM's supremacy among the Autobots symbolize for beleaguered Detroit? (Brett Berk offers one especially intriguing interpretation at VanityFair.com.)

· Imagination vs. Intellect: Early on in a film with a budget exceeding $200 million, Sam Witwicky's father complains that his son's new college campus "smells like $40,000 per year." Bay went Ivy League to shoot those scenes at the University of Pennsylvania, soon destroying swaths of the campus (including the library) when Mikaela, Sam and his new roommate Leo flee from the Decepticon on their trail. Still, although Sam's cube-sliver hallucination helps him read a textbook in a few seconds flat, his powers hardly include the juice to hijack his class from its snob lecturer (played by Rainn Wilson -- a comic, natch). Instead, his vivid, motormouthed symbology -- his Hollywood imagination, in this case -- fail him. It seems a long way for Bay and his writers to go to impugn academia without actually succeeding. Or does he succeed?

· The Cost of Sexuality: I think my favorite part of RotF occurred with the introduction of the Decepticon Succubus -- a bronzed, nubile dormmate of Sam's who seduces him for access to the symbols that will restore her kind to power. Bay humiliates her relentlessly; even Sam's Camaro Autobot spits engine coolant at her. As mentioned above, though, the exchange student gets her revenge. How? How else? By throwing Sam down on his bed, running a long dagger-tail out of her ass and finally attempting to choke Sam with her 50-foot tongue. Mikaela, who alternates early on between black leather and virginal white, later smashes the "bitch" into a lamppost with her car. It's the weirdest abstinence PSA I've ever seen, as if to say, "Don't not go to bed with her! You've already got a strikingly hot girlfriend you can't fuck right next to you!"

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· An Auteur's Vision: Manohla Dargis raised a terrific point Wednesday in her review of RotF: For better or worse, Michael Bay fulfills the literal definition of a cinematic auteur. "His signature adorns every image in his movies, as conspicuously as that of Lars von Trier," she wrote, "and every single one is inscribed with a specific worldview and moral sensibility." She went on to cite his violence in particular, and as Seth also mentioned in his own review here, the pure scope and synthesis of Bay's explosions, chases, gun battles, CGI pyramid-smashers and general carnage -- however totally fucking nonsensical -- still required conception, staging, and execution. Say what you will about his cynicism and his utter clumsiness with living, breathing actors, but no one who's paid any attention can argue that Bay doesn't have one of the most vigorous minds in contemporary film.

To be continued, surely.... Go ahead, you start.



Comments

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    There's a theory going around about how the plethora of violence and explosions and boom-boom-shiny-shiny in film and videogames is all about "predictive programming," an effort to make the public inured to mass destruction and violence, "however totally fucking nonsensical." The less plot and the bigger the blowups and destruction, the better. IF the concept of predictive programming even remotely true, it doesn't make Bay "one of the most vigorous minds in contemporary film," it makes him a tool. A very effective and wealthy tool, but, still....

  • I hear you, but these are separate issues. From a filmmaking point of view, Bay is pushing action to a place it has never gone. You don't have to like it, but it's not really reasonable to condemn him for simply doing his job. And IF that job is to perpetuate "predictive programming," then where do you draw the line? Do you count Spielberg? Chris Nolan? What makes one guy's $150-200 million worth of violent glitz any more or less conceptually legit than another?

  • Mik Vance says:

    Michael Bay must be stopped :(

  • MA says:

    I succumbed in order to know what all the hoo-ha is about -- as I'm sure a lot of others will, ensuring T2 reaches its box-office target.
    A few immediate questions:
    Is the anti-intellectualism incidental or deliberate? Libraries, museums and places of cultural and historical significance only exist as backdrops to be blown up.
    Was I having mini strokes or did we jump from locations in trailer-style edits? I thought we were in Washington and then we appeared to be in the airplane graveyard in Arizona? Same goes for moving in the blink of an eye from industrial wastelands to some sort of Endor-style forest.
    Are the Autobots in alliance with the US or humanity? It appears they'll leave Earth on the President's say so. Does the UN not get to decide these things? Or -- hahaha -- is this a critique on US hegemony?
    Does anyone other than camel herders live in Egypt? And are these guys deaf and blind? With robot armies slugging it out amid the dunes, you'd expect they might be, say, running the fuck for their lives, instead of plodding on inscrutably in the background.
    "We've got Jordanians!" Yes, for about two seconds, before -- hopeless non-Americans!! -- their choppers are blown out of the sky. Are we saying that it's up to the US to sort out this ancient blood feud they had no part in creating and the most we can expect from those we're trying to save is token and futile support?
    I'm pretty sure Isabel Lucas's character was pissed on by Bumblebee. These giant robots micturate -- as we know from the first one. On the subject of the Lucassubus: if the Decepticons can imitate humanity so perfectly, what do they need with being goddamned toasters, etc? Why haven't they replaced Obama?
    And why do these Transformers have to fly through space? Clearly, Jetfire can just magic his ass through time and space. Pretty good for a Nixon-era spy plane.
    There's plenty more but... um... what happened in the end? Like the first one, I was technically watching but so glazed over it's the visual equivalent of listening to a Matchbox 20 album. I know one robot bought it and two others flew away. I really did feel like a four-year-old asking "Is it over now?"
    So, when does Transformers 3 get greenlit? I'm saying first order of business 9am Monday.
    (And if you really want to laugh, check out the AICN talkbacks on this -- with purported comments from Bob Orci! The hatred -- like Bay's bombast -- reaches all new levels on insanity!)

  • Jared says:

    "Michael Bay must be stopped"
    No matter the cost :)

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    I don't necessarily subscribe to the "predictive programming" theory, and didn't mean to imply Bay was alone here. There are lots of movies and directors that can be reviewed with this idea in mind.
    That aside, I CAN condemn him for "doing his job" of making what I think is a very bad movie.

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