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?
· 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!"
· 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.