Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

A whole lot of bot…

If you showed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to the pioneers of the motion picture, those visionaries who first thought to splice images together to make them come alive, they would most likely be overcome with shock. It’s a testament to how far cinematic technology has come that modern audiences take such spectacle for granted – to the extent that the mind begins to wander and we begin hypothesising about how early cinema-goers would react to the film that is still playing on screen in front of us. Ok, so that might be just me, but the fact remains that, however awesome the visuals might be, Transformers 2 ‘aint got a whole lot of soul. And, despite all that technology, soul still remains the heart of great cinema.

Following the explosive events of 2007’s Transformers, the war still rages between the noble Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons, who are desperate to get their hands on the last remaining fragment of the Allspark and rescue their leader Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) from his watery grave several hundred fathoms under the ocean. Autobots leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) has teamed up with the American army to defend the world against the Decepticons, and his ally Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is free to live a normal life at college. But when Sam begins seeing strange symbols, and the Decepticons begin to exact their revenge, Sam and girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) must once again team with the Autobots to save humanity.

It’s a huge premise, and director Michael Bay executes it with his trademark mammoth effects, throwing absolutely everything at the screen as the ‘bots go at it in a variety of locations from the exotic (the pyramids of Egypt) to the mundane (the Witwicky household). The interaction between the CGI behemoths and their live action environment is pretty faultless, and there’s no denying the talents of the special effects team that Bay has assembled behind him. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and Bay has not yet learned the art of restraint; unsurprising, really, as he’s built a career on cinematic excess. So Transformers 2 suffers from the same affliction as the first film – the great ‘too much’. Rather than being a feast for the eyes, with a few standout sequences that are highlights of a well-conceived whole, the film forces its audiences to gorge on CGI without providing any moments of respite. Some moments are exceptionally crafted, including Optimus Prime’s woodland smackdown with Megatron, but most are bloated mechanical mayhem – and that includes the overlong desert climax cacophony – that substitute rather than support, a cohesive narrative.

It certainly doesn’t help that the one element which gave the first film some heart, the character of Sam, is underused in this sequel. In Transformers, Sam was a lone supporter of the Autobots and this theme of one man against the world is a universally compelling one. Here, however, the whole of the United States armed forces, right up to the President, is involved in the fight against the Decepticons. Now, although Sam is the key to mankind’s survival, he shares his screen time with a variety of one-dimensional human characters. John Turturro’s Agent Simmons is reduced to sporting cheesy one-liners, and Sam’s geeky new dorm-room sidekick Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) seems to be there only to play the fool. Even Sam’s relationship with Mikaela is relegated to a tacked-on sub-plot that just feels like Bay ticking the ‘romance’ box so as to cover all bases. The army hierarchy are mere caricatures of honest foot soldiers and blinkered generals, existing only to serve up some fluffy social commentary about America’s international military record that is so shoehorned in as to be laughable.

Indeed, so much effort seems to have been spent on those blow-your-mind effects that characterisation, story and script have fallen by the wayside. Not only is a great deal of the dialogue forced and clunky, including long passages of earnest exposition, but the editing is at times disparate and jagged. It’s as if Bay knew he had to get the film down to an acceptable running time – although it still clocks in at a bum-numbing 150 minutes – and so tore out any pieces of continuity that weren’t tied down. In one scene, for example, Sam has badly injured his hand, only for it to be suddenly bandaged from out of nowhere. Ok, so in the grand scheme of things these may be minor points, but in a film that doesn’t go five minutes without something being blown up, these disparages in the on-screen down time are noticeable indeed.

But – and it’s a big one – should Transformers 2 be judged on any merits other than those of a blockbusting summer tentpole? It’s certainly not intending to be anything else. It’s perhaps unfair to find fault with structure, character and lack of deeper meaning in a film that wilfully subscribes to the ‘carnage without consequence’ ethic, and that exists purely to appeal to an audience wanting to watch giant robots beat the shit out of each other on a Saturday night. As with the first film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may not be a great piece of cinema, but it works as a piece of visually impressive yet utterly mindless popcorn fodder. And, as the box office receipts will undoubtedly show, there will always be a place in the hearts of modern audiences for that.

3 stars

Stars Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro
Director Michael Bay
Screenplay Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Certificate 12A
Distributor Paramount

Running Time 2hrs 30mins
Opens June 19