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Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

August 30, 2009

I know I’m late with this. I’m late as all hell but this movie thoroughly raped my brain over a sustained period of two and a half hours and I think the experience left me somewhat traumatized in the two months since its release. It also completely obliterated a plan I had to write up a slightly ironic apologetic on Michael Bay.

Let’s get this out of the way immediately; I really liked Transformers. I thought they pretty much nailed the first film and I say that as someone who was big into the characters/toys as a kid. I still have a lot of fun watching the feature-length, animated Transformers: The Movie from 1986 (I remember my grandfather taking me to see it when I was six, a truly fucking epic afternoon) but I understood fully with the first Michael Bay film that to be some kind of fanwank fanatic upset about minor character changes would be truly pathetic. The film franchise is based on a cartoon that was only ever made to promote a line of Japanese action figures. It’s a movie based on a toy line, putting it in roughly the same artistic ballpark as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (movies based on a theme park ride). I was fully aware of this and set my sights accordingly when going into Transformers in the summer of 2007 and it delivered. An effective dose of Michael Bay’s idiosyncrasies seemed tempered by the sagely advice and steady hand of producer/overseer Steven Spielberg who focused the movie on the idea of it being about “a boy and his first car”. Some people I spoke to around the time of its release reacted negatively to it and that has always puzzled me. Given that the premise of Transformers is that a race of giant robots from outer space (comprised of both an inherently noble and benevolent faction and an evil and villainous faction) arrive on Earth and resume their millennia-long war whilst routinely disguising themselves as exciting terrestrial vehicles, I often wondered exactly what kind of movie people were expecting in the first place. Let’s be clear, movies about martial arts battles in virtual worlds or super-powered mutants are vastly more plausible and sophisticated than Transformers. The whole idea is daft from the get-go.

So I went into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as a confirmed fan, in precisely the right mindset, entirely ready to accommodate the daftness and childishness of the whole venture for a second time. And still I got my fucking brain raped. A vile, non-consensual neuro-cocking was visited upon me and presumably everyone else in the theatre as well. First of all, even by Michael Bay’s trademark hyper-edited style, this film was fucking manic. I mean gibbering, gnashing, spitting manic. Every single human character was in a constant state of firing off lines that were meant to be jokes, almost all of which fell flat. This was unrelenting and thoroughly irritating. Part of the reason for the failure of this “comedy” was the sheer overabundance and hundred-hand-slap delivery of it and, of course, it didn’t help that it just wasn’t that funny. Megan Fox and Glenn Morshower (the guy who played the general) seemed to be the only two actors involved who got to deliver normal, albeit limited, performances. A major problem there was that, on top of the orgy of non-comedy coming from the human characters, the comic relief in Transformers usually comes from one or two of the robot characters anyway. Sure enough, once the film was done with all the scenes of clowning humans, it jumped right into scenes featuring robot characters acting just as daft and unfunny.

What. The. FUCK....is going on?

"What. The. FUCK....is going on?"

My wife likened the robot-fight action scenes to extreme close-ups of aluminium cans being crushed together, a very fair assessment. Bay has delivered a lot of action in a similar fashion before but here it seemed like he was convinced that increased incoherency led to increased thrills for the viewer. This problem was compounded by the fact that many of the robot characters with seemingly significant roles simply disappeared. Struggling to remember details of the climactic battle, an unavailing and overlong showdown in the Egyptian desert (may or may not have been Giza, the film really isn’t big on any specifics that way), I went to the Wiki entry for the Revenge of the Fallen in the hope of filling in some blanks. More than one robot character had an entry ending “never seen again after that”.

I got the impression that Michael Bay was actually crafting an event movie that sought to establish which was the crazier and more outlandish; the idea of warring space robots changing into trucks or the way he made a movie about them. It felt like he was trying to outdo the craziness of the very premise of the movie. “You think Optimus Prime and his pals are wild? Wait until you see how Michael Bay* tells you their story! Strap your fucking asses in!” I have applauded the sheer audacity of his madness in the past, and that applause was to make up a large part of my intended apologetic (which may still happen, provided the brain-rape lacerations heal), but very swiftly with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen it felt like I was being assaulted, harassed instead of entertained even in a mindless fashion. Discipline seems an anathema concept to this director but when there was already such a far fetched story to tell would it really have hurt to rein in other aspects of the movie, namely the human characters? Spielberg’s influence seems to have brought that to the previous film. There we had some breathing space, time for things to settle down and some genuinely charming and amusing moments with Shia Labeouf.

I don’t want to dwell on every one of the myriad failings since there are plenty of stinky reviews for this two hundred million dollar mess out there (I particularly recommend this one). Instead I’d like to focus on one particular area, the Mudflap and Skids controversy. Revenge of the Fallen features two robot characters (“twins”, apparently) that appear to be modeled on a crass racial stereotype of young black (American) men. These idiotic, comical figures talk in black street slang and are rendered with almost simian features, one of them even sporting a gold tooth. There were also accusations that they were depicted as illiterate but that seems to involve  slight misunderstanding of the script, albeit one easily arrived at when attempting to digest these bizarre and ill-advised caricatures. The filmmakers have been evasive on the origin of the character design, with much buck-passing between the scriptwriters, director and voice actors. Obviously, I don’t intend to defend the bad craziness of these characters but I might be able to offer a speculative explanation as to why they happened. First of all, there is precedent within Transformers for robot characters talking “black”, as it were. Both Jazz and Blaster, in the original cartoon and the animated movie, spoke in a kind of jive. Jazz was voiced by Scatman Crothers for the animated movie and Blaster routinely delivered lines like “Yo, what’s shakin’? Aow!” This tradition had already been continued in the first Transformers film where the big screen version of Jazz retained this voice but did manage to raise some eyebrows doing so. That said, Jazz wasn’t a goofy bastard who flopped around calling people “punk” and “bitch-ass” hence why little controversy emerged overall. Now, I don’t think Michael Bay intended to be offensive with Skids and Mudflap, I don’t think he was even remotely aware that these characters could be construed as racist. Rather, I think it probably comes down to the way in which Bay has consistently used black characters in his movies in an entirely condescending way. Michael Bay films frequently feature black characters that are there to provide comic relief but do little other than say things excitedly. They don’t actually deliver any quips or discernible jokes. The idea seems to be, however, that having a black man say anything at all in an excitable manner will always be comedy gold. Armageddon opens with what seems like a vagrant or hustler riding on a bicycle and yelling at his pet dog in an overenthusiastic way “We goin’ to the top, Lil’ Richard! You and me, baby!” The Rock has a marine drawing down on Nicolas Cage with a sniper rifle whilst jabbering “Oh, I’m gonna git you, baby, I’m gonna git you…I got you baby”, The Island has a construction worker yelling “Jesus must love you!” at the two protagonists after they survive a huge fall. The Bad Boys films have Martin Lawrence as one of the leads and his entire comedy shtick is just saying things excitedly. The man has made millions of dollars doing just that. The first Transformers film had Bernie Mac hyperactively trying to sell Shia Labeouf a car and, although I haven’t really seen the whole film, Pearl Harbor had Cuba Gooding Jr. depicting war hero Doris Miller, in what I assume was a very excitable fashion. In essence what we seem to be seeing is some kind of resurgent form of blaxploitation hidden within the confines of glossy, mega-budget action films. Michael Bay’s approach seems steeped in condescension and a clumsy, cringe inducing attempt to display some kind of hip credentials, as opposed to being an exercise in malicious racial parodying. Whether or not that makes it any less dubious and harmful is open to speculation. Certainly, I initially found the characters of Skids and Mudflap quite dumb but not wholly offensive. In the time since, however, the “simian features” aspect has been gnawing at me as increasingly troubling. The voices alone could be spun as innocent enough but what the fuck were they thinking with those faces? A thoroughly ridiculous misstep, apparently intended “for the kids”, as Bay has said. The charge that these characters amounted to little more than a 21st century, CGI version of The Black and White Minstrel Show is unavoidable.

It seemed indicative of a process where millions of dollars were thrown at a project without anyone following up what was actually being done with them or exercising any kind of oversight. A shitload of the ideas that made it to the screen here should have been vetoed or rethought by at least one sober, adult studio executive. Oddly enough, it’s exactly this kind of approach that seems to have brought Michael Bay’s Armageddon into the world. Armageddon is one of the craziest films ever made, a schizoid opus awash in audacious nonsense and completely unapologetic about it. I love it because I’ve never been able to fathom how it could have even been pitched or how the vast amounts of money necessary to throw all those nutty ideas together were seemingly approved again and again. Unlike Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen however, it does entertain and keeps its smorgasbord of hyper-edited explosions and disasters just barely on the right side of watchable. The lack of discipline and virtuoso displays of wild, adman indulgence that constitute Michael Bay’s filmmaking style achieve mixed results. That still makes him capable of being a better film director than a thoroughly hack shit-merchant like Brett Ratner but it also tells you each project he’s involved with is a gamble at best. Of course, the blame for this bloated mindrape flick should be spread around. The writers, Ehren Kruger and Robert Orci, happily churned out this shite (I take it all the non-jokes are theirs) and the producers didn’t seem concerned with any kind of quality control. Brash, obnoxious big-budget movies can be fun, Michael Bay has proven this in the past but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was an utter failure and a painful, violating cinema experience.

(*I’m assuming here that Michael Bay refers to himself in the third person. I think it’s likely but I have no solid proof)

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2 comments

  1. thank god for transformers 2 — it seems to have snapped you out of a decade-long trance. the first transformers was pretty much exactly like the second one. I can’t believe you could make a case for the first one being that much better.

    And here’s a tidbit that i hope will persuade you to never sully yourself with your proposed ‘Michael Bay Apologetic’… I read (in a stupid promotional magazine that you can pick up free at the cinema) that most of the pre-production for this movie coincided with the writers strike and Bay made little of it, claiming that he did most of the writing for this movie himself and implying — “Writers – who needs em?”. so i think he deserves most of the credit for making this movie bad.


  2. The first Transformers movie is pretty good. I think I explained why in the second paragraph above. Maybe I should flesh it out more….maybe the Michael Bay apologetic has to happen! I could just heavily modify it from what I originally intended – “I had thought this guy was getting good but he’s just as schizo as he’s always been, here are his three best…”



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