25 June 2009

At the movies: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

A shameful, incoherent blurt that seems to think potty humor and graphic violence go hand in hand with children's toys, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen gives us eighties nostalgia gussied up to disguise an all too familiar agenda for that time and space: we get giant robots in order to spur military spending and nostalgia for the expansion of the military complex. Reagan’s Star Wars fantasies are the honest precursor to this monstrosity; SciFi stripped of ideas, war as ‘entertainment,’ and militarized playthings to keep the gears turning.

This is certainly the first film to explicitly look back with fondness on the George W. Bush years, in the process name-calling President Obama for how he would respond to a giant robot attack and portraying anyone who isn’t 100% in support of unqualified military might as squirrelly and bad for the planet. As has been the case since Bay’s first features, jingoism and antiquated masculine codes of behavior are in plentiful supply.

Analysts (the people who evaluate a film’s worthiness by how much money it makes) expect this to be the summer's biggest movie in terms of box office, and it's certainly the biggest in terms of explosions, dollars spent per second of film, and horrifyingly racist caricatures. We actually have a pair of cars who shuck and jive all over the screen, eagerly proclaiming their ignorance (unable to read and equipped with gold teeth- these are cybernetic aliens who were apparently designed according to the end credits of Bamboozled) and willingness to battle some ‘punkass Decepticons.’ It's Amos and Android, and it's emblematic of the horrifying disconnect between this film and all that is decent.

Two decades past their initial media domination, Hasbro's enduring toy line again rears its head under the creative aegis of Michael Bay, who never met anything he couldn't blow up.

So what happens in this film that requires over two and a half hours to depict? Our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf, whom I still can’t hate despite coming back for another helping of this excrescence) heads off to college, forcibly gets made out with by a robot, gets his mind overloaded by alien secrets, becomes a pawn in an intergalactic robotic civil war, then has to save 1) the planet, 2) the sun, 3) his parents, 4) his relationship with the lovely Mikaela (Megan Fox, who has nothing to do here but jiggle and occasionally blowtorch out an optic sensor or two), and 5) the majority of the U.S. and Jordanian military/ How, you might ask? By talking to robot gods on the border between this world and the next. In the clouds, no less…

If that wasn’t enough, it also appears that the Decepticons have mastered hot chick technology, unleashing a naughty robot with the outward form of a sexually liberated sorority girl (played by Isabel Lucas) and the inner form of a cuisinart. The audience know she’s up to no good because she violates the rule established by the first film that the only female appearing in the movie without breast implants is Julie White (who'll always be Nadine from Grace Under Fire in my heart), who plays Sam’s mother. So it’s not a surprise that she busts out a prehensile tongue-chain-rotor and starts trying to destroy a library. This development in technology is summarily never spoken of again.

It's kind of staggering to think that Orci and Kurtzman (who also wrote the equally reprehensible first Transformers flick) also wrote the most recent Star Trek film, which at least gave the impression that it featured actual people. There have to have either been some major rewrites on this film or on Trek, because it is simply impossible that the same minds could have produced such wildly divergent scripts.

Deadening would be the best word for this expulsion. Eye-deadening, ear-deading, soul-deadening.

The only life in the film comes from the altogether amazing interviews the two leads have been giving as of late in order to promote it. LaBoeuf’s affable but crippling insecurity and overwhelming need to be liked and remembered, Fox’s cutting-to-the-chase deconstruction of what modern day hotness means as both opportunity and liability; this is absolute gold. They’re so left adrift by the utter banality of this Transformers film that they’re letting us into some place surprisingly intimate. I respect them, though I wish they could have had something to do besides pose in front of the endless explosions and effects.

But as I’ve always said, there were twenty amazing seconds in the first film, and this one manages to increase that number, up to about two minutes. Just a collection of little moments that indicated that someone amongst the army of computer effects programmers had a little bit of artistry in what they were doing. Here, it all deals with Soundwave, who in the 80s was a boom box, and who now is a satellite, orbiting in space, never involved in any of the interminable battles but still a major player, launching his animalized minions to wreak havoc on earth.

The design of the Soundwave satellite is impressive because of its alien geometry and because it was crafted by aesthetics not subservient to military excess (like 90% of everything else in this film). But just as exciting in terms of its distinctiveness (again, not something you get a whole lot of) is one of those minions, a razor-sharp operative organized out of thousands of nanotype ball bearings that, when fully assembled, is molecule thin, disappearing when it turns at certain angles. It’s but a drop in the film’s runtime, and yet, for a moment, there was that glimpse of what the slightest amount of artistry can yield when hundreds of millions of dollars in processing power get dumped on it.

But just like the first film felt the need to display its abhorrent ideology by moving a pitched battle sequence from a secure desert location to a highly-populated urban center (terrorist logic if ever I’ve seen it), so this film feels the need to express its base nature by destroying places of learning (library, dorms, part of an administration building at a college). And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Bay and his digital conspirators decide to have a forty-odd minute firefight in Egypt, destroying a pyramid or two and raining explosions and firestorms down on the birthplace of knowledge and civilization.

What does human life mean to you, Mr. Bay? What are you defending? Sweaty bosoms, shiny machines, bloody flesh, and everything exploding, each one bigger than the one before it. Such an empty void of expression…

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