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Another look back: “Transformers: Rise of the Fallen”

July 1, 2014

[And here we look back at the low point in this franchise–and that’s saying something–with the execrable Transformers: Rise of the Fallen.]

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If you’ve read my review of the first Transformers movie, then you know that I didn’t love it. I thought it was loud, stupid, obnoxious, and not all that exciting. It was as if Michael Bay thought if he bludgeoned us with enough activity onscreen, he could convince us we were seeing a fun summer movie. A lot of people thought I was being too hard on what was meant to be a silly summer action movie about giant robots fighting. Kassandra the Work Wife brought up this point on several occasions, “Big robots whaling on each other. What more do you want? I don’t want to think too hard about a movie, Mr. I’m-All-Cool-Because-I-Use-My-Higher-Brain-Functions. Just eat your damn popcorn and enjoy Optimus Prime stomping Deceptacon ass, Mr. Thinkee.” The problem I have with this argument is that the classic summer movie’s that we’ve come to love were well-made­ pieces of disposable entertainment. We still recall and love them precisely because they were so well-made. Transformers was not. Quick, tell me your favorite line or scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator 2, Escape from New York, or Die Hard. Okay, now tell me your favorite line or scene from Transformers (and none of that “One will rise; one will fall” bullshit. That was on the poster). Right, I didn’t think so. Well, the bad news is that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is everything the original was and much, much  more. If the first one was a cinematic pummeling, this one is the Bataan Death March.

Picking up more or less where the last one left off (either two years or a couple months later—the movie can’t quite decide), T:RotF begins with the US military having created a special team (called N.E.S.T., though the acronym is never explained) consisting of the Autobots and Josh Duhamel’s and Tyrese Gibson’s characters from the first one. They’ve been hunting down rogue Deceptacons around the world. After a big action sequence in Shanghai, a dying Deceptacon gasps “The Fallen shall rise.” No one knows what that means, but it sounds bad.

Meanwhile Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college on the East Coast and must bid a tearful farewell to his pet robot/first car/cybernetic protector Bumblebee as well as his pneumatic sex-toy girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox). Problem is, a shard from the AllSpark cube from the first movie was in the pocket of his hoodie and zapped some weird knowledge into his brain. Suddenly he’s seeing things, and the scattered Deceptacons are all hot and bothered. So then…oh, screw this. I had to sit through all 150 goddamn minutes of this movie, I’m not going to rehash it here. As if I could. Jesus, this movie has, like, five different MacGuffins. We got 1) The Shard, 2) The Matrix of Leadership (really, that’s what it’s called), 3) Energon (I don’t know what that is, either, but it’s apparently necessary for the Deceptacon “hatchlings”…no don’t ask, the movie doesn’t explain), 4) The Primes, 5) The Fallen. I mean, Sweet Christ, the first movie had one freaking MacGuffin and it could barely tell a coherent story.

Instead this movie makes up for the relative dearth of robot fighting in the first movie by cramming as many fights as possible, including a thirty-plus minute final knockdown (in both Giza and Petra, which, in this film, are about a kilometer from one another and not hundreds with a country in between) in which at least two major characters come back from the dead, and pretty much the entire US war machine is thrown at the Deceptacons, short of a tactical nuke (Bay’s saving that for the third one, most likely). Is it fun? The first couple are, but after the fourth or fifth Michael Bay hysterical action sequence, it all becomes numbing. Like watching the opening sequience of Saving Private Ryan again and again and again. Only with really, really stupid humor.

Oh yeah, the action is punctuated by even more of the first one’s obnoxious attempts at humor. Remember all those exhausting, over-the-top exchanges between Sam and his parents in the first one? Yeah, we have even more this time around. And worse. I mean, hey, we have a two and half hour movie about giant robots fighting, but what the hell, let’s waste screen time with Sam’s mom freaking out after eating pot-laced brownies. And let’s throw in more shots of dogs humping. And a running subplot about Sam’s inability to tell Mikaela he loves her (dude, you look like Shia LaBeouf, tell her whatever she needs to hear to make her stay). And more of John Turturro’s completely-off-the-rails character from the first movie. And maybe a tiny robot that humps Mikaela’s leg. And an officious paper-pusher who wants to shut down the N.E.S.T. I mean…for Christ’s sake!

Michael Bay typically defends the badness of his movies by admitting that they’re geared to please 13 year-old boys. Okay, then let’s look at what he’s serving the 13 year-old boy in all of us:

Robots: They’re still impossible to concentrate on or tell apart. What distinguishes Megatron and Starscream? They’re both silver jets. And what’s the deal with their weaponary? They all have cannons and rockets and Gatling guns which don’t seem to harm each other, so every fight ends up with the damn things rolling around on the ground, where their complicated designs make every fight scene look like one of those Magic Eye paintings from the ‘90s. It’s hard to enjoy a good robot fight, when you’re busy looking for the 3D spaceship.

Rampant racism and stereotyping: The new Autobots—the Twins as they’re referred to—are grotesque stereotypes who speak in Hollywood-ghetto ebonics, have gold teeth and can’t read. Bay has defending himself against charges of racism by pointing out that these are robots. Okay then, what about the “Oriental-strings” plinking during the Shanghai scene (what? no gong?). Or the vile Egyptian border guard whom the other characters dismiss with some cracks about opening a falafel stand? Or the scene when Sam’s parents vacationing in Paris turn their noses up at the “icky” snails their served for lunch and are accosted by a mime? I mean, for Christ’s sake, Bay, just because you’re making a movie for 13 year-old boys doesn’t mean you have to wholly embrace their ugly id.

Treason: The movie name-checks President Obama, yet undercuts his authority at every turn. The National Security Advisor (a cabinet-level position, mind you) is the pencil-pusher who wants to shut down the N.E.S.T, and he constantly reminds them that this is the President’s wish. The deified soldiers sneer at him and his suggestion that the Administration wants to use—ugh!—diplomacy against the invading Deceptacons. In the end, the soldiers toss him out of an airplane and the military promptly ignores his orders and attacks the Deceptacons anyway. Okay, so did I just see that? The US military commanders ignored an order from their Commander-in-fucking-Chief and used massive force in a foreign nation (and leveled an entire town and a couple pyramids)? Maybe treason is soft-selling it. This is closer to a coup d’etat. Bay obviously fetishizes the military, but obviously not its chain of command.

Women: Not that men fare any better, what with Sam, his dad, his useless roommate, and Turturro being utter buffoons, but at least the military guys get to be granite-jawed and heroic. The women in this film—even the ones in the background at Sam’s college—are all pin-up girl hotties who wear clothing more appropriate for a Maxim Magazine photoshoot. Fox is an atrocious actress and only put onscreen to delight horny males of all ages. She wears low-cut shirts, is filmed running slow motion (to maximize the “bouncing rack” action), and is even introduced on her hands and knees in a “fuck-me-doggie-style” pose (a Maxim fave) on a motorcycle. Pretty clear what the message is to all those 13 year-old boys. The great stage actress Julie White is utterly debased as Sam’s hectoring, dim-bulb mother. We’re a long way from Marion Ravenwood here.

To top it all off, the damn movie broke records opening weekend. That fact is why people become expats. It nearly extinguished all the hope I had for the US since we elected Obama as President. I mean, are we this easily amused? Doesn’t anyone give a damn that for ten bucks they’re being served not simply a pile of crap, but an offensive, insulting pile of crap? Doesn’t anyone remember the days when a summer movie meant Aliens or The Untouchables or Spiderman?Okay, to answer my own question, the scene I most remember from Transformers was the one in which the big robot pisses all over John Turturro. As Daniel Craig said in Casino Royale (another disposable entertainment light-years superior to this), “One sympathizes.”

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