The outer limits of awful: notes on Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

[As of this time, 7:49 pm on Wednesday, June 24, 2009, the film doctor is still recuperating from his ill-advised midnight viewing of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. He had meant to write a review of the movie, but he was so traumatized by the jack-hammer-to-the-eyes-and-ears experience of watching it, he has spent much of the day muttering "Bumblebee, Allspark, Autobot" under his breath while twitching and wondering if his stapler is in actuality a Decepticon. He did manage to cobble together these few notes. He knows that his life will never be the same again. When he was younger, he could take a series of summer blockbuster wannabes in sequence. Now, with the one-two punch of Land of the Lost and this movie, he's not so sure.]

1) The definition of "Hack" from "a person, such as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts." Michael Bay is a successful hack.

2) Most every excruciating aspect of Transformers 2 can be explained by Point #1. For instance, take the odd cliche-spouting robots ("Damn, I'm good," "Vengeance is mine," "We can destroy your cities at will," "You picked the wrong planet," "The boy will lead us to it," "Fate rarely calls us at a moment of our choosing," "I rise, you fall!"). How do you try to lend some adult authority to these grandiose inflated Hasbro toys with World Wrestling Federation posturing? Answer: by bringing in lots of military footage of aircraft carriers, submarines, and various generals barking orders: "Man your battle stations!" And so on. Whether it be the pounding music, the length of the movie, the size of the protagonists, etc., Bay inflates everything. No emotion can be earned. Bay must figure out a way to rig it first.

3) According to /film , Bay wrote this on his online forum back in April:

"Steven Spielberg sat next to me in a big 100 person theater at Sony today. There were 98 empty seats. The lights came up after we just watched my cut of Revenge of the Fallen. He turned to me and said ‘It’s awesome’ He felt this movie was better then the first - and probably my best, who knows - at this point in a movie you start to lose your objectivity. I just hope the fans like it.”

This comment, if true, crushes my great respect for the director of Duel, Jaws, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which Bay steals liberally from for Transformers 2). Then again, Spielberg may have been having fun imagining what would be the best Bay film: The Rock, perhaps?

4) Then there are the dubiously caricatured robots, now in competition with Jar Jar Binks as the most ill-advised creatures in cinematic history. Skids, with his gold tooth and floppy ears, and Mudflap, the two goofybots who say things like "I'm gonna a bust a cap in yo' ass" could have just as well been called Amos and Andy. Bay says he invented these characters for the children in the audience. Minstrel show robot humor for the kids? The internet inquiry is just getting started on those two.

5) I find the correlations with other films curious. Bay begins with a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey when robots appear back in the beginnings of civilized man. As the savages ran around, I wondered, is there some correspondence here to Year One and the apemen of Land of the Lost? Did screenwriters in Hollywood stand up at one point two years ago and say "I know! Cavemen!"

6) One of the Decepticons kept calling another one "Master" in a servile way. Is he meant to be an Igor to the other's Frankenstein?

7) While the first Transformers movie was kind of fun for awhile, mostly because of the novelty of watching the bots transform into cars, jets, Rock -em, Sock -em robots, and so on, this sequel tends to settle into long involved fight scenes between Autobots and Decepticons where you can see Shia LaBeouf at the bottom of the screen jumping over a tree limb or something to give the CGI fight scale. (These scenes raise the question: why do humans matter with all of this robattling? Just because LaBeouf's character has something in his brain that the Decepticons need? Most of the humans seem included for comic relief only.) At any rate, the movie feels physically aggressive to the eyes as the military score pounds in your ears. I felt bludgeoned, and the entire last full hour in the desert seemed tacked on for one last combined military/robot battle. Revenge of the Fallen is not quite right. Michael Bay should have called it Cringe, Viewer, Cringe.


Richard Bellamy said…
Since we haven't seen the sun in about two weeks on Cape Cod, I needed a lot of visual overstimulation, so I went to see Transformers yesterday and got way too much overstimulation. Yes, it is a "jack-hammer-to-the-eyes-and-ears" experience. It's very frightening how audience members - including adult females - responded, "That was awesome," just like Spielberg. Too many Americans judge a film by the noise, the number of explosions, and the length of the action scenes. Anyway, I feel pretty much the same way you do about the movie, though I made a few concessionary positive comments over at Little Worlds. The thing that bothered me most, however, was the inordinate references to testicles.
Thanks, Hokahey,

My dad was just saying "Transformers 2 equals feed for the overworked senses, I think, sort of like feed for cattle pumped up with antibiotics and growth hormones, only directed at teenage boys."

I could have said a positive thing or two, but why do that when the movie leaves one with a lasting sense of pain? When I walked out of the theater, I didn't want to think about the movie, let alone write about it. Reviewing becomes a matter of registering one's traumatic stress.
Richard Bellamy said…
Yes, your dad is right - and this kind of excess makes it difficult for teenagers to adjust their attention spans and viewing patience to older films (surprisingly enough, even films like Titanic seem too slow to them) - which is a challenge my students face when I show them The Gold Rush and Citizen Kane and other classics. But the hopeful thing is that at the end of the term, my students have developed a mature viewing patience and they even start to admit that some recent films are full of CGI bloat and ineffectual, excessive action.

I wish I could remember the exact details - but there's a moment in this movie when we see two parallel lines of explosions - standard fare - and then it happens again and - the way I remember it - a third time! I got the point the first time - cut!
Jason Bellamy said…
I have not seen this movie. I will not see this movie. Because the first Transformers was such a "jack-hammer-to-the-eyes-and-ears" that I can't believe I survived. Honestly, my head pounded for three hours afterward. No joke. So why on earth would I go to the 'even bigger' version of this crap?

Which brings me to the item about Spielberg. I am reminded that before George Lucas released Phantom Menace he screened it for several directors including Spielberg and Scorsese and they all said it was going to be great. Here's what this means: These guys won't tell one another the truth.

Then again ... How was Spielberg evaluating it? If I invited you into the bathroom to take a look at the dump I left in the bowl, what could you really say in th form of constructive criticism. A piece of crap is a piece of crap. Bay's film is designed to be big and loud. From the sounds of it, it's big and loud. So, Spielberg was right. It's an awesome piece of crap.

Isn't the entire last hour of the film one long series of explosions?

Yes, Transformers is the cinematic equivalent of supersized junk food. Like Hardee's, it creates a taste for more empty calories.


Steven Spielberg is the executive producer of the film, I believe? One can only wonder if his participation in the making of Transformers 2 weighs heavily on his conscience.
bd said…
The good folks over at Sociological Images echoed your Jar-Jar assessment of the Skids and Mudflap characters. I think you RSS them already, but here is the link in case you missed it. Right on target Mister Doctor!
Thanks, JUS, although others made the connection to Jar Jar as well. In a film full of bad choices, the inclusion of Skids and Mudflap is the particularly egregious one.