Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Paramount Pictures), Michael Bay’s latest bid to bludgeon audiences into dulled submission, is the reductio ad absurdum of a summer blockbuster. It is loud (boom!), long (two and a half hours!), incoherent (poorly explained intergalactic warfare!), leering (Megan Fox in short shorts!), racist (jive-talkin’ robot twins!), and rife with product tie-ins (Chevy! Hasbro!). Transformers will also pack audiences into theaters with the ruthless efficiency of a Decepticon, one of the evil mega-robots who battle the good-guy Autobots for the length (let me repeat: 2.5 hours) of this nerve-crushing excruciation. John Yoo would not be able to draft a memo excusing the torment this movie inflicts on its audience, yet tens of millions of us will line up to shovel money at it this weekend. God bless America.
I’ll put as much effort into explicating the plot as the movie does: Two years after helping to save the human race from the Earth-invading Decepticons, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is just an ordinary kid packing for his freshman year at college. He’s leaving behind Bumblebee, a sentient yellow Camaro that transforms into his guardian robot, and Mikaela (Fox), a Maxim-cover-worthy girlfriend who looks like a pneumatically inflated and sun-charred Jennifer Connelly. But then Sam, taking an old jacket from his closet, finds a shard of the Cube, the all-important cosmic McGuffin of the first Transformers movie. Damn you, shard! If not for you, the millennia-old war of the Autobots and the Decepticons would never have needed re-waging, and this movie would never have existed.
Thanks to the evil shard, Sam’s brain is imprinted with a series of runic symbols that he obsessively paints on his dorm room walls. There’s something that he’s meant to do, something that involves helping the goody-goody robot Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) put down a rebellion led by his ancient rival, the Fallen (voiced by Tony Todd). The deep mythology of their enmity is amply revisited in multiple expository flashbacks, but the simplest thing Bay could have done to clarify the stakes of the robot wars would be to visually distinguish the robots from one another in some way. Armbands? Shirts and skins? “Hello, My Name Is” stickers? As it stands, these clanking heaps of car parts are so inexpressive that you lose track of who’s hurling the peak of the Great Pyramid at whom.
The first Transformers movie was also assaultive to the senses, but it knew its place in the pop-culture pecking order: It’s a franchise based on a line of toys, for Gods’ sakes, and the 2007 film had the sense to treat the lumbering Autobots as, essentially, the fantastical playthings of its adolescent hero. With Revenge of the Fallen, Bay abandons any pretense of wit. Instead, solemn expressions of wonderment at the robots’ largeness (“If God made us in His image, who made them?”) alternate with puerile jabs at comic relief, such as a miniature robot who humps Megan Fox’s leg and the aforementioned ghetto robot twins asking each other, “Whassa matter witchu?”
When first invited by Optimus Prime to aid the Autobots in their struggle, Sam resists, saying, “This isn’t my war.” Eventually, of course, he’s drawn into caring about the alien battle, but the audience never is. The cacophonous final showdown between Jetpack and Camshaft, or whatever the last robots standing are named, takes place in some abstract dimension of pure blockbusterdom, impervious to human identification or emotion. It isn’t my war, and if it rages on into the summer of 2010, I plan on defecting to Canada.
The one redeeming feature of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is that it provides an excuse for the year’s first Slate movie contest. The Transformers franchise is based on a line of Hasbro toys and their tie-in cartoon. Looking back at the toys of your youth, can you come up with a title and tag line for a summer blockbuster? (For example: My Little Pony: Reign of Buttercup Sprinkles.) Send entries to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words “contest submission” in the subject line. I’ll accept submissions until 5 p.m. Monday, June 29, and publish the results late next week. Give it a shot; you couldn’t do worse than Michael Bay.
Slate V: The critics on Transformers and other new movies