Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

(In theaters, June 2009): The most remarkable thing about this film isn’t nearly as much the near-constant special effects, brute sonic force or always-moving camera: It’s the feeling that a tremendous amount of talent and energy has gone into making one of the loudest, fastest and dullest films of the year. In that, it’s not particularly different from the first film of the series: Michael Bay’s artistic choices (huh?) in portraying robots as an indistinct blur of loosely-coupled pieces still offends my own aesthetic preferences, while the attempts at injecting comedy in an SF/thriller framework feel almost as embarrassing as in the first film. The self-contradictory science-fiction elements (firmly stepped in mysticism) make absolutely no sense, while the steady accumulation of robot-on-robot fights quickly get tiresome, especially when they don’t allow any clean visuals. The film works slightly better when it becomes a military thriller: it’s a surprise to find that there hasn’t been a better recent glossy portrayal of the US military than in this pair of robot sci-fi fest. Still, it’s hard to be entirely displeased by a film that obviously cost so much: All the money is visible on-screen (although sound design often favors robot rumbling over intelligible dialogue), and it’s an education to see some of the insane shots that are now possible via special effects. Alas, it’s the accumulation of those shots that weaken them: There’s no other pacing that full-steam-ahead, which is good since the film becomes lousy whenever the characters speak to each other. But guess what? Once my ears have cleaned up and once I got used to a non-shaky vision again, I have to admit that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn’t quite as embarrassing as the first Transformers. (Well, at the exception of the racist “comedy” robot duo.) Small praise, but there you go. As of this writing, five days after release, the film is already the third-biggest grossing film of the year, and is set to overtake the top spot in the remaining days of its first week in theaters. Do you even think the bad reviews even slowed it down?

(On DVD, January 2010): Something strange happens when watching Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen at home while doing something else: It almost becomes enjoyable. Part of the answer is that you can pay attention to something else (say, a good book), while listening to the audio commentary and only looking at the screen for the good parts. The other part of the answer is that by being able to opt out of the movie frame, the pummeling effect of Bay’s increasingly nonsensical direction becomes less pronounced. Oh, it’s still not much of a film, but home viewing will allow you to focus on the good parts… and there are a few of those. Whenever Bay’s ADD lets up and he gets to avoid cutting for more than five seconds, the polish of his sequences is admirable. The sound design is incredible. The presentation of military hardware is terrific. Watching the tons of extras in the two-disc special edition (including a documentary that’s almost as long as the film itself) can even give you a renewed appreciation of the logistical challenges of big-budget moviemaking. The looks at editing and the special effects crunch are perhaps too revealing, while discussions of the film’s script-writing process are a reminder that even films with lousy plots have a lot more sophistication than we can take for granted. A lot of time is dedicated to Bay himself, which is appropriate given how charming the man can be –except when turning curiously defensive in discussing how reviews don’t really matter. Hmmm…

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