Sunday, September 21, 2014

Looking Back At: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" & "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

The Transformers franchise has a strangely unique place in our popular culture, almost universally panned by critics, popular media, and in general human discourse, and yet it’s still one of the highest grossing film franchises of the past decade.  Part of this we can likely attribute to intelligent folks going to see these films “ironically” just to see how bad the new one has turned out, but I think the majority of the people who go to the theaters to see these films see this as their stand against the so-called intellectual elite.  By going to see a movie with tons of explosions and mindless action that is so universally hated by those who think they’re so much smarter than everyone else, people send a message that it doesn’t matter how smart a movie is; they’re just here for some dumb fun.  And I love dumb fun just as much as the next guy, but dumb fun done well is intelligently put together, using the techniques of the trade to make a film that is coherent and entertaining.  Transformers has never been that, and Revenge of the Fallen is the perfect example to demonstrate everything wrong with this franchise.

I’m not even going to attempt a plot synopsis of this one, mostly because it’s so all over the place that to diagram it out would be mind-numbingly pointless.  Basically, Shia LaBeouf has a magic MacGuffin in his brain, the evil Decepticons want it, poorly strung-together set-pieces ensue.  The good-guy Autobots are now agents of the American military for some reason, even though they say they’re here to protect the entire Earth; it seems to me that director Michael Bay may have more than just a bit of an American superiority complex.  The Autobots are never really characterized either, letting their generically ugly designs take over instead of trying to give them any discernable personalities.  The only two robots who seem to get any descriptively noteworthy qualities are the supposed comic relief characters, The Twins, a couple of the most offensive racial caricatures I’ve ever seen on the screen.  They speak in Ebonics, have monkey-like faces, assertedly cannot read, and are prone to immediate violence and in-fighting.  I’ll let you do the math on that one.

So, without any contributions from the title characters, the weight of the script falls onto the human characters, as wonderfully one-note and dull as they all are.  An inordinate amount of time is devoted to LaBeouf’s first day of college antics, seemingly only to make him super relatable to the Gen-Y demographic, "brah."  The film’s tone swings wildly from comic relief to serious exposition at the drop of a hat, and editing never slows down enough for any of it to ever sink in.  It seems that Bay realizes this, so throughout the film, key plot elements are repeated over and over to make sure we’re following along, and even then, too little information comes in too late for me to possibly give a damn.  Fast shouting and quick cuts are used to give the illusion of witty banter, but it becomes tiresome quickly and never lets up.

The treatment of women in this film is also cringingly horrible.  Megan Fox returns as LaBeouf’s eye-candy girlfriend, and there are moments when this film cuts away from dialogue only to pan up and down Fox’s body or to show us Fox stripping down.  Her character serves no purpose but to support LaBeouf’s, and Fox’s presence is only here to provide the film’s alpha-male demographic some masturbation material.  Fox reportedly refused to be party to the next film precisely because of Michael Bay’s objectification of her, and I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.

When everything comes to a head in the climactic final battle, Michael Bay isn’t interested in showing us robots fighting one another, but instead brings in the military to show off their big guns.  This seems to me to be a complete waste of having giant robots on-screen.  Bay’s gone on record for his ambivalence for the Transformers source material, and he’s clearly got a romanticism for the U.S. military, so I have a sneaking suspicion that this was his attempt to sink his own franchise.  The only problem is that his glorification of the military tricked people into thinking he was a master of action scenes, when really he used smoke, explosions, and an overly-hyperactive camera to obscure the action that serves to resolve the film’s major conflict.

Now, it’s only fair of me to point out that Revenge of the Fallen is the low point of the original trilogy, for Dark of the Moon is an improvement in presentation if not in content.  Don’t get me wrong, the film is still a train wreck; the plot is essentially a rehashing of Revenge, with LaBeouf dealing with Gen-Y angst and an only-good-for-her-looks girlfriend while intrigue formulates around a different MacGuffin.  The major addition this time is a recovered Autobot who’s intent on betraying them all, but once again the Transformers are so insufficiently characterized that it’s impossible to care too much when the twist does come along.

However, where Michael Bay seems to have gotten his shit together is in his action directing.  The camera is much more stationary now, and when the robots are on-screen, they pop against the backdrop of the cityscape rather than blend into it.  It’s easy to tell what’s happening in any given shot, even if there’s no investment in the characters in any given shot.  That said, the climax, while impressive in its scope of destroying Chicago, still pulls its attention away from the titular characters in favor of following nameless soldiers who are there to blow things up.

And that’s when it starts to become clear that Michael Bay purposely worked to make things more coherent for a special purpose.  See, right before the climactic battle, the Decepticons hold the Earth at ransom so that the Autobots will leave.  The Autobots apparently leave, and the Decepticons destroy their transport and proceed to invade the great American city of Chicago.  And yet, the Autobots never really left, and swoop in to save the day in order to, and I quote, “protect freedom.”  Cue the National Anthem, folks, we have ourselves a Stay the Course message!  The blatantly out-of-place nationalism sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that’s ostensibly about giant, sentient, fighting robots, and it’s awkwardness cannot be ignored.

I’ve already rambled on about these films for long enough; if you’re reading this, you probably already know all the arguments that have been made about these films, and you aren’t the audience that these films are seeking.  The Transformers franchise has not been made with people like me in mind, and an inexplicably large subculture of fans has built up around defending these films from analysis by people like me.  Transformers is critic proof, and as long as people keep giving up their money at the box office, the series will continue.  I guess I just ask that those of you who go to the theater to enjoy the films “ironically” take a moment to realize the impact this has on the film industry.  If a piece of crap like Transformers can be such a huge financial success, producers are going to want to replicate that success in order to make more money.  This means a future of dumber and more poorly made films, which is a future that scares the hell out of me as a movie lover.  If you must watch these films, hold off for the Blu-Ray releases so that your dollar doesn’t have as big of an impact.  The future of quality filmmaking may depend on it.

Well, this one ran a bit long.  Am I a bit fatalistic in my view towards a film franchise?  Isn’t it all harmless entertainment?  And if so, what am I even doing reviewing any film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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