When the Transformers toy/cartoon/comic book franchise debuted in the 1980s, the alien robots who hide among humanity in the shape of various vehicles were intriguingly merchandised with the catchphrase “More than meets the eye.”
Director Michael Bay’s second live-action Transformer film, in which giant robots battle each other in various locations around the globe while humans run in slow motion from explosions could be succinctly summed up with the phrase “Less than meets the eye.”
If you were to walk away from Transformers: Revenge Of the Fallen with the suspicion that its paper thin plot is nothing more than an excuse to string together exciting sequences of giant robots pounding the transmission fluid out of each other, you would be more right than you know. The film entered into production with no script while the 2007 Writer’s Strike was on going. While director Bay was busy huddling with special effects wizards, designing outrageous action sequences, Hollywood screenwriters were picketing for greater respect in the filmmaking process. Once the strike was settled, Bay brought in Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to stitch his special effect set pieces together into some sort of narrative. (I think the irony in the situation here speaks for itself.)
The result is a story that feels like it is being told by hyperactive seven-year old hopped up on sugary breakfast cereal and a six-pack of energy drinks. It is Attention Deficit Disorder storytelling. Characters disappear for stretches at a time, sometimes disappearing right in the middle of a scene. Plot points are set up and then abandoned.
The notion of geography is non-existent. Our heroes run through the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and exit out the back door onto some parking lot for old planes in the middle of the desert. Another sequence features our heroes escaping from a disused power plant on the Schykull River in the Philadelphia suburbs by making a left turn out of the parking lot and suddenly being in the wooded foothills of some mountains. Even if you aren’t familiar with these real world locations, such dislocation is jarring, taking one completely out of the film.
And let us not forget the plot point that completely invalidates the entire franchise’s premise! If one of the evil alien robots can convincingly disguise itself as a human being, why do the rest of them spend their time disguised as cars, planes and construction vehicles?
Given that Orci and Kurtzman also write this summer’s far superior Star Trek reboot, I don’t think the blame for this scattershot storytelling can be laid at their doorstep. Even Ehren Kruger, whose resume includes Scream 3 and the terrible Hollywood remake of the Japanese horror film The Ring, is probably not totally at fault.
The main problem here is Bay’s process. As a filmmaker, he has always seemed more interesting in the spectacle than the human drama going on around it. And when he does remember that there are human characters in the film, he handles them in the most basic, cursory way that drains every scene of dramatic potential. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where the underlying idea is that a father has to recognize that his son has become a man in his own right. It comes during a climactic battle, with the destruction of Earth being the price of our heroes’ failure. This should be gripping stuff, but since Bay has treated the film’s hero Sam’s (Shia LaBeouf) parents as buffoons for the preceding two hours, it packs as much wallop as being hit in the face with damp toast.
There are more reasons why Transformers 2 is a bloated failure of a movie, but there is no excusing it with the typical excuse leveled at films of this nature- “But it’s a big summer action film! What do you expect?” That is a strawman argument that I reject. You should too. Big summer action films do not have to be nor are they required to be brainless, scriptless, characterless special effects porn. Going all the way back to the first true summer blockbuster Jaws, there have always been films during the annual blockbuster season that are infused with smart writing and good acting, telling stories are characters where the special effects are there to help enhance the storytelling, not to be the raison d’etre for the entire enterprise. This season is no exception, but Transformers 2 certainly is no danger of being mistaken for one of those films.
The list of the film’s transgressions seems nearly endless. I haven’t even touched upon the two autobots who could easily be seen as offensive racial stereotypes. Tellingly, their names – Skids and Mudflap – are also euphemisms for soiled underwear, a fitting description for the movie itself.