Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" Review

In the summer of 2007, executive producer Steven Spielberg and Director Michael ‘Bad Boys’ Bay teamed up to bring the infamous Hasbro toy line and animated series to life on the big screen. Fans who grew up with the toys, and watching the animated cartoon were excited. But their anticipation began to transform into worry as concept designs for the robots differed significantly from the original source material. I remember that night, two years ago, when I sat down with my bucket of popcorn and soft drink. Transformers was finally on the big screen.

The reactions were extremely divided and for many different reasons. Some loved it, some hated it. Some said it was unfaithful to the animated series. Some said it was tons of fun. The division of opinions was clear and in spite of huge box office success, Transformers earned alot of criticism from audiences and critics alike.

Most of the complaints revolved around a formulaic plot, stock characters, stereotypes, too many lame and immature ‘jokes’, Megan Fox being nothing but the films eye candy, and not enough focus on character and story in place of CGI and action. So what did Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen do to improve on this? They pretty much kept a similar plot, more stock characters and even bigger stereotypes, while slightly less abundant…stuck with the immature humor, overly shoved the fact that Megan Fox is hot is the audiences faces, and gave us even more CGI action.

Transformers, and its sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, are visibly flawed. Any complaints about a paper thin plot and underdeveloped characters can’t be argued. However the Transformers live action film franchise is alot like a porno. The story and people in it, are secondary to the visuals. You can fast forward through the nonsense, and get right to the action, which let’s face it, is what most people who like the films want to see. The frequent argument used is ‘what do you expect from a film based on toys?’ I myself am guilty of using this argument, however upon further consideration, films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and even Tropic Thunder last year proved that high concept material can be respectable filmmaking. So why do I like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?

Plot: The war between the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons continues as Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Disturbia) begins college. However his attempts to live a normal life are complicated when a shard of the All-Spark infects him with alien information that the Decepticons, and their resurrected leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), seek in order to find the location of the Sun Harvester. As Sam and his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) race to find the Sun Harvester, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, Transformers), join forces with the U.S military to stop the Decepticons and the arrival of their revenge seeking master known as: The Fallen.

The film basically uses the same used in the first instalment of the franchise. Shia LaBeouf’s character still holds the key to finding what the Transformers are looking for. And what exactly can this mysterious object do? You guessed it. Destroy the world. You’re definitely not watching this for a unique and inspired story. The idea of one ordinary person having the key to saving the world has been done all too many times before. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman aren’t incompetent writers. They’ve written for successful shows such as Fringe and Alias and recently penned the pretty damn good Star Trek reboot. So what the fuck? Maybe the thin plot could have be forgiven had the characters been explored a little more. What motivates them? What lessons are they going to learn? How is this experience going to make them grow? Luke Skywalker grew over the course of three films from the wide eyed adventurous dreamer into a noble Jedi Master. The Joker was motivated by the essence of chaos and a twisted need to prove the world is as deranged as he is. Simba learned the value of his role in the Pride Lands and not to run away from his problems.

The problems Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen faces is that it introducea little elements to the plot that COULD give the characters more dimension to them, but they aren’t developed enough for us to care, or are quickly discarded and never brought up again. One such example is the Sam and Mikaela relationship. They spend the film trying to get the other person to say those powerful four words first, and while I won’t spoil whether or not one of them does say it, by the time it does or doesn’t happen, you don’t care. Aside from the fact that only about three scenes are dedicated to this ‘sub-plot’, the relationship between the two characters isn’t explored enough. Megan Fox, bless her heart, is pretty much there to be the eye candy once again and her character essentially tags along for the journey. There are no moments in between the explosions and running where we get to see what’s so strong about their relationship. What’s good about it? What’s wrong? Are they in love? What have they gone through (Though Sam does bring up the notion that they DID discover an alien race together)? Another notable example is how Sam’s father learns to let go of his son and allow him to become his own man…which would have had some impact had not only this plot been introduced at all…but also if the parents hadn’t disappeared for a majority of the film.

However the biggest story element Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen misses out on is the revenge of The Fallen himself! Intended to be this dark and dangerous threat to mankind, you never get a sense of danger from this villain. He’s barely in the film long enough to make his final confrontation with Optimus Prime all that engaging. Take the final battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Aside from the Galaxy being at stake, there was a personal element to that battle, with Luke trying to redeem the soul of his fallen father. Here, the revenge isn’t felt at all. It’s a simple as The Fallen wanted to destroy the world and the good guys didn’t let him…so after many years he’s finally able to exact his revenge and give world destruction another shot. It’s been done. It’s not deep enough to make you care much for the villain. Two-Face in The Dark Knight, was a character with whom we understood his vengeful motivations. The motivation driving The Fallen isn’t explored in any more depth than a two dimensional cliché villain. The character whose revenge is felt is probably Megatron after the events of the third film, however while being given more screen time than The Fallen, he becomes more of a servant than the main threat. That’s the main complaint I have about the characters exploration in this film. The characters are likeable or evil. You can root for them, but you never get deep into who they are.

In addition to the thin plot and failed attempts to flesh out the characters, the dialogue goes back to the immature jokes and exposition. Interestingly, most reviews I’ve read complain about how Michael Bay has increased the number of lame jokes in the sequel. However I felt they kind of toned it down in terms of quantity. Sure, there’s a shot of a robots balls and a ‘suck my popsicle’ visual gag, but when compared to the amount of jokes the first film had I felt Michael Bay learned his lesson on that note this time around. That said I did laugh quite a bit in the original instalment, while this time around I didn’t laugh quite as much as I feel I was intended to. The dialogue still needs work. When it comes to explaining the storyline, it still feels like I’m sitting in a classroom getting a textbook lecture instead of inspired insight. The mythology of the film could’ve been interesting. The notion of aliens visiting ancient civilizations and playing a significant role in the formation of various structures has been a theory I’m interested in and to some extent, believe is possible. However as with most elements of the film, it’s not explored any further than a brief mention.

As I mentioned before, the characters, in spite of their lack of depth, are likable. It’s not that there’s nothing to them, it’s more that there’s not much else added to them. That said, they are characters you can cheer and root for, and possibly even relate to. None of the performances are the proverbial ‘Oscar worthy’ ones. However the fact that not much is being asked of most of the actors means there’s not a lot of room for them to fail. Shia LaBoeuf! I love that dude! He plays the everyman extremely well, and while it may to some extent just be him playing himself, that’s what the character was intended to be. A slightly geeky but trying to be normal awkward kid. The relatable elements of him trying to start college, make a long distance relationship between himself and Mikaela work, and just find out who he is without the burden of ‘destiny’ make him a character you can easily access and therefore someone you enjoy going on this journey with. Shia also has alot of emotions to deal with from fear, to sadness, to heroism. Again, nothing spectacular here, but Shia does balance everything out well while remaining the likeable hero of the story. One scene in particular where Sam admits to having screwed up by ignoring his destiny was actually quite moving and a rare moment in between the CGI action fests where some depth was added to the characters.

As I said early Megan Fox is pretty much there to look hot. The film doesn’t try to hide this fact, from the first shot we see of her being with her ass in the air to the fact that after an intense battle in the middle of the desert, her make-up and white as snow jeans are still intact and she remains unscathed. It’s annoying just how much they try to tell us how attractive Megan Fox is, but nevertheless in spite of her character not doing much besides tagging along Megan Fox gives a good performance. Her chemistry with Shia LaBoeuf is quite good and the two actually make a good and convincing couple. New to the franchise is Ramón Rodríguez as Leo Spitz, Sam’s conspiracy believing college roommate. A human source of comic relief, while the writing leaves him the predictable scared and whiney sidekick to Shia’s confident and brave hero, Rodríguez actually has a strong screen presence and his character does deliver some good laughs.

Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson reprise their roles as Major William Lennox and Robert Epps, respectively. While their screen time is a bit smaller than the previous film, the two are actually amongst my favorite characters in the film. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the characters were likable and seeing them side by side supporting the Autobots made them very likeable characters. Jon Turturro returns as well and his characters over the top antics have been toned down significantly, making him much more accessible. His one liners are still there, but the performance is much more relaxed, making them work as opposed to being irritating. This time he’s a character you enjoy watching and root for. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are back as the parents and personally, while some of the things they’re given to do are beyond over the top (The mom getting high and running around campus? Really?), their sort of naïve and innocent nature makes them likeable. There’s not really a bad performance in the film which is a testament to how much fun and how into it everyone must have been, as there is plenty of bad dialogue that could’ve hindered the acting in this film.

The real stars of the film are of course the Transformers themselves. While I never watched the original animated series, I always thought it was a stroke of genius for Michael Bay to choose Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus Prime in the series, to voice Prime once again in this live action adaptation. Not alot of credit goes to voice acting, but Cullen manages to give an excellent performance. His voice is calm and soothing when Prime needs to be the mentor to Sam, and noble and brave when he’s delivering an inspiring speech of wisdom. Prime’s character is truly the hero of this film and Cullen plays the role with such vigor. We’ve seen CGI characters fall completely flat (Jar Jar Binks anyone?), but Prime works so well as a leader and warrior. You can’t help but cheer as Prime tells the enemies he’s fighting “I’ll take you all on!”, and credit must go to Cullen for making us root for a completely digital character.

Even though the rest of the Transformers aren’t exactly as fleshed out, save for Megatron and Bumblebee, they are still cool to see on screen and in action. The hate between Megatron and Starscream is finally explored a little bit in the film, adding some depth to the otherwise black and white evil villains. Bumblebee is back to talking through the radio, but personally that made his character rather interesting and made him more of a loyal pet of sorts. It works for the whole guardian/boy relationship Bumblebee and Sam have. A lot of heat has been on the twin Autobot characters, Mudflap and Skids, for being racist stereotypes. The fact is that yes, they are the cliché ‘gangsta’ characters saying things like ‘busting caps’ in peoples asses and one even has a gold tooth. That said, there was only really one scene where I thought that stereotype was overplayed. Even then I saw no real malice intended with the characters. They were there for comic relief, and while I can see why some might be offended, they’re presence on screen isn’t shoved in your face all that much. They do offer some laughs, although no so much for the writing as much as for the ‘did they really just say that?’ factor. Even then however, they’re not like Jar Jar Binks, where a joke is made by them every 20 seconds. I found their screen time to be fairly even.

One of the strongest parts of the original film was the score. Composed by Steve Jablonsky, the score for this film has the same epic feel to it that the original had. It has a very grand, John Williams type of feel to it. The heroic themes compliment the presence of Optimus Prime perfectly, almost like a march for a king. While the film itself keeps the same tone as the first, the score goes a little darker this time around. There are eerie themes that recur throughout the film that add to the villainy of characters like Megatron and The Fallen. One of the coolest moments for the score comes from Jablonsky incredibly creating an instrumental version of Linkin Park’s new song for the film “New Divide” that becomes one of the most heroic portions of the music. Jablonsky knows how to use his score well to compliment the film. You have amazing cues that add to atmosphere such as when we first see Optimus Prime or when The Fallen makes his return to earth. The score doesn’t create the mood, it adds to it. It’s like watching a hockey game. The game itself is already engaging and exciting, but the music, the cheering of the crowd, elevates the mood to higher levels. The Action is the game, Jablonsky’s music is the mood raiser that leaves the audience pumped and full of energy.

There’s no denying that when it comes to character and story, Michael Bay needs some work. Had he directed The Wrestler, chances are it would have actually been about the wrestling and not the person. However he is one of the best action directors out there in my opinion. The action sequences in this film are much easier to follow this time around and the overall creativity behind them is top notch. You’re engaged in these sequences like a roller coaster ride. It’s loud, it’s noisy, and it’s tons of fun. Like The Dark Knight almost a year ago, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen uses IMAX technology to give the audience a bigger cinematic experience. There are two key sequences that utilize the IMAX cameras, allowing the entire 53 foot screen to fill entirely with giant fighting robots. While it was pretty dam cool to see this, I feel they didn’t use this awesome technology to its full potential. Aside from there being only two sequences in a 150 minute long film that used this technology, the action is still a little too fast to fully appreciate the experience compared to the longer, higher, and slower shots used in The Dark Knight. Still, while not entirely what I expected, it was awesome. Then of course there is the CGI work in the film. Top notch without a doubt. There’s a lot of attention given to detail on how these real cars actually become robots, as well as focus on rust, dirt, and other details that add a level of realism to this high concept film. You’re jaw does drop numerous times during this film at the visually stunning shots in the film. There isn’t a single CGI entity in the film that looks out of place, kudos to the visual effects team. Next year's “Best Visual Effects” Oscar should be locked, unless another Pepsi commercial leveled CGI film comes out this year.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is far from a perfect film, it may not even be good film. It is however, an extremely entertaining one. Those who hated or loved the first one are likely to have the same feelings towards this sequel. If you couldn’t overlook the weaknesses of the first film in favor of its strengths than you should avoid as you more than likely will already. The story and characters lack depth, but they’re not without their ability to be engaging and likable. Thatm and the fact that the action is fun and the visuals are awe inspiring make this film a solid flick. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like going to a party with friends after a long week of work. You’re not going to talk serious, wonder what the meaning of life is, or solve any of the world’s problems…but you are going to have a good, fun time, have some laughs, and enjoy yourself.

Final Rating: 7/10-See It!

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