[24 June 2009]
We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against prinipalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of the world.
College freshman Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) just wants to be “a normal kid with normal problems.” He wants to cut apron strings as he leaves home, fit in with his new suitemates, and manage a web-cam relationship with girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox). But alas, a life limited to such trivialities is not Sam’s lot. Given that two years earlier he helped save the world from an invading alien-robot horde, his average expectations are, in a Michael Bay film, spectacularly far-fetched.
And so it comes as no surprise at the start of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen when Sam discovers a shard of the All Spark, supposedly destroyed in the first film. Without warning, the device implants crucial codes in Sam’s mind, whereupon various kitchen gadgets-cum-Decepticons in his house come to life, and far, far away on Cybertron, Starscream (Charles Addler) realizes revenge is possible.
Also unsurprisingly, the action begins pretty much right away. (That is, after Optimus Prime [voiced by Peter Cullen] offers an alternative history lesson, explaining that Autobots and Decepticons have been interacting with humans on Earth since, oh, 17,000 B.C.) Now, the Autobots, alongside U.S. and British soldiers, have formed an off-grid military group called NEST in order to hunt down and destroy random Decepticons. The trick is keeping this outsized violence secret from humans.
To indicate just how hard that trick is, the film submits a big fat opening battle in Shanghai: the robots this time are bigger and badder than in the first movie, performing all manner of pyrotechnic acrobatics. But they and their human compatriots have pretty much noting to say to one another, the characters reduced here to one-line self-descriptors (“Oh yeah, I’m bad!”).
One “relationship” that does garner considerable screen time is that of the twin Autobots Mudflap (Reno Wilson) and Skids (Tom Kenny). Their ostensible “comic relief” is premised in their status as “black” thug Transformers, complete with gold-tooth grills and gangsta-speak. They are jaw-droppingly offensive. When Sam asks if they can read the ancient symbols he’s found, the twins reply, “Read? Uhn-uh. We don’t really do much readin’.” Luckily, Sam can turn to Jetfire (John Turturro), an old, “white” Decepticon-turned-good for his answers. (Another sort of racist business arises when an Egyptian border patrolman is told “Hey! You look like the guy who runs my falafel stand!”).
The film’s cluttered storyline amounts to a convoluted treasure hunt. Sam, Mikaela, and Sam’s college roommate Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) land in Egypt, hoping to find the cheesily monikered Matrix of Leadership, which will power The Fallen’s (Tony Todd) plot, basically to blot out the sun and destroy Earth. Two hours in, Agent Simmons (Turturro again) appears to be reading all our minds when he asks Sam to get him up to speed: “Beginning, middle, end. Plot! Will you please tell it?” Please do.
But everyone knows Transformers are relentless. And so the movie slows down its storytelling yet again with a rudimentary Christian mythology as well. The whole primitive man/Autobot thing is a Creation story for the Autobots and Decepticons. In fact, in the Shanghai battle, when a Decepticon transforms in front of them, Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) wonders aloud to Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel), “If God made us in His image, who made Him?” While the film offers no ultimate origin of the Auttobots, it does submit that the Decepticons are ... fallen! Once good like the autobots, they and their leader, The Fallen, turned evil.
In this version of events, Optimus of course, becomes a Christ figure, providing a salvation story for humans and with that, predetermining The Fallen’s fate. And so the secretive nature of the forever-war between Autobots and Decepticons hints at a greater, apparently spiritual contest. Like everything else (except the special effects) in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, these elements are neither sophisticated nor fully explored, as if added on, and becoming yet another thing to try to keep track of.
Such theological overtures notwithstanding, no one will accuse Michael Bay and company of taking themselves too seriously. The film is full of self-conscious references like the Bad Boys II poster in Sam’s dorm room, the incorporation of LaBoeuf’s bandaged hand (after he seriously injured it in a car crash during filming) or the best, Megan Fox’s infamous “mountain ox” remark. When Mikaela catches Sam making out with hot-girl Decepticon Alice (Isabel Lucas), he defends himself by explaining that she jumped him and it was like “wrestling a mountain ox! Have you ever tried wrestling a mountain ox?” (Which came first, the script line or Fox’s bizarre comment, hardly matters.) Strangled or wrestled, the mountain ox is now part of the Transformers lore, as nonsensical as any other aspect of it.