Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

It’s a big dumb action movie, but as big dumb action movies go, it’s reasonably entertaining.

Two years after the events of the first film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is off to college, leaving behind girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), parents Ron and Judy (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), and his Autobot Bumblebee, but college brings him an eventual ally in conspiracy theory-obsessed fellow student Leo (Ramón Rodríguez). Meanwhile, an ancient rogue Prime known as the Fallen (voice of Tony Todd) is plotting revenge on the human race, leading to the resurrection of his apprentice, Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving). Can Sam and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) save the day once again?

Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers) is never going to be mistaken for a great filmmaker, but he’s a master of big dumb action movie spectacle. And, no, that’s not really a slight in this case. If you want to make a film like this and do it well on the level intended, Bay is the director you want behind the camera. He delivers mayhem and action with conviction, and few directors have his eye for sheer spectacle. I don’t understand why the same critics who rave about J.J. Abrams for his direction of Star Trek pan Bay for this film. I think Bay made the better of the two films. I’m sure quite a few people will take exception to that statement, but I stand by it.

The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Brothers Grimm) and writing team Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek) blends up high octane action, low humor, and a high stakes plot into a mostly satisfying whole, although not as successfully as the first film. I’m not even going to try to defend it as good writing, but it’s certainly fun to watch it unfold on the screen. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and two young people are in love. On that level, it’s actually part of the long tradition of Hollywood hokum.

It must also be said that the film contains the worst ethnic caricatures in a genre film since Jar Jar Binks and Watto in Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace. The scenes with the characters Mudflap and Skids are truly cringeworthy. Did no one involved in the making of this film, including executive producer Steven Spielberg, see these scenes and think there might be something offensive in them? Unbelievable. Note to filmmakers: applying ethnic caricatures to CG aliens or CG robots doesn’t make them any less offensive.

Some have criticized the film for being too long at two and a half hours. If I have one complaint, it’s the ending of the film is so damned unsatisfying, mainly because it doesn’t resolve a major conflict but instead leaves it to be resolved in a third film (much as the second Pirates of the Caribbean film did). The film really doesn’t feel that long until you get to the end and realize that it’s all been a set up for another sequel. Then it suddenly feels longer.

I saw the film on an IMAX screen, which was worth it. Three action scenes were specially filmed in IMAX, and it’s noticeable when the image suddenly fills the entire screen and becomes so much sharper.

Whatever else one can say about a Michael Bay film, they’re always made with a high level of visual and technical skill, and this holds true here with the contributions of cinematographer Ben Seresin (A Good Woman), production designer Nigel Phelps (Alien Resurrection, Transformers), and costume designer Deborah L. Scott (Titanic, Transformers). Everything is as polished as one would expect.

Composer Steve Jablonsky (Transformers, Friday the 13th) layers on the bombast with a trowel, which certainly is a good fit with the tone of the production as a whole. Visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Transformers) has a bigger effects budget and more effects heavy scenes this time, and responds with seamless and compelling effects that carry the film.

Shia LaBeouf has established himself as the kind of action hero who resorts more to brains than to brawn but can still handle himself when the action begins, while also being photogenic and possessing a certain geeky charm. Once again he’s called upon to add the human element to an action and effects heavy film, and once again he succeeds. Megan Fox is the drop dead gorgeous love interest, and playing drop dead gorgeous is so very easy for her, but it’s her chemistry with LaBeouf that makes the romance between a geek and a grease monkey beauty seem believable. I think she’s on her way to being a star, and hopefully she’ll get some roles that allow her an opportunity to stretch her acting muscles. Ramón Rodríguez is the comic relief character who helps the hero and heroine, and he handles the role capably. I actually wanted to see more of his character.

The rest of the cast is solid across the board, including Josh Duhamel as Major Lennox, Tyrese Gibson as Sergeant Epps, John Turturro as former Sector 7 agent Seymour Simmons, Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents, John Benjamin Hickey as the National Security Advisor, 24‘s Glenn Morshower as General Morshower (a character named for him, and he also played a different character in the first film), Isabel Lucas as a co-ed who shows a strong interest in Sam, and Rainn Wilson as a sleazy physics professor.

The voice cast shines in bringing Autobots and Decepticons to life, including Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, Tony Todd as the Fallen, Hugo Weaving as Megatron, Jess Harnell as Ironhide, Robert Foxworth as Ratchet, Mark Ryan as Jetfire, Grey DeLisle as Arcee, André Sogliuzzo as Sideswipe, Tom Kenny as Wheelie, Michael York as one of the Dynasty of Primes, Charlie Adler as Starscream, and Frank Welker as Soundwave.

Turning one’s brain off every now and then isn’t an entirely bad thing. In exchange, you get giant robots, explosions, Shia LaBeouf, and Megan Fox. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn’t as good as its predecessor, but anyone who enjoyed the first film should enjoy this one, too.

[3.5 out of 5 stars]

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