There is unloved–and then there is flat-out despised.
Somebody, many somebodies even, must have loved the second Michael Bay Transformers movie besides me, or it wouldn’t have made a small fortune and justified two more sequels (with a fifth and multiple spin-offs on the way). I have never met any of them. I have rarely met a soul who does not spit white-hot contempt for this installment in particular, and the entire series of movies in general. And I think the primary problem is this: Michael Bay could and would never give them the Transformers movie they wanted. Assessed on the merits of the movie Bay actually wanted to make, and did make, I believe a different picture emerges.
Before we dig into the second movie, however, we need to address some complaints about the series in general. The primary one from fans of the cartoon is that it makes humans the main characters, instead of the robots.
Serious question, then: do you honestly believe any director–and especially a director like Bay, who has the reputation of being a control freak–would not rather have robots in the lead who’ll do anything he says, rather than mercurial human performers like Megan Fox who’ll compare him to Hitler in interviews? Here’s the thing: Optimus Prime costs a lot more money to render onscreen than Tom Cruise or any actor does to show up to set. Every Transformers movie has put as many robots onscreen as the filmmakers could afford to, and as such their screen time gets greater and greater in each successive sequel. You may notice how much more the first two movies rely on at least one smaller robot who can be done as a practical effect (Frenzy in the first, Wheelie in the second) and how their roles are minimized in the third and fourth films as the digital technology makes them less necessary.
Similarly, an issue the early movies in the series have of relying on close-ups of same-colored robots fighting–that has been acknowledged as a distraction technique to cover for a budget that didn’t allow fully rendered bots in every effects shot. Again, you may notice how, as the sequels continue, the robots develop more distinctive colors, and appear in more wide and medium shots.
But the heart of the matter, really, is that fans of the property would have preferred a movie series that was closer to the ’80s cartoon, known in the larger continuity as “Generation 1.” Yet given the history of the property, there was no reason it should have been. To be clear: Transformers itself as a toy line began life as a repaint of two different Japanese lines, Microman and Diaclone. Already, then, at its genesis, it’s being unfaithful to source.
Secondly, let’s be honest: as much as we all have a soft spot for the ’80s animated series, and despite voice work by the likes of Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, and Chris Latta elevating the material, it is no masterpiece. Plotlines are inconsistent, the transformations “cheat” so blatantly that we picked it up even as uncritical kids, and there’s an obvious cynicism from certain corners when it comes to how blatantly a toy commercial the whole thing is. You or I may remember the animated movie’s decision to kill off major characters as brave, dark storytelling, but our parents saw it for the Hasbro scheme it was to make us have to buy all the new characters because our existing toys had just been made storyline-obsolete.
Thirdly, Transformers as a property today has embraced the multiverse concept like almost no other, with numerous differing continuities existing that all count. Generation 1 may be the “true” version to ’80s kids, but other fans have grown up with Beast Wars, or Robots in Disguise, or even Rescue Bots. The IDW comics are considered the best version of the story among many people I know, and Michael Bay’s movies aren’t even the most lecherous iteration: that would be Transformers: Kiss Players [slightly NSFW link], a canonical Japanese take in which the robots are powered by the kisses of young girls, and Megatron has a tongue that looks like a penis. Look at it this way: if Generation 1 is the Adam West Batman TV show, “Bayformers” is the All-Star Batman and Robin comics, the Frank Miller ones where Batman keeps saying, “I’m the goddamn Batman” over and over. Regardless of your personal preference (mine’s somewhere between Val Kilmer and Christian Bale, in the Batman metaphor), they are both allowed to count.
And now to Revenge of the Fallen.
I think the prevailing feeling among a lot of Transformers fans was that the first one was awkward, but that maybe, just maybe, the sequel would get closer to the ’80s cartoon, much as the G.I Joe sequel later would, and the new Ninja Turtles sequel looks like it’s going for. In some crucial ways, it actually does: Megatron gets his giant gun arm and tank form back, and his banter with Starscream is close to what I remember. Plus the now-running gag of Optimus dying and resurrecting at least once in every incarnation is incorporated as a major plot point, as is the Matrix of leadership.
In most ways, though, it’s a true sequel to the first film. And by that, I mean that before seeing it for the first time, I went back and watched the first film closely. What became apparent that hadn’t during prior viewings is that Bay’s goofy, exaggerated humor is not a bug, but a feature: EVERYTHING is pushed to the extreme. It’s not just Anthony Anderson eating all the donuts, or Rachael Taylor being an insanely glamorous uber-hacker. It’s the fact that our protagonist Sam can’t just have a dog, but a dog wearing large jewelry and a cast on his foot who urinates inappropriately, which is one-upped later by a robot “urinating” inappropriately. Sam’s parents can’t merely be dorky; they have to be so dorky they make woefully inappropriate masturbation references in front of him. And while that may not be the Transformers world you know from other versions, it is very much in line with some of the goofier kaiju movies from Japan…which is what that first Transformers basically is. Think about it: people with half-baked scientific schemes, giant alien robots, and a lot of silly human drama that might as well be badly dubbed, all leading up to the finale where the good giant robot and the bad giant robot stomp all over a city in a battle to save the humans whose habitat is being trashed. As an experiment, and only if you already have the DVD, watch the first movie with an alternate language track for the full dubbing experience.
Revenge of the Fallen doubles down on everything, as sequels traditionally do. More robots. Bigger robots. Combining robots. Two goofy pet dogs. Hero gets an idiot roommate. Dorky parents get high. The Decepticons even send a supermodel-bot to try and make out with Sam (Shia LaBeouf, who has, frankly, never been better, which might be damning with faint praise). John Turturro’s working at a deli. Robo-scrotum. Bumblebee choosing not to talk, just to mess with Sam. A really silly contest to see who’ll say, “I love you” first (Yo, straight male college freshman: against all odds, you’re dating Megan Fox. Do you NOT say “I love you” immediately?). Complaining that this is all illogical is so beside the point it’s ridiculous. Bay does not make movies set in the real world, and that includes the ones based on true stories. This is a movie in which sentient robots, who presumably ought to be able to just build replacements, need to suck power from the sun in order to keep their birthing sacs running correctly.
I’m not going to say I’m the biggest fan of Mudflap and Skids, the binary Jar Jars of the film, but like Jar Jar, they are more defensible than…beg pardon…meets the eye. Yes, they are exaggerated caricatures of urban African-American types. Just like the evil microscope-bot is a Nazi German stereotype, and Wheelie is an Italian mobster stereotype, and Jetfire is a British stereotype, and when you come down to it, Optimus is a stereotype of the square-jawed hero. Might there be a reason for all of that? Why yes, there is: as established in the first film, the Autobots learned English from the Internet. It’s not a stretch to imagine that while Optimus came across The Weekly Standard immediately, Mudflap and Skids were first drawn to YouTube comments.
Oh, but whenever I tell someone this, their answer is uniformly the same. “Surely,” they ask, “you don’t think Michael Bay’s smart enough to have used that reasoning?”
Hmm. Let’s see. Yes, I take your point that Michael Bay is not Albert Einstein. But do I think that something he specifically laid out in his previous film as justification for the way Jazz used phrases like “crack-a-lackin'” might in fact be relevant in an analogous situation in the sequel? Yes, I believe I do.
Haters will add that Mudflap and Skids also can’t read, which is clearly racism. Except that’s not exactly what happens. They cannot read the language of the Primes, because they are (self-evidently) not Primes, so they try to blow it off and be cool by saying, “We don’t do much readin’.” It’s the robot equivalent of when you try to talk tough to a bully by saying, “I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
That said, Mudflap and Skids should have been fully digested by Devastator. I’m not their biggest fan (except maybe by default!), but I’m not offended by them either.
I will also note that the only version of the film I have ever seen is the IMAX cut, which I bought on Walmart exclusive DVD after the fact. As I understand it, and the shifting aspect ratio hints at, the forest battle and the final pyramid confrontation are longer and more coherent in this edition.
As for Sam going to Robot Heaven, sure, it’s kinda silly. But so’s everything by that point. The Matrix has gotten into his head and could make him hallucinate any number of things. And yeah, I get it if you don’t want your giant talking car-robot movies to be that silly. My point is that you should have known from the first movie that this was the world established, and the sequel does not betray that. It does, however, add Tony Todd as a new arch-villain, feature robot testicles, and includes Optimus using his own dead friend for spare parts.
It’s not your daddy’s Transformers. Let go of that, let it be the teenage-boy-aimed action-comedy that it is, and you might just have fun.
Dark of the Moon, however, can suck it.
Am I the only Bayformer lover in the house? Now that I’ve outed myself, is anyone with me? Speak up in comments!