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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): **

Directed by Michael Bay

This movie was horrifically vilified when it came out. Reviewers were saying it was the worst movie ever made. It got less than either Wolverine or Terminator Salvation on the Tomatometer. Is it really that bad? No, of course not. Try to sit through Manos: Hands of Fate and then watch RotF, and RotF will seem like the roof of the Sistine Chapel compared to, um... well, these. It is not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be. It is, unfortunately, not terribly good, either.

A small blessing is that Bay seems to have learned some lessons about directing the robot fight scenes, and very wisely slips into slow-motion for key segments of them. During the slow motion parts it is entirely easy to follow the action and see what is going on and, yes, many of those sequences are completely awesome and terrifically brutal. These are giant pieces of metal smashing against each other, after all. But on the other side Bay seems to have completely lost his mind when it comes to directing non-action scenes. There are quiet, personal moments of conversation between characters in this movie -- like Sam and Optimus having a very important and quiet scene together at a graveyard -- where the camera is flying about, pinwheeling, circling, and careening around crazily as if it were filming the most exciting chase scene EVAR!!!!!!!!1!!!1!!!! The camera was moving so much that it was horribly distracting. Instead of paying attention to the scene, I kept wondering why the camera was doing acrobatics and aerobics. Here's something I've learned: if every scene is at the same level of excitement, then none of the scenes will seem exciting. If you end every sentence with multiple exclamation points, its hard to tell what is supposed to be emphasized. I think that's Michael Bay's main problem as a director: he doesn't know how to emphasize the really important bits.

One of the main problems from the first Transformers movie still persists in this one: the robots aren't developed enough as characters. And since there are even more robots in RotF, there is even less time to spend with any of them. The only ones we really get to see any character from are Optimus Prime, Skids & Mudflap, Wheelie, Bumblebee, Jetfire, and Starscream. There are a bunch of other robots we standing around who have maybe one or two lines, or in several cases none at all. Who are these guys? Even at its worst, the cartoon was able to quickly imbue its characters with recognizable personality archetypes. But in RotF, what is Sideswipe like? Did you even know he was in the movie? How about Arcee? What about those other two girl bikes? Even first-movie characters Ironhide and Ratchet get completely shafted in this movie.

What characters we do get I fortunately mostly enjoyed. I know a lot of reviewers thought it was strange that alien robots have British, Jersey, German, or Gansta accents, but that is completely in keeping with the spirit of the cartoon, wherein the Transformers truly had a wide set of accents. So I actually kinda liked that. I actually thought the twins (Mudflap & Skids) were pretty funny, especially when they were standing kinda back from the story and commenting on it, as when one character is giving a very sincere, heart-felt speech about how scared he is and one of the twins matter-of-factly says, "That's 'cause you's a pussy." I lolled, I admit.

I have to say, though, that I didn't like Optimus very much in this movie. To me, Optimus has always been the Superman of the Transformers. He's the guy who, in the end, no matter what the cost, will always do the right thing. But he's kinda... brutal in this movie. At the very start he cold-bloodedly executes a Decepticon. He tries to use fear to convince a government official, and I was uncomfortable with the way he almost sneered, "What if you're wrong?" And there were times when his dialogue was kinda awkward, like they recorded Peter Cullen saying a whole bunch of iconic, Prime-like snippets of dialogue and then just randomly threw them into the movie. Kinda like a video game where the characters periodically and randomly spout phrases from a pre-generated list whether they fit the situation or not.

As for the humans, you have Sam Witwicky back as the main character. He seems to be suffering kind of a combination of survivor's guilt and white man's guilt; he doesn't feel like he deserves to be treated like the Man Who Killed Megatron and Saved the World. He wants to put all that behind him--the Transformers, Bumblebee, even his way-out-of-his-league girlfriend--and go have a quietly anonymous life at college. Then bad things happen (including one very bad thing) and Sam blames himself and spends the rest of the movie trying step it up and be the hero he feels he needs to be to redeem himself. Sam has actually a very good character arc through the movie (if you can see it through all the unnecessary camera hijynx), and Shia Lebouf plays Sam very effectively as a man in various stages of desperation: desperate to lead a normal life, then desperate to lead a life less ordinary.

The rest of the humans... um... not so much. The two army guys are in this movie again, and they have a horrifically thankless job of putting themselves and their men in harm's way. Megan Fox as Mikaela really has nothing to do in this movie, and for some reason I found her very unappealing whereas I liked her in the first film. Can't put my finger on exactly why. Sam's roommate also has nothing to do in the last half of the movie, so I don't know why he was included there. He wasn't an appealing character at all. John Turturro, though, is back with a comedic vengeance, and I thought that about 99% or what he did in this movie was friggin' hilarious, and he actually plays a very important role in the story, and is responsible for a key moment of the climax.

On to story, now. Stupid writer's strike! With a few more washes through the ringer, this could have been an excellent script. As a pseudo-fanboy I really enjoyed the way the screenwriters dug through all corners of Transformers lore for elements in this film. Even the main villain, The Fallen, is a rather obscure character mentioned only in one of the runs of one of the versions of Transformers comics. Not only him, but you get Allspark fragments like in Trasnformers Animated, you get a Matrix of Leadership, you get several combiners, there's the Nemesis, protoforms, etc. Seriously, maybe even only one more wash and the script could have been Star Trek (2009) good. And why not? It was written by the same people. But there are plot points in this movie that you have to work really, really hard to connect. It took me a long, LONG time to figure out that the whole plot of the first movie, with Megatron looking for the Allspark, was just so that he could give it to The Fallen so The Fallen could use it to find the Matrix. I mean, it's all (kinda) there in RotF, but I blame Michael Bay for presenting it in such a way that it's almost impossible to figure it out.

I'm going to do something undoubtably controversial here and compare Michael Bay to Robert Rodriguez. RotF has a very similar storytelling sensibility to Rodriguez's work from Spy Kids 2 through Planet Terror (excluding Sin City, which he didn't write), in that all of these films seem to operate on one simple question: "What would be awesome if it happened in this movie?" And then they try to find ways to put ALL of that in. The main difference is that Rodriguez has a much wider breadth of imagination with things like people with magnet hats, swordfighting skeletons, a woman with a machine gun for a leg, a man with no eyes and a man with no face, etc., whereas to Michael Bay, "awesome" seems to only really mean explosions.

RotF is not as good as the first Transformers film. It lacks that certain sense of awe and wonder that Stephen Spielberg made sure the first film had. And it lacks that certain human connection. At its heart, the first movie was about a boy and his relationship with his first car. RotF doesn't really seem to have much of a heart. In another director's hands, it might have been just as good as Star Trek (2009) instead of sadly mediocre.

And, yes, Devastator has wrecking-ball testicles. But y'know what? It led up to a really funny John Turturro punchline, so I didn't mind at all.

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