I wasn’t planning to see this movie. Like a lot of kids born in the 1980s, I was a Transformers cartoon nut, and when the first film came along in 2007 I dutifully went to see it, despite the strangeness of the robot designs and the uneasy feeling of knowing that it was based on the toys & not the beloved cartoon that was created specifically to sell them. And, like most 1980s kids, I was disappointed with the limp, overlong, and soulless movie that was made of it.
“It’s all Michael Bay’s fault,” I hear you say, and I have to disagree: Michael Bay is exactly the right person to bring Transformers to the big screen. Who better than a director with an almost pornographic fixation on hardware and vehicles to make a movie about cars that turn into giant robots? But even by Michael Bay standards, Transformers the first was a weak film remembered more for a nubile young thing leaning over an open car bonnet than anything else.
So when a sequel was quickly put into production, I was not cheering. When pictures arose and the robots still looked like complex hunks of scrap metal, I wasn’t exactly counting the days. When the trailers turned out to be the most boring things I’d seen this side of a drain cleaner advertisement, I knew I would not be standing in line for tickets. But this week I did find myself in line asking for a ticket to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (hereafter referred to as RotF), and for that, I blame Charlie Jane Anders.
The value of movie reviews are debated and generally dismissed by both filmmakers and audiences alike, but here’s one point for the other side: it was only because of Ms. Anders’ superbly-written review on io9.com that I changed my mind. “We’re going to see it, and you’re coming along,” I told my dad, who hadn’t the faintest interest in giant robots (he didn’t even–gasp!–know who Megan Fox was), “and we’re going because it’s the worst movie ever!” It’s no secret that I love bad movies. Truly, genuinely. And I couldn’t pass up a chance to see such a train-wreck. So we drove over to the only digital screen* in town, happily paid no extra money for the fancy projector, and settled in for a turkey.
*(which, by the way, is perhaps the best way to see RotF. The clean, colourful projection and extra frame-rate goes some way towards making the otherwise incoherent robot fights watchable. I would hate to see this on a desaturated, ghosted celluloid print. This is even worse if you live in a part of the world where it’s subtitled, as that can muddy the print further.)
Charlie Jane Anders stated, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that Michael Bay had made an art movie, but it is with a straight face, all jokes aside, that I say this: Michael Bay has just made one of the most important movies of our times.
…I’ll just let that statement sink in for a moment.
Let’s get one thing straight: RotF is a bad, bad movie. If you apply any kind of qualitative measure to it, you will see it for the terrible mess of incoherent writing, crass comedy, overwrought, incomprehensible CGI and just plain creepy sexuality that it is. There’s barely a frame without a product placement shoved unapologetically into it, and everyone talks in a sugar rush.
And you know what? That’s what makes it good.
The 1980s cartoons, stripped of our nostalgia for them, were exactly the same. They had the same willful disregard for the laws of physics and politics and geography. So when our heroes teleport to Egypt, drive by the pyramids, end up in Jordan and then step out of the ruins of Petra to see the same pyramids a few miles from them, you don’t so much as blink. But RotF is more than just a big-budget send up of Saturday morning cartoons. This film, whether by design or coincidence, understands that it’s a circa 2009 two hundred million dollar summer movie with thousands of people working on it, and billions eventually coming in to watch it. This is the movie the information age birthed. This is the movie that the madness of the last two decades’ economy bankrolled. The age that re-purposed ‘cool’ into a commodity that everyone around the world was willing to kill for.
There are cutaways to airbrushed heroines slipping out of skin-hugging leather catsuits into wedding dresses (I’ll let you decipher the symbolism of that one). Because it’s cool. Plastic-legged eye candy litter the scenes, because that looks cool. There are more lingering montages of military hardware than entire navy recruitment videos, because fighter jets and aircraft carriers are cool. The designs of the robots are preposterously baroque, and you can barely make out what is going on when they’re standing still, let alone when they’re bumping steel body plating. It doesn’t matter that such designs are no better than interference patterns for the scant seconds they’re on the screen, because some twenty-something 80s kid just like me spent years doodling robots in the margins of his school books, and now a concept artist, sat at his desk for hours adding more detail. Coherence be damned: More detail is cool. More of everything is cool. More explosions, more sexy young girls, more robots — more more more! For all the slow motion shots, the film is marked by the compressed nature of its scenes, buy just how much stuff it tries to shove into every frame and every second.
Some of the best lines of the film are delivered in this breathless caffeinated haste. They aren’t smart lines or interesting lines, but they are funny. It’s like the Marx brothers on drugs, with none of the polish, but for this film, it works. Perhaps I’m easily pleased, but the sight of a manic Shia LaBeouf screaming like a girl — repeatedly — as he evades robot tentacles of doom, is enough to make me laugh.
And it is Shia LaBeouf that is the shining beacon of anything approaching acting in RotF. Given the material, he really sells it. LaBeouf is an actor capable of many things, and now it is apparent that the pitch-perfect rendition of high camp is also one of them. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson return in more ancillary roles, which is a shame (Gibson especially is saddled with some of the most tired one-liners, well, ever). John Turturro’s character in the first was an obnoxious cartoon which didn’t really work. For some reason, it does in this one. Maybe it was just a zany character waiting for the right zany film.
And then there’s Megan Fox.
Fox herself has publicly stated that the Transformers films are not about the acting, and boy does she live up to that here. I didn’t much care for her performance in the first — there are no screen savers of her bent over a Camaro on my laptop — and her work in RotF makes that look good. If, like me, Megan Fox does nothing for you, then it’s okay because the film has enough things going on around it that you can generally ignore her.
But you know what? Don’t. Embrace everything in this film. Embrace the bad acting and the ridiculous effects and the buck-toothed robots that talk of popping caps in each other’s asses. It’s a freak show, and you can feel guilty about it, but just look, because this is what we as a culture created.
RotF has everything we have come to expect from the broadband internet time we live in. It has robot kitchen appliances with oversized phallus guns. It has middle-aged couples behaving badly (and then getting high). It has fairly obvious bukkake and tentacle porn references. It has Ugly American tourists, and more racial stereotypes than probably the whole of the nineteenth century did. It has conspiracy websites, and slabs of cured meat, and China, and the Middle East, and designer dresses in Paris, all blown to smithereens. It has stripper pants and dumb jocks and chihuahuas sexually dominating pugs.
It has cute kittens.
This is a zeitgeist film. A film that captures and compresses thirty years of pop culture and technology and corporate excess in all its terrible beauty, and serves it up in a frenzied cocktail of sound and motion. Jaws invented the blockbuster, Star Wars cemented it, and we’ve been living in the aftermath for a generation. With the world in the grip of the greatest economic crisis in history, it is quite possible that RotF is that last mega-budget summer blockbuster; projects are dying because they cost too much, movies are moving from their high place as the icebreaker ship of culture to the silt-dredging vessels of the latest and most fleeting fads. It may all be the same for the next thirty years, but it probably isn’t.
And Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ends this age, not with a simple full stop or a trail of ellipses, but as it deserves: with a vulgar triple exclamation mark.