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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
A review of the UK 2-disc Special Edition DVD by Adam Wilson
 
"Let's roll."
"I'm to old for this crap."
"It is your destiny."
"What the hell was that?"
"Kiss this, bitch."
"Please, please come back to me!"
"I'm just a normal kid with normal problems!"
"Damn I'm good."
"He's here...I can smell him."
A selection of lines uttered at some point
during Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

 

Whichever marketing drone at Hasbro came up with the idea of taking an innocuous line of toys and giving them a back story should, by now, be snorting crushed Fabergé eggs through a gilded straw: especially following the monstrous success of Michael Bay's 2007 film adaptation. This first live action treatment of the toys worked fairly well, in part because a world of alien robots was framed through solid characterization and a plot that took time easing the audience in. Teenager Sam Whitwicky's (Shia LaBeouf) first car turned out to be the Autobot Bumblebee, and the relationship between the two was the crux on which the rest of the film hung: Bumblebee acted as Sam's bodyguard, Sam as Bumblebee's interpreter. Sam was goofy and awkward; Bumblebee could only communicate through his dashboard radio. Bumblebee helped Sam woo Mikaela (Megan Fox), and protected Sam from the Decepticons; equally Sam rescued Bumblebee from capture at the hands of government agents. Silly though it may have seemed when viewing it objectively, their relationship was believable; you really felt like they depended on each other, and that a giant yellow robot could have a personality. In the same vein, Transformers introduced the titular robots one at a time – they all had names, distinct shapes, attitudes and voices: as such we could cheer them on when the villainous Decepticons arrived to commence automatic fisticuffs.

These are the things Transformers did correctly. They are also the things that Revenge of the Fallen swiftly jettisons in its opening minutes. Transformers was a schizophrenic film: alongside the coming-of-age, E.T.-flavoured alien visitation story we were treated to shameless product placement,  relentless jingoism, leering misogyny, a superfluous military parallel plot and John Turturro's secret agent taking up too much screentime with creaking 'comic relief'. For Revenge of the Fallen, these elements have not only been retained but sharpened, blown up and smeared across two and half hours: any semblance of character development or plot cohesion firmly consigned to the scrapyard. The plot is at once incredibly confusing and witlessly primitive: its a couple of years on from the events of  Transformers and Sam is off to college, leaving Bumblebee and Mikaela behind. At the same time, the Autobots and their human (i.e. American military) allies are busy hunting after the last remaining Decepticons on Earth. Sam accidentally swallows a fragment of the AllSpark, the magic cube that turns machines into Transformers, and starts seeing symbols everywhere. The Decepticons revive their fallen leader Megatron (silkily voiced by Hugo Weaving) and set about looking for Sam, whose visions are actually a map that leads an object called the Matrix of Leadership. The Matrix of Leadership was left on Earth thousands of years ago by the Primes, a race of ancient robots who used the Matrix to fire lasers at the Sun in a bid to harvest something called Energon. One of these Primes, called 'The Fallen' now wants to get some Energon or something and it all turns out that Rosebud refers to the sledge that he owned as a child, I don't know. Never before has a story of such simplicity (find an ancient artefact before the enemy does) been told in such a baffling way: characters come and go, locations change randomly, the laws of time and space don't appear to apply to anyone – as Camus pointed out in his review, Megatron is on Earth in one shot, then in the furthest reaches of space in the next. Terrestrial geography is similarly dispensed with: crossing the Petra mountains from Egypt to Jordan and back takes about ten minutes in a transforming chevrolet; the American air force can apparently do it in five. The exposition is long and arduous, and there are plot holes you could shoot a sun-harvesting laser through. How is it that Sam coincidentally ends up in the same college as a female Decepticon robot fresher? How exactly did the government 'cover-up' a giant robot battle that devastated most of New York? How does Sam's mum not notice that Bumblebee is living in her garage? Although there is an argument to say that in an action blockbuster such questions of internal logic are secondary, for a film that so obsessively chronicles the history and mythology of its universe, to ignore such basic story sense is a little cavalier.

The story is not as offensively stupid as the characterization. The Arthurian Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, was in the first film a giant metal Aslan, wisely intoning about peace and protection and destiny: here he's a bloodthirsty psychopath, shouting things like 'give me your face!' as he decapitates an enemy, or 'weak, puny waste of metal!' as he slugs into another. Sam and Bumblebee barely speak to each other – indeed the Autobots themselves are weirdly sidelined for much of the film, popping up in the opening fray and at the final battle but not doing too much in between. Whereas Transformers had a roster of five Autobots and seven Decepticons – a nicely manageable amount – here that is expanded to twelve Autobots and over twenty five Decepticons, plus many other minor robots that appear in the background. Although painstaking effort has gone into designing and animating the robots, and the visual effects are astonishingly believable, the sheer amount of them means that after the first robot fight scene you lose track of who's who and ultimately stop caring. It doesn't help that most of them are painted the same mercurial grey and are roughly the same size and shape. Of course, this description excludes the Autobot twins Mudflap and Skids: they speak in exaggerated street-slang, sport gold teeth, can't read and shout things like 'Ima bust a cap in your ass.'

The human contingent doesn't fair much better. Sam, a likeable nerdy underdog in the first film, is here turned into some kind of messiah: albeit a messiah who cheats on his girlfriend with impunity. His attitude to women has bled into the rest of the film too. Transformers 2 is sickeningly misogynistic. Sam's college dorm is comprised entirely of underwear models punctuated by a few token men. One of these models is a robot who tries to kill Sam with sex (seriously). Megan Fox plays Sam's girlfriend Mikaela, who's face is permanently set to 'sultry pout' mode, regardless of how many explosions are going off around her. Her purpose in the film is to be the victim of Michael Bay's leery camera (the first shot of her sees her straddling a motorbike with the camera fixed on her denim hotpants), and her motivation for following Sam to the ends of the earth is to get him to say that he loves her.

Kevin Dunn and Julie White return as Sam's parents, who were central to the funniest scenes in Transformers thanks to a combination of a witty script, restrained use and the realistic quirk of the performances. Someone obviously recognized the success of the characters, as they've been trotted out again here and given much more to do, including Sam's mum ingesting a space cake and his Dad being attacked by miniature robot. It reeks of desperation. Jon Turturro is pretty good as the hapless government agent Simmons, and Ramon Rodriguez turns in a grating performance as a totally useless shrieking computer nerd. All of the token military characters turn up to shout 'hoo-rah' and bark orders into their radios, which is pretty much all they get to do  –  I seem to remember Josh Duhamel's character having a family he was fighting for in the first film, but here such distractions are unwanted when there are mini-guns to operate.

The big attraction of a Transformers sequel is the action, and no expense is spared in this department. The tent-pole sequences are a running battle through the streets of Shanghai in the opening few minutes, a forest battle between Optimus Prime and three Decepticons in the middle, and a monumental fire-fight between the Autobots and Decepticons (with support from the American military) around the Egyptian pyramids that takes up most of the third act. The scale of these encounters is arresting, but very often the non-stop, circular tracking of the camera combined with some confusing editing means that its hard to keep track of the movement of the action. When the robots start wrestling with each other they start to look like flying lumps of iron wool as opposed to distinct combatants. This does even out toward the end of the film once the space opens up in Egypt, but by that point its hard not to think of the film having already shot its bolt. Visually the film seems to blandly alternate between a palette of blue for indoor or night-time sequences and sandy orange for outdoor or daytime sequences. Everything – even the few intimate character moments are seen through mid-shots and wide low angles: appropriate for towering robots but not really for Sam and Mikaela's romance. The CGI, as previously mentioned, is exemplary. This is certainly the most convincing rendering of fully computer generated creatures yet seen. Metallic surfaces are done better justice by CG than organic ones, and Revenge of the Fallen is the most convincing evidence yet that this is the case. The robots look like they have real mass, and when they collide into each other or into the environment around them the impact feels authentic. Although the Transformers look indistinct when they start hurtling into one another, it is a tribute to the visual effects team, as well as Bay's clever interchanging of real vehicles with their CGI counterparts, that it is often difficult to tell when we are looking at a computer generated construct and a physical one.

Ultimately Revenge of the Fallen is a teenage boy's masturbatory fantasy: everything that made the original work has been unapologetically thrown aside in favour of guns, tanks, cars, girls and robots. Whilst the animation of the machines and the marshalling of the stupendous action sequences are an admirable accomplishments, they are dwarfed by the sheer scale of this film's cynicism.

sound and vision

An immaculate 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer that's perhaps almost too immaculate, as the super-sharpness leaves the image looking almost as digital as the effects. But it's not – Revenge of the Fallen was shot on a mixture of 35mm and horizontal 65mm, with some of the scenes, like The Dark Knight, shot for IMAX projection. Contrast is also pitch-perfect – I'd imagine the Blu-ray looks astonishing.

The Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack is, as you'd expect, as spectacular as the picture, with very precise separation pristine clarity and full use of the surrounds, particularly in the action sequences, where metal objects, glass and just about anything else the robots can get their hands on are hurled around the sound stage. The impacts also have considerable bass kick.

extra features

There is a feature commentary from Michael Bay and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, recorded separately. The sound quality on Bay's contributions is a little tinny but not to the extent that it marrs the experience.

The centrepiece is The Human Factor: Exacting Revenge of the Fallen  (02:09:00): a mammoth feature divided into seven chunks. The divides are sensible and for the most part the titles accurately reflect the content of each section – a small detail so often ignored by DVD producers. There is lots of footage of Bay walking around the set doing his 'film frame' hands, barking orders at the crew, doing candid pieces to camera and generally throwing his weight around. If the film was enough, these extras should convince you that this is very much Michael Bay's baby.

  1. Seeds of Vengeance: Development and Design (28:52)
    Background on the writing and initial development. The producers are quite upfront about GM's involvement and their pushing for the inclusion of certain cars. The addition of brand and marketing people to the talking heads roster is telling. There is also involvement from the scriptwriters, character designers and set designers.
  1. Domestic Destruction: Production USA (23:30)
     On set footage of various action set pieces, fluffy anecdotal bits to camera that shows the camaraderie of the crew.
  1. Joint Operations: Production Military (09:38)
    The most enlightening piece of the whole extra. Interesting input from military liaisons and consultants who worked on the film; about how they select film projects and offer advice. One quite chilling quote from the army's Chief Project Officer: 'Transformers is targeted at a younger audience, which is right in line with who we like to talk to when it comes to recruiting.'
  1. Wonders of the World: Production Middle East (12:46)
    A feature on the trials of filming in Egypt and Jordan. Its frustrating when ignorant foreigners won't let you shoot your films around their treasured national monuments. An anecdote about the Egyptian authorities refusing to grant a permit to shoot on the pyramids results in one blood-boiling line from Bay: 'I was like: "I am not leaving this country until I shoot on those bleeping pyramids. I am shooting on those pyramids, come hell or high water we are shooting there...'No' means nothing to me." Charming.
  1. Start Making Sense:  Editing (09:02)
    Diverting feature on the editing, at its best when they talk about matching the live footage to where the effects team will render the robots. Also includes some voice acting footage.
  1. Under the Gun: Visual Effects (27:58)
    One of the larger chapters about the work of Industrial Light and Magic, and one of the most intriguing. The early rough footage of the robots is fascinating, especially the mixing of live footage to CGI for the transformations. The effects artists are the most enthusiastic and passionate in talking about their craft. There is a favourite of mine, the side-by-side shot showing the live footage captured on location, and the same take with the CGI added.
  1. Running the gauntlet: Post production and Release (15:55)
    Sound editing, colouring, post-production tweaks and footage of the world premier in Japan, together with other premiers around the world. Michael Bay addresses the criticism of the film in a mature and honest way: critics are born with an anti-fun gene, don't get what audiences want and the box-office takings of the film mean that its good.

A Day with Bay: Tokyo (12:56) is a fly-on-the-wall piece about Michael Bay's time doing the press circuit in Tokyo towards the time for the premier. Pretty forgetful stuff.

25 Years of Transformers (10:23) is a short collection of interviews with Hasbro executives talking about the different incarnations of the Transformers throughout the lifecycle of the toys, comics, TV shows etc. Quite engaging as a feature on brand exploitation, but not much else

NEST: Transformers Data Hub is a series of character profiles

Theatrical Trailer (02:33) is standard fare of the rapid-fade-to-black-drumbeat style

There are three Deleted Scenes (05:56) that don't really add anything except a bit of extra

De-constructing the Visual Bayhem (sigh) (22:42) is a sequence of early 'pre-visualization' animation that acts as a kind of moving storyboard, narrated by the Pre-Vis Supervisor. It shows the sequences in full including all the cuts, angles, scale and camera movement that will later be copied by the live camera. Silly title aside this is a worthwhile watch.

Linkin Park's Music Video for the title track New Divide (4:35) is also included.

final word

This is a release every bit as gigantic and lumbering as its metal protagonists. The film is over-long,  nonsensical, dull and obnoxious, with a horrible attitude to women, race and life in general. The extras on the whole form an involving observation of the workings of a Hollywood juggernaut, but these aren't enough to make up for the quality of the main feature.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

USA 2009
144 mins
director
Michael Bay
starring
Shia LaBeouf
Megan Fox
Josh Duhamel
Tyrese Gibson
John Turturro
Ramon Rodriguez

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
English audio description
subtitles
Dutch
Castilian Spanish
Norwegian
Finnish
Italian
French
Danish
German
English
Swedish
extras
Director and screenwriter's commentary
The Human Factor: Exacting Revenge of the Fallen documentary
A Day with Bay: Tokyo featurette
25 Years of Transformers featurette
Character profiles
Trailer
Deleted scenes
De-constructing the Visual Bayhem featurette
Music video
distributor
Paramount Home Entertainment
release date
30 November 2009
review posted
8 December 2009

related reviews
Transformers: The Movie
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen [film review]

See all of Adam Wilson's reviews