Monday, June 29, 2009

Transformers -vs- Transformers

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) -vs- Transformers (2007)
When Robots Collide
Beau DeMayo
June 25, 2009 in Action, Beau DeMayo, Comic Book, Sci-Fi, Teens

The Smackdown. Hollywood's in love with the 1980s, and nowhere is it more apparent than with the Transformer's franchise. Started in 2007, the first "Transformers" was a box-office success, easily earning itself a sequel in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Now, in less then two years, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" hits theaters with the same cast and crew as the original. Sounds like a fair fight? So true spirit to the Transformer series, today's smackdown pits robot against robot in a knock-down intergalactic cinematic fight as we ask which film does robot-on-robot action better?

The Challenger. With "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," Michael Bay spares no expense ensuring audiences get more bang for their $14 movie ticket. This time, a college-bound Sam Witwicky finds himself trapped in the ever-escalating war between the Autobots and Decepticons...again. See, a prehistoric Transformer called The Fallen intends to drain our sun to obtain the Transformer's life-force, Energon. Naturally, he'll then conquer the cosmos or achieve some equally impolite end (like chewing with his mouth open). But only Sam knows the location of this Energon machine due to a series of psychic visions. Now, Sam must lead the Autobots to Egypt where they wage war against The Fallen, his Decepticons, and Megatron...yes, that's right, Megatron's back too. Still want more plot? Don't worry; I just gave you half. Clocking in well over two hours, "Transformers: RotF" has enough plot for three trilogies. It's the only type of sequel you'd expect from Michael Bay: one that's bigger, louder, and dumber.

The Defending Champion. "Transformers" was pitched to Michael Bay as a film about a boy getting his first car. Sounds nice. Really, it's about a boy caught between two groups of alien robots whose intergalactic war has crashed landed on Earth. Everyone's searching for the Allspark, a techno-mystical cube with the power to animate any mechanical form. By the end of the movie, I think I got that Megatron wanted this cube so he could create a new mechanical army to take over Earth... but that was after two brain-busting hours of claustrophobic action, syrupy slow-mo shots, self-aware jokes, and bombastic explosions.

The Scorecard. Both "Transformers" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" brim with elaborate action set-pieces, campy humor, and hyper-sexuality. Industrial Light and Magic struggles in both films to design the Transformers in such a way that we can distinguish one from the other. Whenever a fight erupts between Autobot and Decepticon, the on-screen action tumbles into a jumbled mess of flopping, indistinguishable mechanical parts. Sure, I appreciate the high level of detail, but not at the cost of coherent action scenes. "Transformers: RotF" especially suffers from ILM's designs as Bay introduces a whole slew of new Transformers that simply blend together. It's hard to appreciate large-scale action sequences when I can't tell the good from the bad guys and thus, can't tell who's winning.

Now both films embrace Bay's typical low-brow humor. Again, "Transformers: RotF" probably suffers most in this category. Gags like Sam's mom lolly-gagging around on a college campus after eating pot-brownies or the dangling wrecking ball testicles on a construction Decepticon aren't just dumb, they're insulting to the audiences' intelligence. "Transformers" had some corny moments, many centered around the Autobots fitting into Sam's suburban life. However, none proved as gregarious and useless as those in Transformers: RotF" where the jokes simply exist onto themselves and are cracked in the most inappropriate moments.

While on the topic of insulting our intelligence, let's not forget Sam's girlfriend Mikaela, played by Megan Fox. When we first meet her, Mikaela is bent over a motorcycle in daisy dukes, applying lip gloss as she flirts with Sam on the phone. This scene alone establishes Bay's general outlook toward women in "Transformers 2: RotF." Everyone female -- from college students to lip-lassoing Decepticons -- exist either as love-dumb airhead or sexy vixena. In the first film, we at least got to see female Defense analysts and agents. Even Mikaela, struggling to be more than just the popular girl, had a journey in "Transformers." She doesn't just make pouty-kiss faces at the camera as she does this time around.

But so far, both these films are guilty of the same crimes, with "Transformers: RotF" being a bit more to blame.

Now while "Transformers" had its healthy dose of claustrophobic over-plotting, "Transformers: RotF" proves that bigger is not always better. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman scribed both films, with Ehren Kruger joining them for the second outing. How much Michael Bay contributed to story, I don't know. However, there seems to be a constant tension between Bay's sensibilities and the retro-camp feeling the scribes hoped to achieve. Looking at the dialogue (especially of The Autobots), one will notice its on-the-nose, campy feel. What at first can be seen as just poor dialogue is really an homage to the 1980s cartoons, where Optimus Prime spoke in verbose monologues about sacrifice, virtue, and friendship. The writers spend a hefty amount of time establishing this cartoony world only to have Bay come in and try to merge it with real world grittiness.

In all his films, Bay has a clear love of the military. Even "Transformers" suffered from the "I love the military" attitude of Bay. But in "Transformers: RotF," I actually began to wonder if this movie was financed by the United States Military. As the Autobots square off against The Decepticons, Bay continually forces the US military to have a role in the action. Whole portions of the climax play like "Join The Army" ads, showing extreme sports style camera views of parachuting into combat. We watch Higgins boats and jet bombers do their thing. And we spend way too much time listening to "Delta Four, you are ready to blah blah blah at Vector blah blah bleh." But yet, at the same time, there's this evil alien robot with a energy spear hopping around The Great Pyramids, reeling in his plan "to destroy the sun and kill mankind!" It just doesn't fit. It doesn't feel natural or organic. Plus, isn't this a movie about big-ass robots?

Where this really hurts Bay is that the military, at times, is actually more competent than Sam or the Autobots. Example, while a huge Decepticon destroys a pyramid, another character calls a battleship off the coast and orders them to use their "rail gun." What is this rail gun? I don't know. First time we've ever heard about it. So, the battleship unveils this hi-tech rail gun and proceeds to destroy the huge Decepticon (from miles away!) when all of the Autobots could barely handle it. Yet they never use the gun again. Even as smaller and more exposed Decepticons continue to fight, the good guys never think, "Hey, that rail gun worked really nifty that time. Hm, how about..."

Moments like these seem too hammed and forced. This, matched with the constant intercutting of military procedures and lingo, create a climax that's like a geriatric patient wadding through mud.

Now, characterization is another thing to examine with these two films.

When the movie begins, you see that Sam's journey is going to be one of becoming a man. He's young and going off to college and his parents struggle to let him go. Now, more on his own than in the first film, Sam must rise to the occasion and lead the Autobots. Yet, isn't this essentially the same journey from the first film? What you soon realize in "Transformers: RotF" is that you are watching "Transformers," all over again, only with more robots, more action, and more dialogue. Sequels like "The Dark Knight" or "Spider-Man 2" demonstrated that you must ask a new dramatic question of your characters. The characters and the world must be explored differently, with new conclusions reached because of it. "Transformers: RotF" just retreads its predecessor's ground, adding nothing new.

And don't count on the Autobots to make the story feel any different. For spending so much time humanizing the Transformers with intricate facial expressions and body features, Bay fails to apply that same level of detail to their character arcs. Optimus Prime and his Autobot friends do not change. Optimus is always the loyal, headstrong leader. Bubblebee is always the loyal, childish robot. They don't grow, they don't evolve as a result of their conflicts. They simply move through a set of action pieces toward the film's end.

So now we're left with strict plot. "Transformers" was fairly standard in terms of its plot. We have a sympathetic character. He gets in trouble. Whoops! Bad guys. Comedic moments. Action. Damn, things look severe. What? Yay! Good guys win! So while I can't forgive the plot paradox of the Allspark being a object that can both restore and kill Transformers, I can say "Transformers" at least tried. On the other hand, "Transformers: RotF" takes poor plotting to another level.

The movie spends forty minutes establishing itself. And that's because it's just so damned convoluted. Here, just watch:

Sam is going to college and Mikaela is staying behind and while Sam's gone his parents are going to Paris to get some free time now that they've finally let their son go. But Sam touched a fragment of the Allspark from the first movie and now is having these mental breakdowns in class and drawing weird Autobot hieroglyphs everywhere. Meanwhile, The Autobots are working for the US government but at the same time they may be exiled by the government because the Decepticons are still causing a ruckus and the public is becoming more and more aware that there are gigantic robot aliens warring on the planet. Also the Decepticons are spying on Earth in order to locate Megatron (who died) so they can bring him to The Fallen who is the master of Megatron and wants to find this ancient machine that was left on Earth that will allow him to harness the sun's rays to get Energon which will enable him to create an army and take over the universe.

We wait nearly an hour for all of that to get set-up....just so we can understand what the hell is going on. What's worse? It doesn't stop there as Sam must journey to find an ancient Prime Transformer who space-jumps them to Egypt where they go on an Indiana Jones adventure trying to solve an ancient riddle about three kings and hunt down a legendary alien artifact.

Along the way, as we trudge through this near incomprehensible plot, we lose track of any character arcs, any themes, or any nuances that would make us appreciate this film as anything more than eye sex (and like I said, even that is jumbled). By the time we reach Egypt and the film's climactic battle, you actually find yourself rooting for the film to end regardless of who dies in the process.

The Decision. So yeah, I know, "Transformers" is not a great film. But it was understandable in terms of plot and character. There was something to hold onto in the journey of a boy becoming a man. But "Transformers: RotF" is just spectacle, and jumbled spectacle at best. It retreads its predecessors ground with more action and less class. So when it comes down to these two films, it's "Transformers" that offers us something more than what meets our eye!


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