Yap vs. Yap: Transformers
JOE: This week we're Yapping about one of the biggest films of the year, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," the sequel to the 2007 flick that the two of us had pretty wildly diverging opinions about. You thought it was a mess; I thought it was two parts geeky fanboy bliss, one part Michael Bay at his best, a phrase that is perhaps the cinematic equivalent of "Hitler at his most tolerant" or "Sarah Palin at her smartest."
Here's the story on the sequel: it's a mess. The sequel introduces a ton of new characters, including a new main nemesis for the Autobots, an ancient Decepticon called "The Fallen." He instantly becomes Optimus Prime's chief nemesis, shoving the fearsome-enough Megatron to the background to a degree.
This story arc lines up to an extent with the established "Tranformers" canon, but they introduce The Fallen willy-nilly, and he just suddenly appears out of nowhere.
The other new main characters include twin cars named Skids and Mudflap, two urban hip-hop-attitude characters that dangle dangerously close to being an offensive stereotype of inner-city blacks, Wheelie, a tiny robot that transforms into a remote-controlled truck, and the geriatric Jetfire, a past-his-prime warrior who switches teams. None of them are any more interesting than, say, Ironhide, Prime's trusted weapons man who is criminally underused.
There are plot holes, strange narrative choices and puzzling developments galore that bog down an already too-confusing plot, which takes the long way round to "the bad guys want to destroy the earth and drain it of all its energy."
Having said that, Optimus Prime blossoms in this film, becoming a titanium John Wayne, the ultimate badass, and virtually every moment he's on screen, namely in fight sequences, it's riveting.
CHRIS: Argh, "riveting"? Five days in the critics' dungeon for you!
Joe, we are going in opposite directions, because I actually liked the sequel better than the original. Although, because I thought the 2007 "Transformers" sucked a mighty wind, any improvement was bound to seem huge.
We're probably ending up in about the same place on "Revenge of the Fallen" -- a passable summer popcorn flick with a logic-defying plot. But perhaps because you grew up watching the "Transformers" TV show and I did not, you were so stoked to see the first one that you let its many, many flaws pass by your normally finely-tuned BS detector.
We agree on one huge point: Optimus Prime is a 30-ton stud. His scenes in the sequel are the best things about it, occasionally even reaching -- dare we say about a Michael Bay flick? -- actual emotional resonance. We care about Optimus and root for him. That one scene where he takes on like four or five Decepticons at once is pure kick-ass.
My biggest problem with these "Transformers" flicks is that the nature of the robots makes the action scenes hard to follow. Since they're big folding creatures with tires and all sorts of other widgets hanging off them, when they fight toe-to-toe it's difficult to tell what is what -- especially when pieces of them get knocked off. In my syndicated review, I wrote that it's "like watching piles of welded metal scrap caught in a Kansas twister."
JOE: Yes, as a fan I did gleefully overlook some gaping flaws in the first film, flames on Optimus and a watered-down arm cannon for Megatron (which they thankfully fixed in this film) in exchange for the geeky fanboy rapture of Prime and company.
And yes, I said riveting. The only problem is that's the only time you can use anything resembling that word about this film. The rest of the time it's silly jokes, most of them getting increasingly risqué (including one where Sam's mother talks about him "popping his cherry," which I just found disturbing). Even the squeaky-clean Autobots get into the act, with them letting swear words fly unfiltered.
I'll agree with you that the fight scenes are at times nearly incomprehensible. I could make out what was happening, but it was pretty difficult.
But "Revenge of the Fallen" was rife with bad editing and just head-scratching choices. After one very somber scene where a major character "dies," we immediately cut to Sam's parents and an obscene phone call joke. It sucked the steam out of the moment, and it's something Bay did in this film repeatedly.
CHRIS: Well, it IS Michael Bay we're talking about, after all. This is the director who looks upon human actors as obstacles for his neat-o special effects and explosions.
I wasn't terribly put off by the twin Autobots throwing around urban slang. They clearly were intended as comic relief, and that's exactly what they accomplished. I actually liked the one who had gold teeth in his grille (literally).
At some point I sort of surrendered to this movie, shifting my brain into neutral and just going with it. If you regard it as anything other than mindless entertainment, you're bound to come away scratching your head. I mean, all the stuff about fallen Primes and Matrixes of Leadership and other gobbledygook just piles up.
I also liked Jetfire, the old Decepticon who switches sides to the Autobots after being raised from his long slumber in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (amazing place to visit, by the way -- don't miss it if you're in the D.C. area). He seemed to be based on a Celtic warrior or something, with a long "beard" and vaguely Scottish accent. I also loved his line about Transformers being on Earth for so long that his father was the first wheel. "Do you know what he transformed into? Nothing!! But he did it with honor and dignity!"
JOE: Jetfire was fun, and his ultimate fate seemed a little rushed, but it did fit with "canon" so to speak.
I also noticed that Bay took a bit of a political shot at President Obama as well. In the first film, Jon Voight was the (unnamed Bush administration) Secretary of Defense who ended up being a tough guy on his own, taking a shotgun to the Decepticons.
In the second film, our government liason is a skinny little weasel who throws his weight around, having no military experience and insisting he knows what's best to do in a miltary situation. He's an interloper who doesn't know his proper place. Later in the film, it's noted in a news cast that President Obama (naming AND showing him) has gone to a secret presidential bunker to hide from the Decepticon threat. It does little for the quality of the film, but is an interesting bit of political commentary in the giant dumb action flick.
I do want to mention the other aspect of the film they got right, which was the relationship between Megatron and Starscream, which was vaguely touched on in the first film, but developed here. Starscream, as Megatron's power-hungry second, was much more of a weasel here, groveling to Megatron but always plotting behind his back.
And I have to give Bay and Co. credit for Soundwave, who was a tape recorder in the original series (who ejected smaller, but equally dangerous, Transformer tapes, one of whom is Ravage, who we saw in this film). Re-envisioning him as a satellite was pretty cool, though he didn't do much in terms of action.
But another negative in the "Fallen" character. I would have been fine with this movie dropping him altogether and focusing on Megatron as the leader. He wasn't set up in the first film, and his sudden appearance was just strange -- Megatron fled to some base of theirs and there he was.
Ultimately I too surrendered, and I have to admit I loved the too-brief appearance of Devastator, the giant robot comprised of five "Constructicons," and his battle with Skids and Mudflap, which was fun (and brought a loud belly-laugh from my little boy). It kind of strained credulity, though, when cars and giant robots can't hang on for dear life, but a couple of humans holding onto poles can keep from being sucked into his metal vortex of a mouth.
CHRIS: See, the fact that you know all the names of Transformers proves how much more of a fanboy you are than I am. Other than Optimus, I couldn't even tell you any of their names without looking them up. But then, I just read Roger Ebert's review and he refers to Jetfire as Starscream, so I don't feel so bad.
As for the Fallen, they were basically creating a character who is to Megatron what the Emperor is to Darth Vader. You think Megatron is the ultimate badass, so it's kind of creepy to find out he's just the minion. "Revenge of the Fallen" also liberally stole from other movies. Did you notice that the remote desert temple where they find the Matrix appears to be the same one that housed the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"?
Like I said, it's funny to me that you liked the first movie, and I hated it, but we end up meeting in the middle on the sequel. The only difference is for you it's a letdown, and for me it's a quantum leap forward. With rivets.
Joe's rating: 3 Yaps (out of 5) Chris' rating: 3 Yaps
Read Nick Rogers' review of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" here.