An Expensive Learning Curve: Reviewing
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

by Sharon "Tut" LaBorde

I went in to see "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ready to shred it apart. I hated the first live-action "Transformers" adaptation and early reviews for this new one didn't show much promise. So I sat down in the theatre with my analytic wits at the ready; and, I must say, I was a bit surprised. "Revenge" shows some marked improvements over the first installment. However, the gaps between these improvements betray several systemic flaws that continue to hold back this film franchise's potential.

Several reviewers have already accused this movie of having no plot. Let me clarify: this movie has some plot, just no suspense. We figured out, through several different characters' explanations, everything that remained to unfold with at least a half-hour left to go in the film. There were no surprise twists close to the end, no additional revelations to have the audience wondering, "Now what?" This fault lies obviously with the writers, who seemed to make no effort to keep any story elements hidden and deliberately string the audience along. Consider a film's amount of plot as falling within a spectrum: popcorn fluff like the first "Transformers" and "Independence Day" are at the lowest end, while an example of the absolute highest end would be the "Bourne" trilogy (which has you guessing until the end of the third film). "Revenge of the Fallen" would be in the lower middle of this spectrum; which, again, is still an improvement over the last one.

Plot in "Revenge" is stalled by another factor, specifically its pacing. It took forever for the story to build momentum--almost as bad as in director Michael Bay's god-awful earlier film, "Independence Day", which spent almost an hour just on exposition. I bet that as much as a half-hour of "Revenge of the Fallen" could have been shaved off had the battle sequences not been so bloated with stock, slow-motion-running-punching-or-transforming, closeup-of-person-screaming, explosion-with-bass-effects footage. I kept wanting to say, "That's nice, Mikey, now put down your toys and finish telling your story".

Which brings me to the issue of special effects. We have to stop judging movies based on the quality of their special effects, because those effects are no longer "special". The last truly groundbreaking visual effects came in the 1999 "Matrix" film, and ironically were made with more traditional camera techniques than computer imagery. So to revel in "ooh, wow, check out these nifty CGI transformation sequences"--or conversely, to carp on robots moving with gymnastic agility as not looking "real"--is no longer a valid argument. Ten years ago, when the technology was still being perfected, it would have been a more relevant complaint. But for better or worse, the blending of live and CGI elements we have in "Transformers" and "Revenge" is now commonplace rather than exceptional; this would be a good time for filmmakers to rediscover those traditional virtues of editing, creatively staging, and storytelling with imagery as well as words. The technology has been mastered, now filmmakers need to master its utilization.

That being said, I think this film also proved why the looking-down-the-nose prejudice of CGI versus traditional animation is utterly baseless. Remember those repetitive, drawn-out transformation sequences from animated classics like "Voltron", the original "Transformers", and many others? Remember how 'cheesy' we called them as we got older? Well, they live on in "Revenge of the Fallen". In fact, all of the vagaries present in the original Transformers' conversion sequences have been reincarnated in "Revenge". Some sequences were quick--one or two seemed almost nonexistent--while others were prolonged just to show off the 'ooh neat' factor, and there were inconsistencies between the various transformations. I've studied examples from the original cel-animated characters in order to map out their transforming sequences step by step for my own art; I saw some of the same deliberate shortcuts and shortfalls in "Revenge" as I did in the original 1986 movie. Which ultimately proves that, no matter what medium or technology is used, the human artist's capability is still what makes or breaks the final animation. And again, it illustrates why effect sequences should be treated as a component, not the focal point, of a film.

From this point on, if you want to avoid spoilers, I advise averting thine eyes!

Certain elements of "Revenge" did show tremendous potential. The feline Decepticon Ravage, for example, was spot-on. I wholeheartedly nominate him as the best translation of a G1 character to live action in either film, and frankly, he needed more screen time. More opportunities for him to slink behind enemy lines, hack into the humans' computer systems, or generally wreak covert havoc would have be fun and creepy and great. Also fun and creepy was when Megatron pinned down Sam Witwicky in order to have one of his minions scan Sam's brain. This sequence directly pitted human frailty against cold, unforgiving machine, something I would like to see more of in these movies. My only complaint with that scene--other than it being too short--was that the little minion robot was too comical. This problem, again, is systemic within "Revenge" and its predecessor. The exchange might have been even creepier, and thus more compelling, had Megatron himself been able to perform the scan. The conflict between him and Sam would have been even more immediately personal at that point.

Megatron's interplay with Starscream was also rather well done. I accept, however heavy-heartedly, that we will never have Chris Latta's version of Starscream back. But his old colleague Charles Adler is forging a new Starscream that could certainly hold his own in these new movies, provided he's given enough screen time to do so. Starscream actually had the third element on my list of "fun, creepy and great, but we need more": his ominous circling over the climactic battle at the Great Pyramids and knocking out communications from the air (which is something of an homage to G1 Starscream's ability to disrupt electrical circuits with his null rays). A jet circling overhead might seem like a minor element, but if carried further than it had been here, it could have played up the vulnerability of the ground-based human and Autobot forces as Starscream attacked them from the air, cold and aloof and untouchable.

Unfortunately, small diamonds such as the ones I've just described have to be picked out from the coal and muck of several gross caricatures. Aside from the aforementioned comic buffoon minions, if I ever hear another critic of G1 complain about how anthropomorphic the original characters looked, all I have to do now is point out the idiotic Autobot twin with the gold tooth, Jetfire's beard and cane, and the coup de grace, Devastator's "Decepticles". Thank you, Michael Bay, for justifying scores of X-rated Transformers fanfiction writers who luridly describe anthropomorphosized sex acts between robots in so-called "sticky fics". And no, I am NOT making any of this up.

I found two glaring mistakes made with two established characters, but otherwise the classic cast was well-done. Soundwave, appearing for the first time in "Revenge", stayed wonderfully faithful to his original persona, especially with his G1 voice actor Frank Welker reprising the role. I clapped and wanted to cheer when I heard him, though I still openly regret that Mr. Welker wasn't given his due with Megatron as well. That was not one of the two specific characterization errors I found, however. The first occurred very early in the film, when Optimus Prime levelled his blaster at a defeated Decepticon and asked, "Any last words?" before a short exchange and shooting said Decepticon in the head. Prime should never have done that, because it contradicts his canon-established value for all life, including Decepticons'. Recall that in the 1986 movie his demise came when he refused to shoot Megatron unarmed, and then when Megatron took another Autobot as a shield. What Optimus should have said in "Revenge" was something to the effect of, "It doesn't have to be this way," allowing the Decepticon to remain unrepentantly defiant, maybe even trying to fight back. Optimus' killing shot should have been accompanied by, "Then you leave me no choice." He never gloried in the dirty job he had to do.

The second problem was with Megatron essentially playing second fiddle to The Fallen. Megatron bows to no one. He is absolute. On one hand this situation could have presented some wonderful story potential, such as a badly-needed surprise twist at the end; Megatron could have turned on The Fallen once their doomsday machine was activated, killing him and claiming the potential glory for himself. This would also foreshadow any potential treachery with Starscream, since Megatron would have overthrown his master and Starscream would repeat the cycle. But for Megatron to sincerely choose discipleship to any being is quite out of character, and furthermore it steals his thunder. Good villains don't deserve that.

This movie did manage to pique my 'inner geek' with a few things, though. The calligraphic symbols Sam kept seeing and scribbling everywhere look like a cross between Siddham script (a type of Sanskrit used in Buddhist mandalas), Arabic and maybe a little Tibetan. Using this Cybertronian script for subtitles was another fun addition; has anyone bothered to develop a "Cybertronian alphabet" with this? If so, the armchair calligrapher in me wants to break out my brush and ink and get my fan geek on.

The Egyptian references were certainly not lost upon me, either. I could tell several shots were done in the famous Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Amun at Karnak--the mock-up set imitated it fairly well, although technically there are no ruins that look like that immediately near the Great Pyramids. It was a rather appropriate irony, though, that a device meant to destroy the sun emerged from an ancient monument that was built (by the Egyptians, not aliens!) to evoke the mythical Primeval Mound from which the sun god Ra first emerged. I also noticed that The Fallen's head design included blue stripes reminiscent of the pharaohs' traditional nemes headdress; think the mask of King Tut, or check for another visual comparison. So for all those who've commented bemusedly at my Egyptian headdress with the Autobot and Decepticon symbols on it, I say, "HAH! I called it first!"

On the whole, "Revenge of the Fallen" represents essentially a multi-million-dollar learning curve. The production team seems to be learning how to work with the Robots in Disguise, but all of their progress is being weighed down by bad habits and egocentric notions. If they can just get over their own "ooh, wow, special effects robots!" and ridiculously unwholesome sight gags, instead concentrating on just telling their story, they can cover some real ground with this franchise. Maybe if they take some of the revenue from "Revenge" and use it to make a few practice pieces, "Transformers 3" will be a genuinely good film.

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