Super Serial – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Demolishor

C-

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

As a film, Revenge of the Fallen exhibits many of the same weaknesses as Transformers. However, as a story featuring our favorite Robots in Disguise, it fares considerably better. Michael Bay and company take a few steps towards rectifying many of the mistakes they made in the first movie, which unforgivably marginalized the characters named in the title, relegating them to the status of second-class agents in their own film. In Fallen, for better or worse, the Transformers are front-and-center.

So how does Fallen‘s robot representation improve? Most significantly (to fans of the property, anyway), a few of the Transformers here are lucky enough to become actual characters, one-dimensional as they may be. The Decepticon triumvirate (Megatron, Starscream and Soundwave) are the luckiest. To be fair, even the first movie did Megatron quite well, but what’s Megatron without his cloying, manipulative lieutenant to play off of? Starscream makes a splash in this movie in a big way, regaining the personality that defined him in the 1980s and every Transformers incarnation since. This time around the film’s writers really brought his cowardice and conniving to prominence, culminating in a super ’80s line from him at the movie’s end: “Not to call you a coward, master, but sometimes cowards survive.”

Soundwave, too, totally pops in this movie. It’s completely reasonable that Michael Bay would feel a boombox Transformer wouldn’t quite work (we saw what that’d be like in 2007, anyway) so his team concentrated on Soundwave’s original function in the Decepticon army, that of a spy. It makes perfect sense that he’d be chilling up in orbit as a satellite, stealing bits of communication and coordinating his army’s efforts as necessary. Of course the film also sees fit to incorporate Soundwave’s 1980s buddy, Ravage, whose “launching” scene is probably one of the most surprisingly awesome parts of this film.

Soundwave also allows us to see another strength of Fallen: several of the robot designs improve markedly. It’s as though Bay and his team realized how ugly the first film’s characters were and decided to embrace it. What results are some truly interesting designs that deviate substantially from the Transformers norm. The aforementioned Soundwave has no legs; he’s just a body on top of communications equipment. There’s Demolishor (pictured above), the construction vehicle from the Shanghia sequence who doesn’t have traditional arms or legs, just two giant wheels and scoops for arms, giving him something of a modular body. Similarly, the construction robot Rampage has a piledriving pylon for legs and wheel treads as arm tendrils. The design team here gets really inventive, realizing — I think correctly — that if you’re going to have robots that don’t look like robots, at least make them look really weird and creative.

Besides designs, Fallen decides to be a little more daring with what its Transformer characters can actually do. I know a lot of people hated her, but I enjoyed the Pretender-style “Alice,” the Decepticon robot sent to kill Sam at college. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but at least it shows that the film’s creators are pushing the concept of Transformers past its usual stopping point. Also, although I pretty much loathe the character, I enjoyed the idea of the annoying Wheelie, whose alternate mode is a toy monster truck; I think this is the first Transformer that’s ever literally turned into a toy. And of course, there’s the hulking Devastator, a combination of six construction vehicles who’s a mega-callback to the 1980s cartoon. I know some people were ultimately let down by his visuals, but I loved them, finding his presence onscreen to be totally imposing.

You may have noticed that the Decepticons come off much better than the Autobots here. As for the good guys, their designs are still pretty hard to look at, Bumblebee still urinates on someone, and there may or may not be a modern minstrel show amongst their ranks. I will say that Optimus Prime’s dialog improves noticeably over Transformers; Fallen thankfully does not feature him asking anyone what’s “with them” or apologizing via “my bad.” The character is treated with the necessary respect, and his scenes have the appropriate gravity. Actually, maybe they have too much gravity; Fallen finds Optimus getting a little murderous, killing at least three robots in cold blood (or whatever the equivalent is for machines). I’m not going to say the shot where Optimus pulls apart Blackout’s face with his swords isn’t cool (because it sure as hell is), but Optimus does come off a little kill-happy.

Other than that, I mean, it’s a Michael Bay movie… what do you expect? I know I’ve spent a lot of time defending Fallen, but that’s because I think audiences — audiences of Transformers fans especially — are far too harsh on this picture, especially compared to Bay’s abysmal first outing. There’s no need to document the director’s particular shortcomings here, except to hit a few obvious points: the sound mixing is still awful, as is the lighting. More egregious, if possible, Bay’s camera has lost even more focus than before; fight scenes are even harder to decipher than in the first film because of constant pans and zooms (although I think that the actual content of those fight scenes is miles better here).

Fallen is a pretty bad movie, but I’m totally perplexed as to why Transformers fans join in massively hating it when it treats the characters they purport to love so much better. It really worries me that Michael Bay’s expressed a desire to look back to the first movie with Dark of the Moon — that means we can expect an increased human presence, little to no Transformer development, and more pointless military shots than you can shake a stick at. Maybe Megan Fox had the right idea bailing on this franchise when she did.

Before we proceed with the notes, I feel like I have to address the racial critique regarding Skids and Mudflap, the “shuckin’ and jivin’” Autobot brothers. Look, I don’t deny that there’s some cultural insensitivity going on here, but people calling it straight-up racist need to think a little harder about what’s being portrayed on screen. First of all, you’re looking at red and green robots, not black people or even people of any kind. You’d certainly be correct to point out the urban flavor to their voices, but how do you know they’re not mocking ghetto white people instead? In fact, Skids’ voice actor is a white guy, Mr. Tom Kenny of Spongebob Squarepants fame (also Starscream on Transformers: Animated). Besides that, Skids and Mudflap’s screen time is so limited, it’s not as though their antics pervade the whole movie, something people crying “racist” would have you believe. Everyone’s all up in arms about the “we can’t read” line, but if you look at the context of that scene, they’re being asked to read an ancient language. I can’t read Greek; am I some kind of stereotype? Further, we don’t actually know if any Transformers can read at all. Maybe they decipher language differently. Yes, I’m doing gymnastics to get Bay out of this critique, but no more than the gymnastics done by those people who insist that two stupid robots are meant to represent black people. Far more problematic, if you ask me, is how these films treat Tyrese’s character.

NOTES:
-Remember how the first movie bothered me in all the ways it connected Transformers and human history? Yeah, that’s back, although it gets me less here (probably because in this film the Transformers’ influence remained hidden).
-Despite challenging the racial critique, I do agree with the sexual critiques of these movies — the way Michael Bay makes Megan Fox contort to get her boobs and butt in the same shot is unbelievable.
-Speaking of Megan Fox — I feel the Sam/Mikaela relationship again mostly doesn’t work, although there is perhaps a nugget of humanity in the anxiety caused by Sam’s going away to college.
-The scene where Sam’s appliances come to life is like a cartoon, and I mean that in a bad way. The few instances we had of that in the first movie were enough… a whole kitchen full of tiny, sadistic robots doesn’t really appeal to me.
-Why can’t Bumblebee talk again? This character is awful.
-Good casting: bringing Frank Welker back to do Soundwave. Even without all the metallic processing on his voice, it still feels right.
-Early on in the film, Tyrese’s character delivers this line: “If God made us in his image, who made him?” referring to Optimus Prime. This is important for two reasons: 1) it continues the trend of Tyrese’s only job being to act incredulous, and 2) it sets up a potential cosmological story involving Unicron and Primus, something I thought the second movie might end up exploring.
-The Optimus Prime/Galloway scene is probably the best part of either of Bay’s Transformers movies. The idea Galloway suggests — that Prime’s presence has actually endangered Earth — is not only interesting and worth exploring, but it’s an actual idea. Unfortunately, Fallen doesn’t really go anywhere with this, but there is a lot of promise here.
-What’s up with Sam’s hacker roommates? Other than Leo, they don’t really serve a purpose.


-I made it a point last week to compliment Sam’s mom, Julie White, for giving Transformers an actual worthwhile comic performance. But the pot brownie scene in this one… man… I don’t know.
-Not only is Soundwave awesome, and not only is Ravage awesome, but the guy made out of Ravage’s balls is also awesome.
-Between the frat party scene in this movie and Mikaela’s boyfriend in the last, it’s very clear that Michael Bay hates bros. That’s funny, because I rather pictured him as a bro myself (bros like explosions, right?).
-I know last time I argued for more scenes where Transformers talked to each other, but the Decepticon ship scene in Fallen bothers me. For one — where is this ship? Why is it just sitting in space somewhere, presumably not too far from Earth? Why is the Fallen chilling in a gooey chair, and how long has he been waiting there?
-Which brings me to another point. I think the Fallen is a pretty weak villain.
-Which brings me to a third point, and this one’s for Transformers nerds only. Remember, the Fallen is a rejected Prime, one of the original Transformers leaders turned evil. Did anyone else out there think that perhaps he’s Nemesis Prime?
-Which brings me to a fourth point, and all you norms can come back for this one. Fallen does a lot to incorporate Transformers mythology from other media (Primes, the Matrix, etc.), much moreso than Bay’s first film. It’s not all great, but one appreciates the effort.
-Rainn Wilson as Sam’s professor: wasted casting, but hilarious. I love the character he plays, kind of a hypersexualized Indiana Jones of astronomy. NBC, I think there’s a future in this post-Office.
-As much as I like the idea of Alice, I feel like more could have been done with the idea of a human/Transformer combo.
-I don’t know what I think about the scene where Megatron tortures Sam. I feel like the movie plays it the wrong way. It should feel much more menacing than it does, right? Instead, Shia LeBeouf just falls back on his usual game of acting frantic and befuddled.
-Though a little anticlimactic (because come on, did anybody actually think Prime would die?), the forest duel scene is pretty sweet.
-The Decepticons falling to Earth here inverts the “Autobots from Heaven” scene from last film, although this one gets the tone a lot more correct.
-So here’s a plot point that goes nowhere: the Transformers’ “coming out” to the worldwide media. Almost nothing is done with the fact that the whole world now knows giant robots exist. Will DoTM pick up that thread?
-Further, I think part of the problem with that scene is that we only garner information through worldwide news media reports… instead of seeing people respond, we’re merely told about it. That degree of separation, to me, removes any impact that scene might have.
-Who is the Australian/British soldier whose first line in the movie is “whatever the Decepticons are after, this is just the start”? Don’t we need to, like, know your name before you start introducing plot points?


-In line with Julie White, I also feel John Turturro’s performance here isn’t as sharp as in the first movie, though I love this line, playing off the gravity his character had last time around: “What you’re about to see is top secret. Do not tell my mother.”
-I would’ve liked to have seen a few more old-style Transformers (like the jalopy, etc.).
-Another cool incorporation of Transformers mythology: the “Seekers.”
-The tazer scene in the Smithsonian is another groan-inducing fit of bad comedy.
-Re: Jetfire’s awakening — why is everyone so freaked out he’s a Decepticon? Didn’t Wheelie tell them only Decepticons knew the information they were looking for?
-Another design I quite appreciate is Jetfire’s, who somehow has a beard and uses his landing gear as a cane.
-A shot that has always bothered me: why is there a gigantic open field of jets out back of the Air and Space Museum? That edit makes no sense.
-Wheelie humping Mikaela is truly, truly awful.
-God help me, I quite enjoy Jetfire’s character, as well — there aren’t enough crotchety old Transformers. “My father was a wheel. You know what he transformed into? Nothing!”
-Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Leo, could totally pass for John Turturro’s kid.
-I quite appreciate that the U.S. military’s role is significantly reduced in this film. They help out on the action scenes and provide massive backup for the finale, but that feels infinitely more organic than cutting to them every five minutes like Transformers did.
-Another nice comedy bit from Turturro — his “one man” speeches.
-I wonder if Chevy’s upset that people think their vehicles are racist.
-Besides Tyrese’s job of questioning or exclaiming, Bay also puts him to good use by declaring things “ain’t friendly.”
-How does Megatron know the Matrix will revive Prime, yet Jetfire says it was never used for such a purpose? Is Megatron just guessing, or is Jetfire out of touch?
-Continuing Megatron’s trend of weirdly announcing things, when Devastator forms he helpfully speaks this complete line of dialogue: “DEVASTATOR!!!”
-Alright, Bumblebee sucks in this movie but his takedown of Ravage is pretty cool.
-There is almost, maybe, a tiny bit of humanity in the pre-battle scene between Sam and his dad.
-Speaking of military involvement, I appreciate that the Jordanians have a part in the final battle. Their technology looks almost laughable, but at least they tried.
-Random Decepticons seem to have survived from the first movie — Scorpinok, Brawl, Bonecrusher — how’d they pull that off?
-Y’know, I don’t mind that Devastator has a scrotum. Where else are those wrecking balls going to go?
-Has anyone else noticed the climactic scene involves a lot of running, especially on Shia LeBeouf’s part?
-Sam’s “death” and resurrection is kind of weird… I’m put off by the fact that Transformers can bring him back to life when he’s flesh and blood. Also, does anyone else think this is the specific scene Edgar Wright was parodying in Scott Pilgrim?
-That said, I do like this plot point, from the ancient Primes: “The Matrix is not found, it is earned.”
-In both movies, Sam shoves something in someone’s chest. What will it be in DoTM?
-Jetfire’s incredulity at Prime’s resurrection — “A living Prime… I don’t believe it” — is really cool, and kind of echoes Transformers: The Movie (Kup: “Prime did it… he turned the tide!”) Actually, there are a few similarities between Fallen‘s Jetfire and Kup.
-I suspect a lot of non-fans totally checked out at the “take my parts!” scene. Me… I loved it. It’s super-campy but totally fits with what we know about Transformers.
-The film ends very abruptly, but then it’s already very long.
-An example of what I mean re: the film not doing anything with the Transformers’ mass-media exposure — how can Sam return to school? Shouldn’t he be a world-famous figure now?
-Linkin Park’s song for this film sounds pretty much exactly like their song for the last one.

Next week, my take on Bark at the Moon… sorry… Dark of the Moon. I hope it’s (Zach) wild.

tags: michael bay, revenge of the fallen, super serial, transformers

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    “Yes, I’m doing gymnastics to get Bay out of this critique, but no more
    than the gymnastics done by those people who insist that two stupid
    robots are meant to represent black people.”

    “Watto may be a big-nosed, bearded merchant who cares only about money and cheating people, but we’re looking at a winged green alien, not a Jew of any kind.” No, Rikki, I think your gymnastics are a little more elaborate in this case. The problem is that the characteristics of these robots largely fit the characteristics of insensitive and racist black stereotypes, from the jive-talking to the tricked-out alt-modes to the big ‘ears’ and ‘lips’ and gold tooth, to their use as comic relief in a manner that evokes similar treatment of black characters in comics and films of the distant past. I don’t suspect that Bay meant to make the characters into the Autobot Al Jolson, but I also don’t suspect that George Lucas meant to have his messianic main villain raised by a Jewish figure straight out of a Jack Chick tract.

    Even if we accept your alternate hypothesis–”how do you know they’re not mocking ghetto white people instead?”–the problem remains the same, since “ghetto white people” are largely perceived (correctly or incorrectly) as co-opting black cultural tropes and/or emulating racist stereotypes. Which is not to say that “mocking ghetto white people” would be much better, or that doing so is outside of Bay’s wheelhouse (the next film promises a Nascar transformer with sunglasses and a mullet!). I think the problem is both the tone-deafness of the portrayal, coupled with Bay’s general inability to characterize anyone beyond a stereotype.

    I’d agree with you about the language bit, except the double-backflip of “we don’t actually know if any Transformers can read at all” (nothing indicates that this would be the case, and as I recall, the robots suggest that someone older would be able to decipher it–isn’t that why they sought out Jetfire?)–because the implication is clear, as you pointed out. The problem was that, in the context of the larger stereotypes of the characters, having them admit to illiteracy on-screen (even if it was justified) was a further sign of the oblivious tone-deafness. Like DC’s recent Flashpoint map that originally depicted Africa as “ape-controlled;” it was justified and made sense with the plot, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t forehead-slappingly insensitive.

    And I think that accounts for a lot of the problem that people have with this compared to the first one. Sure, the last movie had Transformers who said things like “my bad” (which, you know, they said they learned English from Earth media, so why get bothered about that?) and made comic use of urination, but this one put two cartoonish stereotypes front and center, and featured robots urinating, humping legs like spastic poodles, dangling swinging testicles, and farting. Prime got his death scene and everyone got to be violent, and robots got to talk to each other for once, but I don’t necessarily think it made up for the further descent of the titular robots into nonsensical comedy roles.

  • Anonymous

     The main thing about your point I want to rebut is that Skids and Mudflap aren’t “Front and center.” They feature in about 1.5 scenes, and only one of them really deals with their objectionable characteristics. Is it insensitive? Absolutely. But that’s one scene in 2.5 hour movie. The first 7/8 of Bay’s first film are almost unwatchable. Yes, Fallen has other bad scenes, but on the whole I still think it’s a better made movie.

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    They must be awfully long scenes. Aside from their brief appearance at the beginning as an ice cream truck, they’re tasked with following Shia around, and then there’s the big Constructicon battle, where they come out on top. Maybe it’s just because few of the other Autobots–particularly the new ones like Arcee–got nearly as much characterization, but they certainly seemed to have more focus than most of the other Autobots.

    I’ll admit, though, that I haven’t watched the full movie as recently as you have, so this could be just my misperception.

  • Anonymous

    I think they did have more focus than most of the Autobots, but hardly any one robotic character gets a ton of screen time (perhaps excepting Prime and Megatron). The scenes I’m counting as offensive for the twins: the obvious “we can’t read” scene, and then their little scrap in the desert that ends up uncovering the tomb of the Primes. I count that latter example as only half theirs because half the focus there is on Shia.

    As for the rest, which are mostly battle scenes, their dialog’s reduced to one-liners that basically have no meaning, nor do those scenes really play up the parts of the characters people find objectionable, I think.

  • VickiG

    Btw the guy who says “whatever the decepticons are after..” line is NOT AUSTRALIAN!!! I am British, and so is he!! We do not sound the same!!!

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