From the Archive: Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen

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Ahead of the threequel, The Ooh Tray remembers Hollywood’s darkest two and a half hours.

Style as substance

(Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay, US, 2009, 150mins)

It may have escaped your attention but the relationship between Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg has now come full circle. Back in 1980 Bay had a job at Lucasfilm filing storyboards and it fell to him to index those of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that was incomplete at that time. He recently recalled that having seen the film in sketch form, he didn’t rate it, imagining that it wouldn’t work. For your sake I hope that you’re horrified by a critical faculty that blunt, but you might think it was a sign of things to come. Bay’s eye for good storytelling hasn’t improved since, but what you may ask, has happened to Spielberg?

Recently, sitting with Bay in a Hollywood preview theatre to view the rough cut of Transformers 2, the director of E.T, executive producer no less, sat with the hapless pyromaniac and delivered his verdict on what he’d just seen. ‘Michael’ he’s alleged to have said, ‘that was fucking awesome – your best movie to date’. Now what this tells us about Spielberg is an interesting question. Was he humouring Bay, thinking ‘wow, that was a dull, listless, clusterfuckarama, but as executive producer this is going to net me a small fortune, such is the appetite for brainless, senseless, thrill seeking toss during the summer season; tastes which in a cruel instance of historical irony, I created via a series of thrilling but well crafted movies throughout the seventies and eighties; the kind of movies that Michael saw as a child but can’t emulate because he remembered the excitement but paid no attention to the storytelling craft that came so naturally to me as a student and connoisseur of old Hollywood cinema’, or did he mean it?

If he meant it, Spielberg, the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time, must retire, because his quality control barometer in respect of the kind of movies that he doesn’t make anymore but which made his name, has broken, and with it, his filmmaking instinct. It would certainly be an interesting footnote in cinema history if Bay’s aesthetic has found an admirer in the man who arguably represents its antithesis, but if both men are now only interested in the money, perhaps that’s our cue to deny them their lucre by staying at home. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a bad movie, the kind you can steal from the internet with a clear conscience.

Bay may admire Spielberg but here he reminds us that he’s no closer to emulating the vice like tension of Jaws, the wonder of Close Encounters, the human story of E.T or the superb character driven adventure of Raiders, than you are. His Transformers sequel is a relentless aural and visual massacre – effects porn writ large in setpiece after dull, cornea shredding setpiece.

The computer generated imagery is fussy, more so than before; the overly elaborate robots having just too many morphing parts to focus on, and consequently it’s an exercise in agitated framing and quick cutting that quickly turns into a chore. In such a movie, where characters take on the role of television presenters, doing the links between the showreels of Industrial Light and Magic’s animators, there’s little to hold the attention beyond the superficial pleasure of watching objects destroyed. What’s that? That’s all you’re interested in? Well you can fuck off then can’t you?

Bay has no interest in his characters at all and neither do we. If you’re a male protagonist your job is to shout and machine gun the audience with gormless asides. If you’re female, Bay’s camera glides over your curves with a predatory zeal. Megan Fox, once again just a masturbatory fantasy for those who can’t get off on robots alone, sticks her rump in the air, pouts, blubs unconvincingly and holds our attention on slow motion runs in which her breasts bounce in time with the explosions. It’s easy enough on the eye but distressing for the mind; how can you be expected to feel like a diner at a dirty protest and maintain an erection simultaneously? Forget cognitive dissonance, this is cognitive breakdown.

On their own any of Bay’s characters, witless, hysterical, over bearing and unfunny – think Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, would be almost unbearable. But Transformers pushes audience tolerance to breaking point, employing no fewer than six or seven principles, and I’m including the robots that share the same predilection for wild gesticulation, rapid fire bullshit and flippant exchange, that make a terrible movie almost unwatchable.

Bay’s direction urges them to talk faster, emote more and wave their arms around, generating what he imagines to be a kind of nervous energy. This alone, he thinks, will move his monster forward. It’s an unusual experiment in that it’s designed to prove something we already knew; a film cannot work on sensory overload alone.

Enjoy your dividend Mr. Spielberg, just don’t image you’ve earned it.

June 2009

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