Saturday, 20 June 2009

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen Review

I've seen the new Transformers film, so what do I think?

For a start, it measures up (or down) to the first film. Nothing in it particularly surprised me which was a shame, but there was nothing that had me wanting to gouge my eyes out either. The pace is faster than the first, and there are less 'boring bits' but at the same time there's no genuinely rousing moments, such as the 'Arrival of the Autobots' from the 2007 installment. The plot is wafer-thin, an excuse for the characters to go chasing around the world and shoot things. I shan't spoil it since I don't really believe in spoilers, but there's also not that much that can be spoiled. The Decepticons and Autobots both want a doo-hicky, the Decepticons also want Sam, they have a fight in the desert, the US Army is awesome, join the army.

The titular Fallen is an interesting character choice. He was created by Simon Furman for his miniseries The War Within 2, where he was an ancient Transformer battling both Autobot and Decepticon, and constantly on fire. He was a good villain there, but in this film his role is slightly muddled. Here he is still one of the original Transformers, but instead he is the ancestor of the Decepticons, and sits about in his base plotting with Megatron and calling him his 'apprentice' whilst Megatron bows to his ‘master’. Yes, they've recast Megatron as Darth Vader and the Fallen as the Emperor. There's nothing wrong with that, it is a new continuity after all, but I can't help but feel it could have been more interesting. The problem is this: Megatron and the Fallen have pretty much identical roles as 'chief villain'. Neither do much, nothing separates them in motivation and it all feels a bit generic. Still, it is nice to get a chief bad guy who isn't Megatron.

Oh, and he doesn't burst into flames even once!

The human contingent is still present, but not nearly as annoying as in the previous movie. Sam Witwicky makes a strong showing as the lead, Megan Fox is back as Mikaela Banes and is as interesting as a brick wall (with a terrible sub-plot about Sam not saying he loves her, oh god) but oddly enough, it is the return of Agent Simmons which is the most welcome development. As an Evil Government Agent in the first film he bored me to tears, but now he operates out of the basement of his mum's meat shop and actually gets character development and everything. In a Michael Bay film no less! Of course, once he outlives his plot usefulness he completely vanishes from the film which was a shame since that was one of the threads I was most interested in.

There's not much I can say about the Autobots to be honest. They're just there for most of the film. We don't really get reintroduced to any of the original movie characters and there are some new guys who get namedropped and are very briefly seen. Mostly they all stay in the background and turn up to fights to help the military shoot stuff. The main heroes are Bumblebee and the twins, Mudflap and Skids. I use the term ‘heroes’ loosely since they don't actually do a lot apart from follow Sam about. The twins as the 'comedy relief' aren't as terrible as many are dreading but they're not exactly fantastic either.

Jetfire and Wheelie are probably the two best characters in the film. I know that's not saying much, but both have interesting back stories, and actual motivations. Of course, they too vanish for long stretches of the film.

This is one of my main criticisms with the film - the way it deals with characters. They duck in and out of the narrative seemingly at random. If someone's plot is done with, then they simply vanish. Midway through the film, Megatron declares all-out war on the entire planet, and then for about 45 minutes we don't see what the Decepticons are actually doing, apart from news reports about 'terrorists'. The Fallen touches down on Earth at the halfway point and then vanishes till the finale. Is he killing things? Making more videos? Chilling out? We don't know. Jetfire sends the good guys on a mission to Egypt, then promptly disappears until the end. Wheelie gets a meaty role and then - yes, you've guessed it, he vanishes.

There's just too many characters in the film, and the writers don't seem interested in letting the viewer keep track of them all. A case in point are the new Autobots. Arcee is (barely) mentioned and vanishes until the end. Apparently she is one robot with three bodies, though there's not even a throwaway line to explain that. Jolt is apparently one of the new Autobots - he is in one driving shot in the beginning, and then magically appears at the end when the Autobots need a hand.

The Decepticons are even worse at this, there isn't a solid 'crew' as in the first film, but instead mostly nameless generics. Do Sideways or Detour or Dead End appear in the film? I have no idea, perhaps they are part of the attack at the end, but the Decepticons look so generic that I couldn't tell them apart. For a film about alien space robots who all look completely different, that's pretty lousy.

Decepticon-wise, Scalpel is rather cool (but yes, vanishes halfway through), Starscream and Megatron actually get some interaction but that's about it. Ravage appears throughout the whole film and Soundwave gets a good 'coordinator' role. No one really does anything that interesting, they just stand about and shoot each other for the duration.

The dynamic of the first half of the film is probably the more satisfying to me. The villains are clearly defined - Soundwave is in space leading his bunch of guys over the world. There are some interesting ideas, such as Wheelie, Ravage, the 2-dimensional Decepticon and the Pretender (I love Pretenders!)

Then Megatron comes back to life and Decepticons are popping back and forth like nobody's business. In some respects, I think the increased budget was a mistake. The small cast of the first film forced all the Transformers to be more defined (if barely). The increased cast here has only really led to the Decepticons becoming easily-killed cannon fodder. Do you remember how Bonecrusher popped up in the first film, took a shot at Prime and promptly got stabbed in the head? That's pretty much the fate of every Decepticon in this movie.

Depending on how you look at it, this isn't a bad thing, but I like my evil space robot villains to feel a bit tougher and give me time to invest in them as characters before Optimus Prime punches through their chest and crushes their face.

My main criticism though is the length. At two and a half hours this is a very long film, and not even a ton of explosions can justify it. I'm sure it could have been easily cut down to a more manageable two hours and perhaps have a faster pace. The strange thing is, for the incredible length of the film it seems to end in a huge rush. Devastator doesn't really do anything before he's taken down easily, and the fact I only think to mention him now cements in my mind what an afterthought he is. Lastly, the final epic confrontation that the entire film builds towards seems to happen in under a minute.

Even though it is a wafer-thin plot, there are several plot holes that niggle me. Without giving too much away, the main one revolves around Sam searching for a device that can bring a Transformer back to life, even though he carries around a shard of the Allspark, that is used through the film for the exact same purpose! Even a throwaway 'Oh no you can't use the Allspark to do that!' would have satisfied me. Secondly Jetfire informs us that the Fallen told him the device is located in Egypt, yet the Fallen is shown to have Decepticons scouring the globe for it. Maybe they just fancied a holiday?

How do I feel about this film then? Honestly, I'm not sure. The visual spectacle is amazing and it is worth a watch just for that. You can actually tell what is happening on screen this time around, which is a bonus. There's no attempt to portray any of the Transformers as anything but ciphers and cannon-fodder which is a huge shame, and there's no real stand-out moments. On the other hand, there are not really any terrible moments. It's frustratingly average in everything but special effects.

If someone gave me a Chinese burn, and forced me to rate it, I'd probably give it three stars out of five. Worth seeing, but it isn't anything to write home about.