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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

WARNING: PRIME SPOILERS

Watching “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen,” in which two sects of ancient machines—Autobots (good ones) and Decepticons (bad ones)—battle each other over the future of the human race, and realizing that this horrifying spectacle of nonsense made $60 million at the box office last Wednesday, breaking almost all one-day records and so forever dooming us to more of the same, I began to root for the Decepticons. I figured if we are dumb enough to give this thing primacy in our culture, better to end it. Finish us off now.

Did 46-year-olds back in 1977 think this way when they first saw “Star Wars”? I doubt it. “Star Wars” was not just futuristic whiz-bang stuff but a throwback. It recalled the excitement and cliffhangers of 1930s and ‘40s movie serials. “It even has a swing across a chasm!” a friend of my father’s said that summer, defending the film (from him). It was also populated with archetypes: the naive, dreamy hero; the bad-ass rebel; the tough princess; the wise father; the bad guy in black. Characters steeped in history and myth.

“Transformers” deals in stereotypes: characters steeped in our shitty, throwaway culture. There’s already controversy about Skids and Mudflap, the trash-talking, hip-hop (and, for whatever reason, ugly) Autobots used as comic relief throughout the movie, but they’re just the start. What about the small, ratty Decepticon, who seems voiced by Steve Buscemi but isn’t (Buscemi should sue), and who is last seen humping Megan Fox’s leg? What about the empirical British Decepticon-turned-Autobot who actually uses a cane to get around? What about Optimus Prime, whose voice is so grand and bland and devoid of personality he sounds less like a hero than a satire of a hero?

The humans in the movie are even more reductive. Army men are brave, smart and loyal; glasses-wearing bureaucrats are dumb and meddlesome. Most everyone is comic relief, particularly if they’re ethnic. Actually it’s interesting to consider who’s not comic relief. Sam (Shia LeBeouf) generally plays straight man. So does Major Lennox, the handsome white army dude. So does the white army general and Optimus Prime. Meanwhile, Sam’s college roommate, a Hispanic Web site operator and professional blowhard, acts cowardly, tasers himself with his pants around his ankles, and winds up inadvertently nestling with Agent Simmons (John Turturo). The Friday-afternoon crowd I saw this with thought all of it hilarious. They roared with laughter.

Plot? Do we go there?

Apparently Transformers need a substance called Energon to survive, and one way to get Energon is to destroy a sun. (And you thought we were wasteful.) Most Transformers refuse to destroy a universe with life in it but some don’t care. These two factions clashed on Earth in 17,000 B.C., and the Autobots, sacrificing themselves for primitive humans, hid the “matrix key” that works the “sun harvester machine” from the Decepticons. Transformers have been living here ever since. But what exactly does a Transformer transform into in, say, 5,000 B.C.? A spear? And why have we evolved during the last 19,000 years but Transformers stayed the same?

That’s backstory. The story proper begins when a “shard” from the previous film’s “cube” is loosened from Sam’s clothes, and all sorts of small, cackling Transformers are created, recalling “Gremlins.” They’re quickly stopped by Sam’s loyal Autobot, the Chevy Camaro, but the incident hardly slows Sam or the movie down. He’s about to leave for college and he’s dealing with a crying mother, a girlfriend above his paygrade, and a wish to lead a normal life. He can’t be bothered by creatures that nearly destroyed the world.

Once at college, he’s confronted with the aforementioned Hispanic roommate, a hot girl who keeps coming onto him but who is actually a Transformer (and a ripoff of “Species” and “Terminator 3”), and the fact that, in an already infamous quote, “Megatron wants what’s in my brain!”

Megatron, chief villain in the earlier film, begins this one dead on the sea floor but he’s soon resurrected by other Decepticons. So why does he, and his master, the Fallen, want what’s in Sam’s brain? Because apparently Sam has knowledge of where that matrix key is located. How did he get it? Who knows? Can he access it? No. Instead he spouts gibberish and draws ancient symbols on his dorm walls. Is Megatron making him do this or is it the knowledge itself? Again: Who knows? Never ask “why” in this thing.

The Fallen wants to return to Earth to get his revenge but Optimus is in the way. Apparently only a Prime can defeat the Fallen. (Why? Oh, right. Sorry.) So once Optimus, the last of the Primes, is killed protecting Sam, Earth is wide open and the Fallen returns. I believe he lands in Paris while Megatron alights on the Met Life Building in New York City, declaring, to no one in particular, “It’s time for the world to know of our presence! No disguises! No mercy!” Then Decepticons destroy New York.

Whoops, sorry, they don’t. In fact, by the time we return to New York, with Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) and the Hispanic dude, who are searching for someone to translate the symbols in Sam’s head, New Yorkers are hanging in a deli, calmly ordering food. Apparently Decepticons decided to show Poughkeepsie no mercy instead.

But wait... Decoding the symbols in Sam’s head? Won’t that lead to the matrix key and play into Megatron’s plan to destroy our universe? Well, yes. But Sam assumes the matrix key will also revive Optimus. At one point we get this exchange:

Sam: Everyone’s after me because of what I know. And I know this is going to work.
Mikaela: How do you know it’s going to work?
Sam: Because I believe it.

Characters who know something because they believe it are part of a long tradition in Hollywood movies, and not just Christmas movies, but not many are willing to risk the entire universe on the assumption. Not that anyone raises this point with Sam. Even after they find the key and it turns to dust, Sam still gathers the dust, runs through the desert with it—dodging Decepticon fire all the while (they’re lousy shots)—but is finally struck down. At that point he’s visited in his mind (or his soul?) by Autobot Elders, who reward him for his sacrifice to Optimus by reviving him. Then the key is revived. Then Optimus is revived. Then Decepticons steal the key anyway and try to turn off our sun.

This synopsis, by the way, doesn’t begin to reveal the soul-numbing stupidity of this thing. Transformers have the ability to regenerate themselves with parts of other, dead Transformers, and that’s how this movie was made—from plot points and storylines of other movies grafted onto this one without any sense of style or logic or genuine emotion. On the run, and knowing that the universe might end because of the knowledge in Sam’s head, what do Sam and Mikaela talk about? Whether Sam should kill himself to keep this knowledge from Megatron? No. They argue about which one of them is going to say “I love you” first. (See: “The Fifth Element.”) It’s as if they know they’re going to survive. Which they do. Michael Bay is almost postmodern in this respect. His characters aren’t characters but devices. The question is never “How would people in this situation react?” It’s always “How can people in this situation entertain the movie audience until we reach the conclusion we all know we’ll reach?”

OK, maybe this will give you an idea how bad “Transformers 2” is. During Optimus’ first death-battle with Decepticons, when he finally topples near the woods of the west coast, sacrificing himself for all of us but particularly for Sam, the music wells up majestically, tragically, because that’s what movies do at this point in the story. But it’s so obviously aping other movies, and so fantastically off, that it made me question the legitimacy of all movies. By substituting a gigantic, stentorian hunk of metal for a human being that we might actually care about, Michael Bay is revealing the absurdity of the medium itself.

In a perfect world, this thing would be a b-movie, playing in drive-ins somewhere, and eventually mocked by MST3K for its absurdities. Instead, it made over $200 million during its first five days, ensuring its continuing status as a centerpiece of our culture.

With apologies to Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself with your “Transformers 2.”

—June 30, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard