Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart put down their art-house toys, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week Michael Bay's disorienting action and repulsive politics in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen make them nauseous.
So, Ben, what's this movie about? Shia LaBeouf can't tell his girlfriend he loves her? I couldn't really follow the story, not just because Michael Bay's directing style is so incoherent (his camera has the Tony Scott spins), but because I kept getting distracted by all the commercial breaks. It was like the Super Bowl, with all those neat spots! Transformers could save the automotive industry if all the car commercials in between encourage consumers to buy American automobiles again. And those battling robot toys were really cool; maybe they’ll save the struggling retail industry? But most of all: how about all those free endorsements for right-wing militarism?
Seriously, did Hasbro produce this in association with the Department of Defense and Palin 2012? Let’s break it down: The Decepticons are the insurgents, right? And the Autobots are the Americans? And the Americans are the...well, I guess the allegory doesn't quite hold, but it's still there. (Michael Bay is too stupid to hold together an allegory.) Mid-film, the president's envoy notes that U.S. soldiers are paying the price for an alien blood feud, a la Sunni vs. Shiite; he's the same envoy who's presented as an obnoxious civilian bureaucrat who can't even jump out of a plane, because he's a pansy hiding behind presidential directives, not a Real Man like all those soldiers he berates. He also advocates for a timetable for Autobot withdrawal, arguing that their presence is just making the Decepticon violence worse. "What if we leave and you're wrong?" Optimus Prime asks, shortly before we find out that he is wrong. Stay the course! (Once the battle breaks out, television news reports that President Obama is hiding out in an undisclosed bunker. Grow a pair, prez!) Did you catch when the characters defined "diplomacy" as acceding to all of the enemies' demands? Fucking lily-livered liberals! Not that I was in love with Stark Trek's political moderation, but it's still disappointing that its writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (plus Ehren Kruger here), would compose the load of bullshit that is this war loving, Obama hating diatribe.
The only thing missing from your Decepticons=insurgents, Autobots=Americans equation, Henry, is the distinction between Republican Americans (the army and their toy robots) and peace-preaching, Obama-loving American pussies (everyone else, especially the suited presidential envoy). Also, did you notice where the Autobot army base is? Bay gives it some made-up name, but clearly it’s Guantanamo Bay, a tropical maximum-security bunker not unlike the one where the army keeps the (second-to-)last shard of the prehistoric cube from the first installment. And speaking of pre-history, this sequel’s ridiculous origin myths make its offensive allegory of the present seem oh-so-straightforward.
Transformers aren’t toys, it turns out, but intergalactic miners who travel the universe in search of suns whose energy they can turn into
krypton Energon. They’re not solar energy farmers, though, because this procedure involves destroying said sun. Basically, they’re colonizers, although they vowed never to jeopardize a galaxy with intelligent life. Their definition of “intelligent,” presumably, is elastic — if there were a sun in a wildlife refuge in Alaska I’m sure they’d mine the shit out of it. When they found us and our sun, though, some deemed us unintelligent enough to destroy, which is how the Decepticon-Autobot disagreement began. The ensuing family rivalry is like something out of a Shakespeare tragedy, with brothers turning on brothers, murders and sacrifices. And who were these not-so-bright humans the ancestral Decepticons deemed expendable? Why, a clichéd African tribe or course! Bay gets to re-shoot the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with robots!), except here the monolith is a Transformer spaceship. (If they can fly and don’t need oxygen, why do they use spaceships?)
While I’m tempted to pursue the subject of transportation (cars, trucks, planes, Pearl Harbor-style aircraft carrier destruction), let’s talk about racism. Sure, Anthony Anderson is gone (although he voices the Autobot Jolt, who has maybe two lines), but in his stead supped-up street racers Mudflap and Skids (both voiced by Tom Kenny) put on a minstrel show. They talk “street,” are perpetually fighting, have bad teeth (as does the guy working in John Turturro’s butcher shop during Transformers’ brief stop in Brooklyn) and threaten to “pop a cap” in the ass of token Latino Leo (Ramon Rodriguez). There’s also the silly (because Arab) little person at the Jordanian border, and the Chinese who scurry about in the opening attack while the American forces drive around Beijing like they own the place (and don't forget the viral ad campaign that has our robot armed forces popping up all over the world). “You may be the next super power,” Bay seems to be saying, “but we have these giant killer robots, so suck it.” Also, did you (who are so cinematic city-sensitive) notice that the Decepticons trash poverty- and murder-stricken (read: black) Philly — where robot star Shia Labeouf is going to college — but only come to New York long enough to knock the American flag off the Brooklyn Bridge (don’t worry, it’s back in a matter of minutes) and pose for photo-ops on some buildings, King Kong-style? Fucking tourists.
Was that Philly? I couldn’t tell; who knows where the hell they are when Michael Bay is cutting to a new shot every 2.7 seconds? I did notice that the Decepticons seemed to use New York as a base once the battling began in earnest; I figured it was just one more right-wing dig. Of course the bad guys would set up shop in America’s most immoral city. (I bet New Yorkers wouldn’t even notice if the American flag went missing from the Brooklyn Bridge because they hate the country and the flag so much.)
Americans, meanwhile, set up shop wherever they damn well please. How about the fact that the army could parachute into Egypt and occupy a village, just because they felt like it? Like, fuck your sovereignty [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_War], we need your shit. America owns the globe! "As our colleague Jesse Hassenger noted, Michael Bay's many shortcomings include a "mindless jingoism and military fetishism." But yeah, speaking of racism and 2001 references, could you believe that Bay “updates” the Kubrick film by turning the apes into war-painted African savages? This guy is such an unbelievable asshole. He even throws in some French-bashing when LaBeouf’s mother (Julie White, the best thing about the movie) spits out some escargot. Snails is gross and, by extension, so is those Freaky Frenchies.
Apparently, hating the French isn’t soooo 2002. We’re (still) at war, Ben! The crowd at my screening cheered when Optimus Prime ripped a Decepticon’s face in two, a moment of vicarious militaristic fantasy; tear apart the inhuman terrorists, bolt by bolt! Eventually, The War on Terror subtext is made literal when, mid-film, the fighting moves arbitrarily to the "godforsaken" deserts of Egypt. Earlier in the movie, our heroes visit the Smithsonian and, like those in the Night at the Museum sequel, trash it. (Museums are for pussies!) But that wreckage pales in comparison to the indiscriminate destruction that American forces mete upon Egypt's living museums and villages, which are reduced to rubble before you can say “transform”. I don’t think Bay thinks very highly of Arabs; did you notice that when the Jordanian reinforcements arrive, they couldn’t even land their helicopters before getting blown up? By extension, do you really think the Iraqis can run their own country without Americans there? Cut n' run? Get with it, Ben.
You forgot to mention that in addition to a scarily violent Optimus, a vengeful god is also on our side. After all, when the Decepticons rain down on Egypt like meteorites it’s just like the fiery hail from the seventh of the Biblical plagues. Most of the baddies take the forms of beasts, reptiles and bugs (plagues 2 through 4) and their ultimate goal is to destroy the sun and thereby kill all of mankind (plagues 9 and 10). It takes destroying ancient Egyptian buildings (in seriously Team America-caliber globe-squashing style) to appease the gods — although the Sphinx can stay because, as another touristy photo-op proves, it looks like Optimus.
Enough about the super-human, extraterrestrial and GM-built characters, though, what about the people in this movie? Interestingly, there’s a Decepticon cyborg (Isabel Lucas), something like a cross between X-Men’s Mystique and Terminator 3’s T-X. After Megan Fox catches her with her mechanical, tentacle-like (phallic!) tongue down Shia’s throat, the two have the Transformers equivalent of a catfight: a car chase. The only actors who register a pulse are John Turturro — who plays a much larger role than he had in the first installment — and a criminally underused Rainn Wilson. Maybe his astronomy professor will return in a sidekick role alongside Shia in the third movie, and by then this franchise can just fuse with Indiana Jones and Steven Spielberg (who executive produced here and directed Indy’s recent professor-teen team-up with Shia) can declare himself blockbuster king for life, again.
Seriously, the best thing for this fucked up series would be to kill off LaBeouf and hand the lead to Megan Fox, who’s not much of an actor either, but at least has some attitude and charisma. To boot, her character is working-class and taking care of her father, a felon. And besides, it’s her love that brings Shia back from the dead — not the ridiculous council-of-the-elders moment he shares with the ancestral Transformer family, the Primes, to whom he’s somehow related, I think. Was that a spoiler? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is so dangerously stupid I can’t even tell anymore. Its title suggests something like The Empire Strikes Back — whereby the conventional trilogy narrative arc holds that after a victory in the first installment, the good-guys lose in the second — but given 2.5 hours the Autobots have plenty of time to redeem their early loss.
Among the material that should have been cut, what about the part where they break into the Smithsonian by tasering a bunch of guards? I know you hate taser jokes, Henry, but these are especially bad because, you know, a D.C. museum guard really was killed by a psychopath recently. I guess that’s what you get for working (especially at museums, which are for pussies) in this quietly class-biased movie — remember how Shia’s parents plan to commit insurance fraud to pay for renovations to their house? I guess in Michael Bay’s America (which is an awful lot like Robert Moses’) the only thing worse than not having a robotic GM car is not having a palatial suburban home to park it next to.
(photo credit: © 2009 DW Studios L.L.C. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro. ©2009 Hasbro. All rights reserved.)