Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: ** (out of 4)
The short of it: I came out of the midnight showing last night annoyed but not angry. I went in with low expectations, and they were met; but I am not truly embarrassed to be a Transformers fan or anything. But the longer I wait to write this review, the lower the rating is going to be; so I should just get it over with.
Some background, for those that don't know me: I love Transformers, and have since I received my first figure a quarter of a century ago (Soundwave; I still have him). In large part, this is for the love of the toys - I have a monthly budget to buy them, and my addiction to garage sales is in large part fueled by the hunt for cheap, old, half-broken toys. (Hey, it's a hobby!) But there's also a pretty healthy respect for the mythology in there; the many incarnations of the characters and stories have led to a healthy and fascinating gestalt of themes and tropes that have become ever more mythic as the years go by. The Transformers have become a formalized stage play, with actors playing familiar roles and going through familiar actions in order to tell a meta-story with no beginning or end. And yes, I'm talking about the storyline surrounding a bunch of children's toys.
I went into the first Michael Bay Transformers move a couple of years back full of trepidation, based on the oft-repeated question "will he rape our childhoods?". I came out of that movie happy, because that foolishly low bar had been met; the movie had been nothing to brag about, but it was at least watchable and silly, and it had effectively added to the overall mythology with only a few major mis-steps. Yes, all of those points that had truly made it popular with the average fan were embarrassing, but could we really expect anything less from Michael Bay? My expectations were low, and even in retrospect, they were exceeded.
For the sequel, Bay turned everything up - the action, the crude humor, the irrelevant human sub-plots, and the sheer number of giant robots. This is something that he's good at, as long as you describe "good" as "able to make a stupid amount of money by doing so". Yeah, the movie is going to insult your intelligence, but I at least knew that this was going to happen coming in and considered it a fair trade for more giant robot action. It's certainly not as bad as, say, Bad Boys 2; and the real problem with this whole problem area is that it makes the movie difficult to justify to those that would have a problem with, say, giant swinging robot balls.
That's why I wasn't really embarrassed; so, why didn't I really like the movie that much? Mostly, they made a hash of the mythology. There were some really good bits in there: Soundwave and Ravage were missed in the first movie (as was Frank Welker!), the Decepticon-hunting squads from the beginning of the movie were a rather fascinating idea, the various scales of robots, and pretty much the whole idea that the relationship between humanity and cybertronians evolved over the last couple of years is a good one. Also, several ideas that have filtered in from the comics were presented, such as the Fallen and the whole "what it means to be a Prime" concept. But those ideas weren't really thought through, nor given enough context to make sense even to this Transformers-soaked mind. And, worse, there was Decepticon girl, pulling in the recent addition of tentacle-porn from a particularly egregious Japanese line a couple of years ago...
And there's the visual design. This movie spent a lot of effort giving us non-bipedal robots, through the use of unicycles, centaurs, or simply not offering proper robot modes in the first place. Frankly, there were too many non-transforming Transformers in there, along with technology that wasn't about Transformers. Worse, I couldn't tell who many of the Decepticons were supposed to be! I've been buying the toy line for a month now, I should be able to identify characters easily; instead, I just spotted model re-use.
And as an odd side note, I didn't hate Wheelie, Skids, or Mudflap, although I probably should have. On the other hand, I have had a horrible time with those toys...
Faah. It wasn't horrendous for a Transformers fan, and it seemed to make the crowd happy. And while there are certainly better action movies out there, and I'd almost rather encourage you to see them, I'm willing to recommend this movie to those that like this kind of thing for at least one reason: it will make it more likely that I'll still be buying these toys in another 25 years.