As a high-school graduation present to myself in 1993, I stayed up all night watching the original Star Wars trilogy on video. When the Extended Edition of The Return of the King arrived on DVD, I camped out on my couch and sat through all three Lord of the Rings films in their longest versions, one after the other. And for two separate retrospective assignments in anticipation of their recent big-screen rebirths, I endured all ten Star Trek movies and all eleven Friday the 13ths. But I can honestly say that as a film critic and lifelong cinephile, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may be the most movie I have ever experienced.
Michael Bay, condensing the cumulative total of the spectacle from all of his seven previous films into one unwieldy, gargantuan opus, has exceeded even the possibilities of sequel-driven "moreness," combining his own muscular, high-gloss sensibility with the conventions of blockbusters past, present, and probably future to create a monolithic action masterpiece that feels destined to be the biggest movie of all time.
Back from the first film are stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox as Sam and Mikaela, whose romantic bond seems decidedly less destined when they're worrying about long-distance loving rather than lost alien civilizations. Before Sam can comfortably settle into collegiate life, leaving Mikaela to her own devices (literally) in her father's chop-shop garage, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) reaches out to him for help. Sam declines, wanting only to live a normal life, but is nevertheless drawn into the robots' civil war after he unwittingly absorbs information that will lead the Transformers to a massive power source that was lost centuries ago somewhere on Earth. But after Prime is mortally wounded while protecting him from a resurrected Megatron, Sam begins to realize that the only way to help a fallen leader may be to become one himself.
Anyone wondering when and if filmmakers would stop being so damn sensitive about the necessary end result of an attack on the world's populace will no doubt be relieved to know that Michael Bay has filled Revenge of the Fallen with more wanton, meaningless destruction than any other movie in recent memory: an on-screen acknowledgement of at least 7,000 deaths as a result of Transformer-related action puts this at the top of a shortlist of post-9/11 films that accept (if not embrace) the inevitability of civilian casualties. But only a true killjoy, or maybe just a person who mistakenly wandered into the theater after buying a ticket for The Hurt Locker, would dispute this film's raison d'etre, which is to be a piece of exhilarating, idiotic escapism; there isn't a single frame of film here that exists to convince audiences that anything in Revenge of the Fallen is, or is even meant to be realistic.
Rather, the film truly exemplifies Hollywood's belief that in blockbusters, more truly is more, be it a stake-raising death toll or just the allotted screen time for characters whose comedic potency is inversely proportionate to a lack of it. In particular, Sam's mom and dad are used entirely too often, not only to provide comic relief amidst the flying debris, or even pad the film's 147-minute running time, but to make the argument that this in some way is not a film about giant robots, but humans, which again isn't true, and truly does not matter. If it were or it did, the beginning of the film would find Sam not still smitten with Mikaela, but tired of hooking up with her after finally sealing the deal with his sexy but substance-free dream girl – a far more believable and fertile dramatic starting place for his character. Instead, Sam serves as a proxy for the fanboys in the audience who still drool longingly over Megan Fox, even as she serves as a physical substitute for the character development that ordinarily would take place were the movie not more obsessed with the many magnificent battles between Autobots and Decepticons.
Not that any of that is needed, or even wanted. Indeed, Revenge of the Fallen often feels like Bay's attempt to outdo virtually every action set piece of the past three decades at the same time, and that's sort of a reason to love him: his ambition runs a mile long and an inch deep. Remember the scene in The Dark Knight where Batman goes to Hong Kong? Well, what if that scene, like, had Transformers in it? Or the climax of Titanic, where the upended ship bobs vertically in the water as passengers hang on for dear life? Hanging Transformers would make that much better. What about Indiana Jones' pursuit of rare artifacts across dusty landscapes while decoding mysterious riddles? Think what that would be like... with Transformers!
Even for a sequel, there seems to be precious little originality in any of the film's ideas, relationships, characterizations, or plot developments. Megatron's relationship with the mysterious Fallen closely resembles the one between Darth Vader and The Emperor, while Sam is sort of a compendium of man-on-a-reluctant-mission clichés, including Richard Dreyfus' character in Close Encounters, Luke Skywalker, Neo in The Matrix, and Indiana Jones among many others. Additionally, there's a Government Bureaucrat Who Wants To Shut The Operation Down, A Disgraced Agent Seeking Redemption, and not one but two Comedic Sidekicks, one Latino and one black.
Again, however, it's important to note that these are only shortcomings if you're going into Revenge of the Fallen expecting something other than a movie about Transformers. Who needs subtlety and sophistication when Bay provides the perfect geographic context for Egypt by showing vehicles driving past camels? Or punctuates a temporary Decepticon triumph with a shot of a robot knocking the American flag off of its pole? Heroism and villainy in the Transformers' animated universe was never less than crystal-clear black and white, and there's no reason the moral compass needs to be less concretely defined here, especially when you have gigantic, multi-robot mash-ups sucking up half of the desert, showdowns that level entire forests, and fight scenes that lay waste to the better part of several major metropolitan areas.
Directorially, Bay is unparalleled by other filmmakers at delivering thrills on such a massive scale, and exceeding even himself, he maximizes every shot to show giant robots crashing over, under and even through the screen at the audience in one scene after another. Since Pearl Harbor, Bay has used a different cinematographer on every film, and certainly in comparison to Mitchell Amundsen's often incomprehensible work on the first Transformers, Revenge director of photography Ben Seresin seems one of his best fits yet: many shots run longer and attempt more elaborate camerawork than much of what Bay has previously done, so while much of the film still feels like an assault on the senses, there's an occasional sense of poetry, or dare I say, patient composition that gives sequences a cohesiveness ones in his earlier films lacked.
Ultimately, whether one loves or hates Revenge of the Fallen will be up (or down) to individual expectations; much like the story's conventional turns and twists always seem to arrive right when and where they're needed, there's something both comforting and disappointing about getting exactly what you want. Personally speaking, I was entirely overloaded by the film's dizzying momentum, throttled by its indefatigable string of action scenes, and disappointed by but mostly distracted from paying too much attention to its unsuccessful attempts at either comedy or pathos. In other words, it may or may not be good enough, but it quite literally gives you everything imaginable that can be explored within its premise. Which, again, makes Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen the most movie you may ever experience - even if it probably isn't the best.