Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has become something of a calling card for my writing in 2009, and an albatross around my neck at the same time. There's little else I wrote this year that got as much attention, and yet it's by far the most misunderstood of my many, many reviews, primarily because one sentence published on Rotten Tomatoes, and later, literally one word used in the its advertising was employed to characterize my feelings about the film. Mind you, I'm not complaining, but it's made for a sort of fascinating study among my friends and colleagues, some of whom took me at those words and those words alone, while others read the actual review I posted here on Cinematical, and for better or for worse, agree or disagree, at least understood where I was coming from.
This week, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen arrives on Blu-ray, and in the interest of thoroughness, I decided to revisit the film to see (a) how I personally felt about the film a second time, and (b) if any of the objections of its critics were explained, justified or otherwise corrected in the bonus materials. After perusing the content on both discs of the Collector's Edition Blu-ray, I'm unsure whether or not its detractors will be any more appreciative of its artistic merits; but watching it again on the small screen and augmented by the thoughts and comments of the folks responsible for the film, I at least feel as if I know where the sources of some of those problems lie.
The second disc of the set is filled with all sorts of superlative bonus content, most or all of which is produced by virtuoso home-entertainment auteur Charles de Lauzirika, who is responsible for the massive Blade Runner set that was released a couple of years ago, as well as that "Gold Box" version of Twin Peaks that still qualifies as one of my all-time favorite home video releases. But the commentary track is where the majority of the Blu-ray's real revelations are made, and I listened to all of it, mostly because I truly, sincerely, wanted an honest explanation for some of the problems that I had with the film, and hoped that director Michael Bay and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman could have provided one.
Interestingly, the commentary was recorded several weeks after the film was released, which indicates if nothing else that the folks involved had a chance of being aware of critics' objections. At the start of the commentary, Bay observes the film recently passed the $700 million mark - which is practically an answer itself to any criticism – but the first real nugget of information comes when Kurtzman acknowledges that they "didn't see the story right away" when time came to come up with a sequel to 2007's Transformers. He and Orci (perhaps tellingly recording their comments in a separate session from Bay's) go on to explain that the writer's strike became a significant obstacle in the development process, although it was one more or less easily bypassed thanks to a 13-page outline and Bay's indefatigable enthusiasm for spectacle over story.
In the early scenes, Bay offers background on a number of memorable characters and developments, explaining that Sam's parents are based on his own mom and dad, and the iconic introductory shot of Megan Fox sitting atop a motorcycle in a barely-there outfit was a direct result of the fumbling efforts of some teenage fans to explain what about the sequel they were most excited to see. Meanwhile, Kurtzman and Orci talk about the way they wanted Alice, the girl who comes between Sam and Mikayla, to be sweet and wholesome, only to have her turned into a "sultry vixen terminatrix;" then, they move on to the origins of the kitchenbots, whom Bay demanded be included in the film in order to make sure the screenwriters didn't hit the "anti-kid fun button," which eventually became an aesthetic mandate for the director despite the screenwriters' efforts to include such pesky intrusions as character development and coherent storytelling.
Sadly, there are only a couple of mentions of the Autobot twins, characters whom critics described as racist caricatures, and most of those are glib dismissals, and none of those are from Bay himself. Orci jokes "they're obviously based on Alex and myself," and later bemoans the fact that a sparring session between the two broke up the sequence where the characters address and deal with Optimus Prime's death; but expressed verbally or not, it seems obvious that the momentum of the production and Bay's predilection for spectacle overwhelmed any real possibility that the film would find its intellectual and emotional center.
That said, although the director certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of confidence, Bay's comments all seem sincere, and what he reveals most clearly is an indisputable mastery of technology, and moreover, technique, even if the end result doesn't necessarily highlight all of that expertise. He chides cinematographer Ben Seresin on a couple of occasions for missing a detail or not capturing something in the way that he wanted, but Bay really has a comprehensive (and impressive) knowledge of how to make movie using all possible methods, discussing the use of natural light, and pointing out that it was Bay himself who jumped out of a plane with a handheld camera in order to get the shot that he wanted.
Ultimately, Kurtzman points out perhaps the most important tenet in the conception of a Transformers sequel – namely, that it was more important to include iconic or important moments that audiences would expect than it was to create something out of whole cloth, even if that might have provided a stronger narrative or emotional foundation. The screenwriters mention a number of alternate ideas and storylines that they could have inserted into the film, but it seems obvious that the focus had to be on stuff like the kitchenbots, or the resurrection of Megatron, or the inclusion of Devastator, even if none of them necessarily pushed the story forward in a profound or meaningful way.
That isn't to excuse them, or Bay, for not making the end result a little tighter, more cohesive, and maybe even a little smarter. But in Hollywood, the danger of doing something well enough to demand a sequel is that you only have so much freedom to create something new the second or third time around, since you obviously also have to satisfy the expectations for the folks whose dollars made extra installments possible.
As for the rest of the extras, I recommend you check them out yourself, although I suspect if you didn't like the movie itself you'll dig the bonus content even less. But fans have the opportunity to explore the rich and expansive legacy of all of the characters in the film, create their very own Transformer, look at behind-the-scenes footage of cast and crew members, follow Bay through a breakneck day of promotion, and amongst other aspects of its production, examine the intensive, complicated, and in some cases contrarian way in which Bay's blitzkrieg of images comes together thanks to not one or two but four different editors.
Ultimately, much like the film itself, the Two-Disc Special Edition is an embarrassment of riches, even if there will be folks who simply call the film an embarrassment. Personally, I liked the film even more on the small screen, where I could not only listen to the filmmakers wax poetic about their preparations for the film, but press the pause button, interrupt its sometimes overwhelming wave of images, and reset myself for the next set piece. (It doesn't hurt that home-video presentation gives fans and critics alike their first real opportunity to see everything at once without being swallowed whole by the screen, which was a problem for plenty of folks during its theatrical run.)
But overall, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was and is the consummate summer blockbuster - the most massive, spectacular, blinding, dumb, exciting, exhausting fun you could have without having to think at all. Mind you, to call it that isn't to suggest that its critics don't understand that as well, or that it should necessarily be appreciated as such; but there's something to be said for anything that inspires that kind of violently opposed reactions, and this set will certainly remind folks that as far as this particular Transformers movie is concerned, there's both more – and less - than meets the eye, depending entirely on how you look at it.