When film was in its infancy at the fag end of the 19th century, the mere sight of a train pulling into a station would supposedly reduce cinema-goers to spasms of hysteria, fearful that the thing would leap from the screen. We can act all smug about it now and patronisingly pat our dumbass forefathers on the head, but in truth, we haven’t actually come that far.
The notion of cinema as a spectacle on a instinctive, sensory level seems to be far more pervasive than its intellectual counterpart - how else can we explain the success of films like grandstanding showpieces like 2012, roundly panelled by critics for failing to exist on any level deeper than its visual impact, yet it was lapped up gladly by the masses.
Which brings us to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. TRF took one of the biggest kickings in recent years from critics, yet out-sold every other movie released this year - only Twilight: New Moon looks like it may be able to come close to its takings. Directed by the high master of the big, dumb flashy, noisy vacuous carnage pic, Michael Bay, it’s fair to say that all the effort and budget went on making it a visual experience rather than a thoughtful one, clearly mindful of that timeless impulse.
After the events of the previous movie, the Dickensian-sounding Sam Witwicky (Shia Laboeuf) attempts to make a clean break from the Autobot Transformers - essentially tricked-up household appliances with kindly souls – and leaving behind his far-too-hot-for-him mechanic girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) to start over at college, lacking the self-awareness of the tropes of a leading character in the midst of a Hollywood action franchise to realise that that’s never going to work.
Of course, it turns out badly - the eternal battle between the Autobots and the Deceptacons - bad-ass transformers whose only distinguishing feature appears to be an abundance of sharp edges - is still very much on, and that their long-held and previously thwarted scheme to trash the earth and reap its resources for their own sustenance is about to get another airing (one quick call to Galactus from the Fantastic Four comics could have saved them the time and effort - he’d seen an identical attempt at this fail back way in the 60s).
Having come into possession of an artefact of massive importance to both sides of the warring factions, Sam is thrust front and centre into the struggle, and with the Autobots failing to get the proper support from the US military they need to fend off the Deceptacons, Sam becomes key to humanity’s survival.
As repeatedly and emphatically stated by the film critic community, it’s a massive shouty bag of idiotic nonsense, fleshed out with a Pirelli calendar devotee’s sense of design and a ceaseless objectification of girls and guns. But you can’t diss Bay for not producing Schindler’s List: he has no interest in that. Instead you have to judge him on what he has set out to achieve.
If, as it appears to me, he has actually set out to produce the biggest, most absurd blockbuster ever, then Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is in fact a glorious monument to cinematic preposterousness. But, if you take it at face value, it’s a totally mesmerising one at that - while 2012 director Emmerich makes sweeping but predictable gestures, Bay drags every possible ounce of visual dynamism from his subject - whether it’s a CGI fight scene fought against a lavish backdrop or Megan Fox soaping up a bike, nothing is left in the locker. It’s free of any nuance or subtlety, but he’s simply well aware of the medium’s strength, and as a result he taps into that primal sensation that endures from the time of the cinema’s inception.
The whole movie is filtered through the golden hue of sunset, reinforcing the idealised, unrealistic approach, but giving it a luxurious patina none the less. If Bay is generic, it’s of a genre of his own making - his set-pieces have a incredibly well-constructed intensity, which though they get a bit too garnished for their own good, the battling robots often get lost in a blinding mesh of detail, there’s a frenzied desire to impress that makes sure that you don’t divert from the screen.
As techno-aesthetes, Pocket-lint regulars should at least admire Bay’s rabid exploration of how ridiculous CGI can get.
Yes, it’s stupid, vogueish in its casting, nonsensical, wooden, crass and at some points offensive in its stereotyping, but taken on its own terms - a blockbuster that has no aim other than to poke your adrenal glands and repeatedly scratch your retinas until you submit - it roundly succeeds. Simply drink enough beer that your critical faculties are fried, fire it up on your flatscreen and spend a couple of hours smirking your hind off.
Starring: Shia Labouef, Megan Fox, John Turturro
Directed by: Michael Bay
Extras: commentaries (single disc), featurettes, extended scenes, commentaries, artwork, music video (special edition)