Critical consensus on Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is overwhelmingly negative. But the critics are wrong. Michael Bay used a squillion dollars and a hundred supercomputers' worth of CG for a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot.
Oh, and I would warn you that there'll be spoilers in this review — except that, really, since I still have no idea what actually happened in this movie, I'm not sure how much I can spoil it.
Since the days of Un Chien Andalou and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmmakers have reached beyond meaning. But with this summer's biggest, loudest movie, Michael Bay takes us all the way inside Caligari's cabinet. And once you enter, you can never emerge again. I saw this movie two days ago, and I'm still living inside it. Things are exploding wherever I look, household appliances are trying to kill me, and bizarre racial stereotypes are shouting at me.
Transformers: ROTF has mostly gotten pretty hideous reviews, but that's because people don't understand that this isn't a movie, in the conventional sense. It's an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery. Imagine that you went back in time to the late 1960s and found Terry Gilliam, fresh from doing his weird low-fi collage/animations for Monty Python. You proceeded to inject Gilliam with so many steroids his penis shrank to the size of a hair follicle, and you smushed a dozen tabs of LSD under his tongue. And then you gave him the GDP of a few sub-Saharan countries. Gilliam might have made a movie not unlike this one.
And the true genius of Transformers: ROTF is that Bay has put all of this excess of imagery and random ideas at the service of the most pandering movie genre there is: the summer movie. ROTF is like twenty summer movies, with unrelated storylines, smushed together into one crazy whole. You try in vain to understand how the pieces fit, you stare into the cracks between the narrative strands, until the cracks become chasms and the chasms become an abyss into which you stare until it looks deep into your own soul, and then you go insane. You. Do. Not. Leave. The Cabinet.
Michael Bay understands that summer movies are about two things: male anxiety, and pure id. That's why he casts Shia LaBoeuf, that supreme avatar of pure male inadequacy, in the lead role. LaBoeuf projects a pathetic, wall-eyed dorkhood, when he's not babbling like a tumor removed from Woody Allen's prostate that somehow achieved sentience. I imagine the DVD of ROTF will include a whole disk of outtakes where they had to stop filming because LaBoeuf was drooling on camera. As it is, the film includes several extreme closeups of LaBoeuf's dazed stare.
Where was I? Oh yes. So LaBoeuf, who's actually a fine actor, is the stand-in for the male viewers' greatest fears about themselves. No matter how great a loser they might be, they can't be as losery a loser as Sam Witwicky. And yet, Sam has awesome giant robots stomping around telling him he's the most important awesome person ever. And he has the hottest girlfriend in the universe, Megan Fox, for whom banality is a huge aphrodisiac. The more pathetic Sam gets, the more Fox's lips pout and her nipples point, like little Irish setters.
To make matters more awesome for the insecure males in the audience, Sam actually tosses aside his giant robot fanclub and his walking-pinup girlfriend, so he can have a normal life. Of course, this only leads to other robots and hawt chicks (who turn out to be robots too) throwing themselves at him and telling him how important he is. In the end, everybody learns to appreciate Sam just a bit more than they already did, and a booming voice tells him he's earned the "matrix of leadership" through his courage and stuff.
And then there's the "id" part, which is the part where stuff blows up real good, and huge machines smash each other up. And every single performance is so ridiculous that it looks down on "over the top" as if from a great height. It's the part of your brain that thinks it would be awesome to see robots with giant dangling testicles, or hot chicks turning into robot tentacle monsters, or "ghetto" robots that talk in inept hip-hop slang and smash each other playfully, or funny Jewish men who talk about their "schmear" and randomly strip to their G-strings. Is that going too far? Then let's go 100 times farther than that and see what happens!
Transformers: ROTF is so long, you'll need to wear adult diapers to it. But the movie's pure celebration of the primal urge, and unfiltered living, will make you rejoice in your adult diapers. You'll relieve yourself in your seat with a savage joy, your barbaric yawp blending in with the crowd's screams of excitement.
And yet — and here's the part where I really think ROTF approaches "art movie" status — the movie's id overload reaches such crazy levels that the fabric of reality itself starts to break down. Michael Bay has boasted about how every single shot in the movie has so much stuff going on in it, it would take your PC since the dawn of time to render one frame. After a few hours of this assault, you feel the chair melt and the floor of the movie theater becomes an angry mirror into your soul. Nothing is solid, nothing is real, everything Transforms.
The closest thing I can think of to this movie is the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, which had a similar kind of CG image overload, although it was only five hours long as opposed to ROTF's nine.
And around hour six of ROTF, something curious happens: the two components — male enhancement and pure id — start to clash, badly. Usually, in a summer movie, the two aspects go together like tits and ass: Jason Statham plays someone who faces the same insecurities as regular dudes, but he overcomes them, and in the process he blows up everything in the world. But creating that kind of fusion requires enslaving the id to the male enhancement, and that in turn means only going way over the top instead of crazy, stratospheric over the top. Michael Bay is not willing to settle for going way over the top, like other directors.
So you have a movie that tries to reassure men that they can actually be masters of their reality — but then turns around and says that actually, reality is not real. There's no such thing as the "real world," and the only thing that's left for men to dominate is a nebulous domain of blurred shapes, which occasionally blurt nonsensical swear-words and slang from ethnic groups that have never existed. If you're drowning in an Olympic swimming pool full of hot chewing gum fondue, do you still care if Megan Fox likes you?
So yes, ROTF approaches the sublime, and then just keeps rocketing. Next stop: total anarchy. In a sense, it's the first war movie ever to convey a real sense of the fog of war, the confusion that comes with battle. Somewhere around hour nine, you will understand why friendly fire happens in wartime.
So I've gotten almost all the way through this review, and I still haven't summarized the movie's plot. Here goes. It's a couple years after the first movie, and Sam is going off to college, leaving his transforming car and his hot girlfriend, whom he still hasn't told he loves her. And meanwhile, the soldiers from the first movie are running around with a bunch of late-model GM cars and trucks, which turn into robots and fight other robots sometimes. Sam sees weird symbols which make no sense (and they still make no sense at the end of the movie) and they turn out to be the key to the location of a thing that can control another thing, that will enable the bad guys to destroy the sun. Sam has to embrace the heroic destiny he's rejected, so he can save us all from solarcide.
But that bare plot summary doesn't include the twenty or thirty other storylines that could also claim to be the movie's plot. There's the whole thing where someone from Washington D.C. wonders why the U.S. military is running around the globe with a bunch of late-model GM cars from outer space, and tries to put the kibosh on the military-Autobot complex. There's the teenager who's got a conspiracy website, that competes with another conpsiracy website which turns out to be the work of a secret agent who's decided that the best way to keep things secret is to put them on a website. (It works. I post secret stuff on io9 all the time.) Various robots die and then come back to life, and there's a whole strand about whether Decepticons (the bad ones) can become Autobots (the good ones). And there's the Fallen, who's sort of the movie's villain even though he barely shows up. And people from 17,000 BC who had weird teeth and fought robots. And the ancient Egyptians did stuff. And Sam's parents go to France except that they meet a robot and then they're in Egypt.
Really, I could go on and on. This movie starts out with a coherent storyline, for the first half hour or so, and then it just starts to spin faster and faster until the centrifuge of random events slams you into the walls. It doesn't help that there are 500 robots in the movie and they all look kind of the same.
Oh, but that's the other thing about ROTF. It's actually quite funny, a lot of the time. Some of the jokes fall flat, like the "twin" robots with the ghetto speak, and a lot of the stuff with John Turturro. But the movie's relentless silliness is mostly pretty hilarious, in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way, and almost nothing in the movie seems intended to be taken seriously.
So, to sum up: Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema, if not the greatest. You could easily argue that cinema, as an artform, has all been leading up to this. It will destabilize your limbic system, probably forever, and make you doubt the solidity of your surroundings. Generations of auteurs have struggled, in vain, to create a cinematic experience as overwhelming, and as liberating, as ROTF.
Women as well as men, everyone watching this film will feel the dissolution of all their certainties, all their illusory grasp on the world... but after you fall into a brazen despair that the walls of reality have become toxic ice cream of a million flavors, you will gasp with a greater realization: that once the world is reduced, forever, to a kaleidoscope of whirling shapes, you are totally free. Nothing matters, effect precedes cause, fish spawn in mid-air, and you can do whatever you want. Let yourself go in your adult diaper, Michael Bay invites you. Feel the music of total excess stir inside your deepest core. It is your Allspark, your cube. And you are a Transformer.