BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 26, 2009
The new Transformers movie is two-and-a-half hours long. I'm going to write that sentence again, if I may, because it is a reality I find only slightly less confounding than I would the arrival on this planet of actual alien robots inclined to disguise themselves as backhoes and eighteen-wheelers: The new Transformers movie is two-and-a-half hours long.
Who imagined that this would be a good idea? Director Michael Bay's enthusiasm for his sequel, the full title of which is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, is perhaps comprehensible. But what could have gone through the mind of the studio executive who greenlit this epic inquiry into a set of Hasbro toys? And is there some way we could ensure that said exec was forced to watch the film in its entirety, oh perhaps three times, with all the hindsight regrets and missed birthdays that might entail?
It is true that those with the stamina to sit through the mechanized marathon will be treated to sights never before committed to celluloid: a diabolical “decepticon” (that is, bad robot) armed with rotary nose trimmers; another that functions as a gargantuan, extraterrestrial Dustbuster; and a third, the size and disposition of a Chihuahua, which enthusiastically humps the leg of costar Megan Fox. And don’t get me started on the pair of jive-talking minstrel-show robots--one sporting a gold tooth!--that had me searching the credits for signs that George Lucas might’ve been employed as a sensitivity consultant.
The movie opens with an extended monologue by chief autobot (that is, good robot) Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, heretofore best known as the voice of Eeyore in countless Pooh cartoons): “Earth, birthplace of the human race. A species much like our own, capable of great compassion and great violence. … Our worlds have met before.” As giant robots stomp cavemen, onscreen text advertises that the year is 17,000 BC. The good news is that the next 19,000-plus years go by quickly, with Optimus even filling us in on what’s happened in the interim since the last Transformers movie. (Pretty much what you’d expect: Noble autobots and scrappy U.S. soldiers have allied to fight sneaky decepticons.) Had the movie proceeded at this pace and level of omniscient narration, it might've resembled a loud, but quick-moving, book-on-tape.
Instead, we are painstakingly reintroduced to teen autobot-buddy Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf), now preparing to go away to college. We watch as a metal shard left in his clothes during the last movie brings his parents' kitchen appliances to life--Gremlins, by way of Williams-Sonoma. We see him explain to Bumblebee, his heartbroken Camaro/companion, that he can't bring him to school because freshmen aren't allowed to have cars. We travel with him to campus, where his mom (Julie White) accidentally eats a hash brownie, and tackles some kids playing Frisbee, and--where was I? Only 20 minutes in? Please, God, say it isn’t so.
Bad robots come looking for the shard, and for another shard the U.S. military did a risibly poor job of securing, and then for some alien codes that the first shard implanted in Sam's mind--codes which, among other effects, cause him to misbehave in an astronomy class taught by Dwight from "The Office." Sam also learns the invaluable lesson that when a supermodel-level hottie starts stalking you on your first day of freshman year ("So how about tonight you pretend I’m your girlfriend"), there's sure to be lethal circuitry hidden under her micro-mini. If it sounds as though the script (credited to Ehren Kruger, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman) was written in serial-novel form during an all-night mescaline bender, well, I have no evidence that it was not. And I haven't even gotten to the bits where "the Matrix of Leadership," "the Tomb of the Primes," and "the Dagger's Tip" are introduced.
Nor will I, in the interests of brevity and compassion. Instead, I'll merely catalogue a few of the film's more memorable moments. There is the scene in which uber-decepticon Megatron (Hugo Weaving), preparing to kill Sam, asks Optimus, "Is the future of our race not worth a single human life?" and Optimus replies, "You’ll never stop at one"--which, if you're Sam, really can't be the response you were looking for. There's the prolonged, profoundly gratuitous sinking of an American aircraft carrier, which I can only assume Bay included in the film to punish the nation for declining to make his Pearl Harbor a bigger hit. And there is, of course, Megan Fox, purportedly returning as Sam's love interest, Mikaela, but in reality serving as a compensatory special effect for those boys old enough to have begun tiring of giant robots. Our first glimpse of Mikaela finds her hunched over a motorcycle, wearing the shortest shorts I believe I've seen since Catherine Bach tormented the Duke boys. I need scarcely note that this introductory shot approaches from the tailpipe.
The movie climaxes with a battle in the Egyptian desert that is equal parts unseemly and interminable. Predator drones skim the dunes, helicopters fall from the sky, tanks are illuminated by exploding shells, and valiant Americans see their blood spilled on the sand: Take out the digitized colossi, and one could almost be gazing at CNN footage from this young, fraught century. Perhaps it’s just me, but this is exactly the reality that I would like my escapist entertainments to escape.
But on it goes, and on, and on, until the audience has been beaten down as comprehensively as the decepticons. The going gets so rough that at one point John Turturro (reprising his role as Agent Simmons) seems to appoint himself a kind of in-film ombudsman, begging one of the robots for a little narrative clarity: "Beginning, middle, end," he pleads. "Details. Plot. Compress. Tell it." If only.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.