Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

The sequel to "Transformers" improves upon the original by managing to be intermittently lucid, and having a few scenes centered around robot hero Optimus Prime that are, dare we say about a movie directed by Michael Bay, emotionally stirring.

The action scenes are still a mess; I had a hard time following them in either the first movie or this one, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Because both the heroic Autobots and their nemeses the Decepticons can transform into everyday vehicles like a Camaro or a dump truck, their robot forms are indistinct and contain a lot of widgets and extra stuff that gets lost in the shuffle.

When two transformers fight, it's virtually impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. A lot of junk gets knocked off them as they rumble, like reptiles shedding their skin in chunks. Overall, the effect is like watching piles of welded metal scrap caught in a Kansas twister.

The backstory, already a confusing bramble about tribes of robots from a doomed planet and an All Spark that can turn any mechanical device into a transformer, grows ever more layered with gobbledygook.

It turns out that Megatron, the chief villain defeated in the first movie (but not for long), is only a servant to a secretive overlord called the Fallen, who wants to set off a weapon hidden on Earth eons ago to suck our sun dry, but to activate it he needs a key called -- I kid you not -- The Matrix of Leadership.

The key to the key, somehow, is again earthbound teen Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who's now heading off to college in a stab at normalcy. In the first movie, Sam had a completely extraneous love interest played by Megan Fox, whose purpose was more to fill out a T-shirt rather than flesh out a pivotal role. She's back for more jiggle time, and to coax Sam into whispering to her the L-word, that bane of cinematic protagonists.

Sam's college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez) is brought along to go comedically weak-kneed at moments of high danger, and disgraced fed Agent Simmons (John Turturro) appears out of the woodwork to lend a hand. Simmons has lost his job, his security clearance and his pension, but apparently still retains the ability to call military stations and convince them to send helicopters, or fire a death ray in whatever direction he points.

There are something like three times as many computer-generated transformers in the sequel, which is impressive until you realize it's daunting to tell them apart, other than Optimus Prime and a few other of the good guys. The most distinctive Autobots are a pair of twins who speak in urban slang and transform into neon-colored rice rockets. One of them even has what appears to be a gold tooth in his mouth, which in their parlance is known as a grille, and in this case actually is one.

The film's saving grace is Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen, who also played him in the 1980s cartoon show on which this movie is based. Optimus gets into several hellacious fights, and gives a moving basso profundo speech or two. He's certainly more viscerally engaging than any of the humans in the movie, whose job is essentially to get out of the transformers' way. To the aging army of geeks who love this stuff, that's just the way it should be.

2 stars

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