WE CAN FIX IT: ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’
This week We Can Fix It offers yet another “too little, too late” look at a notoriously maligned film, but this time we’re going to take the WABAC machine all the way to 2009. Yes, it’s a thematically appropriate week here at We Can Fix It, where we cast our 20/20 vision at Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a movie which offered tons of eye candy but, in the end, was substantially less than that which met our gaze.
The original live-action Transformers movie was an adaptation of the popular Hasbro toy line and animated series, which spawned its own animated film in 1986. That film, about Shia LaBeouf learning that his first car is actually a robot (in disguise!), was a box office smash which earned over $700 million worldwide. It’s actually not a terrible movie either, although calling it “great” would be an overstatement. Even the critics gave it only mild thumbs downs. It currently holds a 50% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which for a big dumb summer blockbuster about product placements that fight each other is actually pretty darned good.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen came out two years later in 2009 and, despite earning more than $836 million internationally, pretty much sucked. The film got too big for its britches, frankly, and packed itself with too many characters, incomprehensible action sequences, wildly inconsistent humor and more plot holes than you can shake a penny dreadful at. It ended up winning the Razzie awards for Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and Worst Picture of 2009. To this day the average defense of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen consists of “it doesn’t have to be good,” often backed up with the impressive box office figures, as if financial success somehow equaled quality. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but be honest here: McDonalds may be the most successful restaurant in the world, but is the food really that tasty?
Before we look at exactly what went wrong, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on why it probably could never have been done right. Sure, there’s no real excuse for a bad movie, but you have to sympathize with a group of screenwriters forced to churn out a blockbuster screenplay in three weeks. Yes, that’s all the time Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Ehren Kruger had to put together a story before the 2007 Writer’s Strike… well, struck, and even then they were only able to whip up a treatment, which Michael Bay then fleshed out himself so work could begin on the CGI-action sequences independently of the rest of the production. The trio would reportedly later spend four months picking up the pieces but it’s safe to say that the damage was done. Calling Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen structurally sound would be calling a house of cards an actual house.
So with that in mind we present a list of corrections that could actually have been made given the obstacles the filmmakers had to overcome. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may have been doomed to sub-parness from the start, but it didn’t have to completely suck.
1. FIND A RELEVANT THEME
Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie wasn’t as heartless as its sequel and the reason for that is really very simple: it was about something relatable. No, not a war waged between the cast of Pixar’s Cars… just a kid and his first car. Americans in particular have always had a love affair with our automobiles. They symbolize not only the American capitalist spirit but also freedom itself. Once you have a car, it seems, you can do just about anything. We name our cars. When something happens to our car, we take it personally. To paraphrase Understanding Comics writer Scott McCloud, when we get in an automobile accident we say, “He hit me,” and not “His car hit my car.” We are our cars.
According to IMDb, Roberto Orci reportedly stated that the theme for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was “being away from home and adapting to a new world.” That’s all well and good, but it got lost in a sea of lowbrow humor, incomprehensible plotting and an unnecessarily inflated cast of characters. More to the point, it doesn’t have much to do with the Transformers themselves, whereas “a boy and his car” is directly related to the franchise’s main concept. Want something better? How about “political ambivalence.”
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen toys with this concept, particularly when the Autobots kidnap him for no apparent reason other than to be their spokesperson with the U.S. government. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) wants no part of if because he wants to go to college. As it plays out in the finished film, it feels like padding or worse, sequel revisionism. Sam was perfectly willing to kick ass and save the world at the end of Transformers, but has to pull a complete 180 off-screen between movies just to maintain the traditional first act screenwriting trope of ‘debating whether to take action in the plot.’ This could have seemed more organic (which would be a little ironic for a Transformers film, but let’s not get into semantics) by making the relationship between the Transformers and the U.S. government so thoroughly toxic that staying out of the way would seem like prudence on Sam’s part as opposed to laziness, or worse, cowardice.
In an age when political turmoil is everywhere, the country seems thoroughly divided and war is a fact despite the ongoing debate over its validity – which, yes, even a concern as far back as 2009 – dramatizing the human characters as bickering or at least uncertain protagonists and juxtaposing them with noble, active soldiers like the Transformers and even the homo sapien members of NEST like Josh Duhamel would resonate throughout the story as a driving force, an arguably noble moral, and as an added bonus would cater to Bay’s longstanding borderline-pornographic depictions of the U.S. military, which are repeatedly visually exalted throughout the film. Wouldn’t it have been nice for that to have an actual point?
We don’t do this.
3. CUT THE HUMAN CAST BY 50%
Michael Bay is not Irwin Allen. He ain’t Roland Emmerich either, although that may be for the best. Both of those famous filmmakers have repeatedly utilized ensemble casts in their big budget destructo-thons in an effort to make a larger-than-life story feel relatable. There’s someone in the cast of The Poseidon Adventure and Independence Day for everyone to relate to, and they all have something to do, even if it’s just dying in a (hopefully) meaningful way. The ensemble cast of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is entirely unnecessary. Some, like Ramon Rodriguez or Tyrese Gibson, are of no consequence whatsoever to the plot. Others, like Sam’s parents, are reduced to running gags. There’s no need to dwell on this. If they don’t have anything to do, they don’t have any reason to be in the movie. Trim the fat.
4. INCREASE THE ROBOT CAST BY 50%
Let’s be honest here: even if you liked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, is it really just because you’re a fan of Shia LaBeouf? I thought not. The word “Transformers” is in the title, so why are they barely in the film? Oh sure, they’re everywhere, but who are they? What are they doing? How do they feel about it? What are their relationships to one another? When the aforementioned “twins” get the what appears to be the most screen time of any of the Transformers in your movie, you’ve got a serious problem with focus.
You know what the best part of the original Transformers animated series was, from a character perspective? The relationship between Megatron and Starscream. Imagine if you were Othello, and you knew Iago was out to get you, but you actually needed him around because he’s the most competent subordinate you have? That’s one dramatic-ass relationship you have there. The constant internal power struggle, let alone the outer struggle with the hated Autobots, would lend not only a hint of humanity to the otherwise soulless Decepticons but would also have made them – Gasp! – interesting. (A hint of that on the Autobot side wouldn’t have hurt as well.) What’s the point of introducing well-remembered characters like Arcee or Soundwave if you’re not going to have them do a damned thing? (Although an all-new, for some reason all-different Soundwave admittedly does get a bigger part in Dark of the Moon…)
To put it another way: imagine if X-Men: First Class focused entirely on the human characters, and although the mutants fought all the time the only ones with more than a couple lines of dialogue were Professor X, Magneto, Mystique and, for no particularly good reason, Jar-Jar Binks. Would that have been satisfying for you? Somehow I doubt it. Granted, making the film more Autobot-centric would have cost a lot more money for special effects purposes, but the only response to that is “Who the hell decided to make the Transformers so visually complicated anyway?” They’re hard to look at, let alone render. But that’s a We Can Fix It problem from back in the first Transformers, so we guess by Revenge of the Fallen it was time to call that solution a wash.
5. FILL TWO OR THREE OF THOSE PLOT HOLES
Listen, a lot of movies have plot holes. Citizen Kane has a huge plot hole. But Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has fifty gazillion-trillion-dozens of them, which is just plain too many (although that is admittedly a rough estimate). And most of them were avoidable, since they were part of tacked-on story elements anyway.
For example, a major plot point involves figuring out some new way to bring Optimus Prime back from the dead by finding “The Matrix of Leadership,” which is really hard to find. If only somebody had a shard of the AllSpark – you know, the thing that brought Megatron back to life earlier in the movie – on their person the whole time… Oh wait, Megan Fox did! Plot hole. After rewatching the movie less than 24 hours ago I still can’t figure out a legitimate plot reason for why she even needed it on her in the first place. At least, no reason that couldn’t have been omitted from the finished screenplay without incident.
For that matter, Optimus Prime was killed in the first place because “only a Prime” could defeat the film’s big bad, The Fallen. But Megatron kills Optimus pretty easily, calling the whole (already pretty darned forced) plot point into question. This plot hole has been disputed by some, who claim that the first Transformers movie said that Optimus and Megatron were brothers, and therefore Megatron was able to kill a Prime because he, too, was a Prime. So then why did The Fallen say that the last Prime is dead? At the very least, why didn’t he try to kill Megatron right afterwards? And once again, this is a plot point that’s tacked on as it is. Why even bother with the whole “only a Prime” subplot if it just boils down to “the hero should be the one to kill the villain?” It’s arbitrary.
Here’s just a stupid one: if Transformers have been hiding out on Earth since the dawn of man, what the hell were they disguised as before the industrial age? Jetfire claims one of his ancestors was the first wheel. Must have been one damned complicated wheel…
And for that matter, if Decepticons can now perfectly impersonate human beings why aren’t they doing that all the time? Why abandon that crucial plot point early on, when a Battlestar Galactica-styled storyline of actual, I dunno, deception could ramp up the suspense throughout the entire running time? Sigh…
Again, the idea of fixing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the mootest one yet, since it had to overcome the Writer’s Strike to exist at all. We didn’t even bother complaining about the frantic editing and incomprehensible action sequences since by now they’re as much a part of Michael Bay’s style as shots of women’s feet are to Quentin Tarantino’s. To put it another way, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may have been doomed to mediocrity from the start. But we honestly don't believe that it was doomed to suck.
That’s all from We Can Fix It this week. Come back next Wednesday for more new adventures in hindsight!