Bay·hem: noun \ˈbā-ˌhem, ˈbā-əm\ – The cinematic conceit of blowing shit up on a large scale, in slow motion and (usually) at sunset.
Without a doubt, Michael Bay is the easiest target for all that is wrong with modern blockbuster filmmaking. Hell, he gets his own entry in Urban Dictionary. With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bay gives all of his critics credence with one large, bombastic, partially racist, totally sexist, inane film. It’s the most Michael Bay film that Michael Bay has ever made. That’s why it’s the worst film Michael Bay has ever made.
Revenge of the Fallen is truly a cultural curiosity. The 2nd highest grossing film of 2009, 2nd only to the highest grossing film of all-time, Avatar, which grossed a whopping $350 million more than the $400 million earning Transformers 2. Those box office numbers are insane. Yet when it came time to promote the third installment, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both the director and star, that one guy who’s not famous anymore, trashed the film in interviews. That not famous guy saying he “wasn’t impressed” with the sequel, and Bay saying the film was “crap.” Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is to this day, not adjusting for inflation, in the top 20 grossing films at domestic box office ever. How is it so successful yet such a failure? This doesn’t make sense.
But Michael Bay has made his career out of not making sense, and not making sense is the overarching theme of the Transformers series. Another prevailing theme of the series are conspiracy theories. But like any elaborate conspiracy theory, it makes less sense the more you think about it. That is, if you can even comprehend it in the first place. Not that any of that matters. Do you like shit blowing up? Do you like big robots fighting? Regardless of how you feel about shit blowing up, everybody likes big robots fighting. In what may be Bay’s most remarkable achievement in cinema, he makes big robots fighting boring. The battles between these massive mechanized monstrosities is weightless. The film has no form or plot. Like two big robots battling, the film is just relentlessly pounding your senses until you’re ready to succumb to the darkness, to bleed out and die.
Following the climactic battle on the streets of Downtown LA in the first film, Revenge of the Fallen picks up with Sam Witwicky (That guy who isn’t famous anymore) as he makes his way to college. Sam’s college roommates run a conspiracy site that aims to prove the existence of Transformers. Since this film is co-written by Roberto Orci, a well-document 9/11 truther, the government is powerful enough to cover-up big robots fighting in Downtown LA. Never mind the tens of thousands of people who witnessed the events or the fact that practically everyone has a camera on them at all times thanks to modern cell phone technology. Anyways, Sam touches the MacGuffin, the mystical device from the first film, and begins having visions. He goes on hyper rants about stuff that may or not be related to a plot. It’s really hard to tell.
When the screen isn’t filled with images of big robots fighting, the film is slog of wretched characters and deadening expository dialogue. This is a film that takes so much time explaining everything that has or will happen, and still nothing makes sense. What does make sense is the way the film has two of Bay’s favorite things team up in order create explosions – the military and Transformers. The first action set piece is massive in scale, and it’s an impressive sequence. That is until Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) commits a summary execution of a wounded Decepticon. “Punk-assed Decepticon,” remarks an Autobot before his benevolent leader acts as judge, jury, and executioner. The soldiers that fight beside Transformers are given lines like, “We shed blood, sweat, and precious metals together.”
Cullen’s voice lends gravitas to Optimus and it feels woefully out of place. This is a film that features a cutaway of Chihuahuas humping, and continues Michael Bay’s fascination with big robots excreting fluids. Not content with the moment where a Transformer urinated on John Turturro in the first film, Revenge of the Fallen features a Transformer crying and another one farting. And for good measure, a Transformer calling one of the film’s few female characters a “crazy bitch.” Then there are Skids and Mudflap, also known as the twins, who are the Jar-Jar Binks of the Transformers films, crude racial stereotypes as shameful comic relief.
Nearly halfway through the film Optimus Prime is killed by some punk-assed Decepticons. It’s an attempt to add stakes to the film, but anyone with half a brain could deduce that they’re not going to kill off the cash cow – the most recognizable Transformer. When Optimus is eventually revived, more on that later, he says, “Let’s roll!” This saying is purportedly what the passengers on Flight 93 said on 9/11 before taking down the plane. While Bay thinks this is a rallying cry of the American Spirit, he’s inadvertently demeaning it by having it be the battle cry of toys.
Charges of misogyny have followed Bay for some time. I won’t be the first to bring up Bay’s issues with women and I won’t be the last. The film’s abrasive tone towards women is even more astonishing when you consider that it is achieved with only two prominent female characters. When we’re first reintroduced to Megan Fox’s Mikaela, Sam’s trophy girlfriend, she’s spread across a motorcycle in a manner befitting a lowrider magazine. It was established in the first film that Mikaela is a mechanic, but she’s not working as a mechanic here. She’s airbrushing a logo on the gas tank of a motorcycle. Like any great artist, Mikaela works without a clear view of what she’s working on. Mikaela is Bay’s vision of the ideally objectified woman. She works on cars. She’ll follow her boyfriend around the globe to watch big robots fight. She’ll say “camshaft” in a slow sultry manner that’ll give you a boner. She laughs when a miniature Transformer humps her leg, like a horny dog, saying, “Say my name! Say my name!”
If Mikaela is Bay’s music video ideal of femininity, Sam’s mother, Judy (Julie White), is his never-ending critique of women. Not content to have her be an out-of-touch, embarrassing parent, Judy is a loud and crude selfish being. At other moments, she’s a wildly emotional wreck. In one cringe-inducing scene, Judy inadvertently consumes pot brownies. This causes her to go wild, casually assaulting people throwing a Frisbee about and making blatant sexual advances to her husband. “Hey, professor, I’d do anything for an A,” she says to Sam’s father. Chicks – if they’re not leaning up against a piece of American made machinery, they’re just annoying.
Yet Bay’s not done presenting his issues with women. In one scene, during a college lecture, the front row is populated with eager co-eds lustily gazing at the professor. It’s like Bay truly believes that every woman who ever got higher grades than him must have been sleeping with the professor. Another minor female character, Alice (Isabel Lucas), at first seems like a typical Bay woman. She has model good looks and doesn’t speak. Then it turns out she’s a Terminator-Transformer hybrid. This is only revealed after she attempts to seduce Sam before attempting to kill him. Chicks – they turn you on and then turn into hideous monsters that will kill you, am I right?
You have to credit Revenge of the Fallen for being willing to answer the tough questions. Who built the Pyramids? Transformers. Do Transformers have balls? Yes. Is Transformer Heaven for real? Yes. The reveal of Transformer Heaven happens when Sam is temporarily killed in the climactic battle. He awakens on an old Star Trek set, greeted by the ghosts of Transformers past. Within the span of seconds, the Transformer ghosts provide Sam with contradictory information. Presented with the key to revive Optimus Prime, Sam is told that it is “earned.” This is immediately followed with, “It is, and has always been, your destiny.”
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may be the worst large scale blockbuster ever made. We’re not talking about dumb escapist fun, this is an aggressively stupid film. If there were ever a film that would smack the book out of your hands and ask, “What are you reading for?” This is that film. It’s the most problematic entry in the most problematic franchise. “Let’s not get episodic. Okay, old timer? Beginning. Middle. End. Facts. Details. Condensed. Plot. Tell it,” says John Turturro’s character at one point. To insert that line of dialogue in a film that does none of those things takes balls. Big, swinging, metallic balls.