Within the first minute of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it'll be pretty apparent that the movie wasn't exactly designed for (or by) Mensa members, as a title card shows the military time in China to be 22:14 hours, and the sun is still up. It'll quickly be even more apparent, when the prelude's autobot narrator mispronounces "refuge." But heaven knows we're not expecting braininess from a Michael Bay-directed action sequel based on a line of Hasbro action figures; if the effects are sufficiently awesome and there's a good joke now and again -- which pretty much sums up Bay's original, 2007 Transformers -- nearly any other irritant could be easily forgiven.
Yet what are reasonable audiences to make of the nightmarish incoherence and almost staggering stupidity of Revenge of the Fallen? (You could contend, of course, that reasonable audiences wouldn't be caught dead at the movie in the first place, but just for the sake of argument ... .) It's bad enough that the effects aren't all that awesome and that there aren't any good jokes over the unendurable, 150-minute running length. But the mind-numbing awfulness of Revenge of the Fallen is truly something to behold. You can't really get angry at something this childishly bad, the way you can't be pissed if you hand a toddler a champagne flute and he spills the drink on the floor. You can, though, find yourself dumbfounded by just how little wit, clarity, and basic narrative sense $200 million apparently buys these days, to say nothing of how the film's grotesque misogyny and racism are allowed to thrive in the guise of entertainment.
Any attempt to recount Revenge of the Fallen's plot would suggest that I understood its plot, and because story isn't relevant anyway -- to be sure, Bay and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman don't seem concerned with it -- I won't bother trying. Really, what do you need to know? There are heroic 'bots and evil 'bots, and lots of shape-shifting and gunfire and explosions, and Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox and Megan Fox's breasts run around in slow motion -- you know the drill. But while this follow-up, like its precursor, would seem to promise nothing but unapologetic, bone-headed fun, I found it an impossible movie to lose myself in; beginning with that opening title card, Bay's flick serves up such a cornucopia of howlers that you have almost no choice but to provide your own snippy, running commentary à la Mystery Science Theater 3000, a sci-fi excursion about 10 times more believable than anything in Revenge of the Fallen. This is a film in which a front row of Princeton hotties lick their lips and make eyes at their astronomy professor ... who's played by Rainn Wilson.
The movie almost seems to be in a contest with itself over which of its scenes is the year's most excruciating. Certainly, just about any featuring LaBeouf's squawking parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) qualifies. These two, who were so eccentrically, surprisingly funny in the first Transformers, are only slightly less bearable performing grade-D slapstick than they are in the movie's über-"emotional" climax; the sequence in which White goes all loopy after consuming a pot cookie has got to be the Tony winner's career nadir. And while we're on the subject of talented actors debasing themselves, I don't think there was a single moment when I didn't feel sorry for poor (poor, poor) John Turturro, forced to jabber incessantly and bare his thong-clad ass. None of the actors -- and with regards to Ms. Fox, I use the term very loosely -- comes off well here; even LaBeouf, who lent the first film some blessedly prickly, sardonic personality, is done in by humiliating routines.
Amazingly, though, the performers are still the best things about Revenge of the Fallen. Sure, things blow up real good and the pummeling sound makes your testicles (if you've got them) vibrate for hours after leaving the auditorium, but technically, the movie is still a shambles. The editing is disjointed and inept -- one scene finds a car speeding along in an Egyptian desert and then, in the very next shot, racing through an urban market -- and the 'bots, throughout, are distractingly cartoonish, appearing slightly less tangible than WALL·E or EVE. The camera whirls around meaninglessly at every given opportunity, as if to build dramatic momentum where none exists, and the overripe cinematography makes everyone on-screen look orange. The clanky, clunky battle scenes, meanwhile, seem to last an eternity. When, at the film's 145-minute mark, one of the 'bots said to another, "This isn't over," it was all I could do to keep from screaming.
And if you aren't already offended by the blatant sexism -- LaBeouf and Josh Duhamel take turns grabbing Fox by the hand and leading her through the desert, though clubbing her over the head and dragging her behind them would've been just as effective -- wait'll you get a load of the warring twin autobots who speak in the voices of Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson, and whose hideously unamusing "urban" banter suggests the second (and third) coming of Jar Jar Binks. I'm not going to try to guess why creatures from the depths of space would speak in British and Brooklyn cadences, but surely the appearance of this extraterrestrial Amos 'n' Andy act suggests something less than a superior intelligence at work. Revenge of the Fallen is an insult to empty-headed summer blockbusters, and it makes those of us who enjoyed the first Transformers feel like saps; after sitting through its sequel, you want to re-watch the original immediately, to see if it's actually much worse than you remember.