Over the past 14 years, Michael Bay has directed eight features, including Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and 2007’s original Transformers, and the average length of those has been 145 minutes. His only feature to come in under two hours was his first (Bad Boys), which clocked in at a relatively spry 118 minutes. Notorious super-size director James Cameron has released exactly one movie to theaters as long as the average Bay epic, a little number called Titanic; even Peter Jackson sports a career average of just 137 minutes, and that’s counting the mammoth Lord of the Rings films. No filmmaker of the 21st century appears to be more in love with the sound of his own cinematic voice.
So there’s an almost sublime irony to the scene in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in which the disgraced ex-agent Simmons (John Turturro) chastises an ancient Autobot for his rambling exposition: “Beginning, middle, end … Plot. Condense. Tell it.”
Had Bay taken the advice offered by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, he might finally have been able to turn out a film as devoted to efficient storytelling as it is to big kabooms. Instead, he presides over another dump of bloated back-story connecting kick-ass fights between giant robots.
In the two years since the last film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from high school and is on his way to college, and the remaining Autobots, including Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), work with the American military to root out lingering Decepticons. What heretofore unknown goal keeps the Decepticons hanging around Earth? What long-held grudge motivates the Decepticon leader referred to only as The Fallen (Tony Todd, erstwhile Candyman)? What secrets of the Autobot/Decepticon civilization does Sam carry around in his head as a result of touching a shard of the All-Spark? Will Mikaela (Megan Fox) finally get Sam to say the “L” word?
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that for the average viewer who whooped it up at the original Transformers, the answer to all of those questions might be a rousing, “Who cares?” They come to see rockin’, sockin’ robots, and at times it’s clear that Bay knows exactly how to deliver them. There’s a great early sequence in which the aforementioned All-Spark splinter turns the Witwickys’ kitchen appliances into critters that look and behave suspiciously like electronic gremlins (thanks, exec producer Steven Spielberg). Individual fight and chase sequences actually feel more cohesive than they generally have in Bay films. There’s cool stuff here, if you’re prepared to wait for it.
But you do often have to wait for it — and wade through a lot of garbage. Bay and company pack the story with needless and distracting sub-plots, including a pot-brownie trip-out by Sam’s oblivious mom (Julie White) and a pair of comic-relief Autobot “twins” (voiced by Tom Kenny) that come off as grotesquely insulting caricatures of “streetwise” hip-hop youngsters. Autobot military liaison Lennox (Josh Duhamel) deals with a dickish new government overseer (John Benjamin Hickey). Sam’s new college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez) tags along to provide shrieking reaction takes. Stuff just keeps happening, as though no one had the ability — or the nerve — to tell Bay that not every idea that pops into his head belongs on screen.
To make matters even more confusing, it sometimes feels as though Bay is taking the opportunity to pay tribute to every cool action movie he ever loved — and not just the already-noted Gremlins homage. The interaction between The Fallen and Megatron (Hugo Weaving) feels exactly like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine; a chase involving a Decepticon who has taken the shape of a hot college babe plays like a fusion of Terminators 2 and 3. It’s Bay’s way of inviting himself to the action-director pantheon party, and you’re paying for it.
It’s a shame that Bay doesn’t know how to give ample time to the ideas that do work: Turturro’s ferociously determined Simmons; the notion of legendary Autobot “Primes” scattered over North America in the dormant form of vintage vehicles; watching Megan Fox run in slow-motion while wearing a tank top as though auditioning for a Baywatch reboot. It doesn’t take narrative subtlety to make a Transformers movie work. It just takes common sense, a little self-discipline and focus on a few simple words: Plot. Condense. Tell it.