Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The first instalment of the revitalised Transformers franchise was a well-crafted piece of summery distraction formed from a combination of spectacular special effects and a funny, self-aware script. For the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, it is clearly director Michael Bay’s intention to deliver more of the same, a lot more. This instalment is almost two and a half hours long, features 42 separate robot characters and a bizarre, unintelligible story that spans the globe. What was spectacular before is mundane and prosaic now and what was witty and clever irritates the second time around.

Here's what I made of the story: Two years on from the events of the first film, the good Autobots remaining on Earth have allied with the US military to prevent further attacks from the bad Decepticon robots. Meanwhile, the boy at the centre of the story last time around, Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, is trying to forget that he discovered a race of gigantic robot aliens and is concentrating on his first year in college and concerned about how to maintain his relationship with his ridiculously oversexed girlfriend Mikaela (the returning Megan Fox). Unfortunately, as Autobot leader Optimus Prime solemnly intones, ‘fate never calls on us at the moment of our choosing’. The Decepticons have returned to resurrect their leader Megatron, at the behest of an ancient and evil Transformer known as The Fallen, who plans to reignite a super-weapon hidden in the Great Pyramid at Giza and destroy the Sun.

So, Transformers II is patent nonsense but the first film was too and that didn’t stop it from being entertaining. It is obvious from the outset that, a series of vast action sequences aside, Bay and his returning writers Ehren Kruger and Roberto Orci don’t have any clear idea of what form their sequel should take. The plot is baffling, a hodge-podge of pubescent college humour, soft-porn pouting, military jingoism and blurred special effects. The sense of wit that saved the first film is replaced by a constant procession of dull one-liners and strained slapstick. Events and locations become blurred and difficult to follow. The gang go looking for an allied robot at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, break down a wall to escape and emerge in a vast airplane graveyard, in the desert, ringed by snowcapped mountains. If Bay cannot keep track of this thing, how are we supposed to?

This bloated leviathan even boasts its own Jar Jar Binks – the blabbermouth aquatic creature that single-handedly ruined Star Wars - in two awful new characters, a pair of bickering African-American inspired compact cars with an endless torrent of unfunny, ethnically derived epithets. This is a film that doesn’t know when to stop, reaching its dramatic climax around half way through, in a well-realised scene set in a forest, before lumbering on regardless for another hour of flat fight sequences, eardrum-shattering noise and stroboscopic visual effects. Bay, who drops a series of blatant references to his own back catalogue of films, has suffered the same malaise before with the interminable Pearl Harbour or the over-blown, obnoxious Bad Boys II.

The first Transformers was, evidently, a blip. Bay has fallen back into the habitual formulae that he believes make for entertaining cinema. His storytelling senses have been so numbed by noise and sparks that it has atrophied away almost entirely. His sense of the spectacular is waning too, the slo-mo, one-on-one robot ballistic ballets from the first film are far less interesting when played out by a cast of dozens. As the clanking battle rages on screen, it becomes impossible to distinguish one robot from another or figure out what anyone is supposed to be doing. Long before the explosive final scenes, Transformers II has become a celluloid headache, a numbing, mind-wearying exercise in bombast and excess.

Terminator Salvation

With Batman on hiatus, Christian Bale’s back-up blockbuster franchise finds him playing John Connor, leader of the human resistance in a futuristic war against artificially-intelligent robots. Connor’s destiny, as laid down in the first trilogy, is to lead the human resistance army against the evil technological empire of Skynet, a defence system that turned on its creators. Opposite Connor stands Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate who donates his body to science in 2003, only to wake up, bruised and baffled, in 2018, in need of an oil-change. The process of re-establishing these characters and fitting them into a pre-determined timeline forms the majority of the story in Terminator Salvation. The rest of it is composed of fight-scenes and explosions.

Those arriving fresh to the story are not given much in the way of explanations to help figure out the tangled storyline or the significance of certain moments in the franchise’s long mythology. Frantic, confused and undeservedly self-important, the storytelling in Terminator Salvation is as grindingly mechanical as the robot villains. Fans of post-apocalyptic science-fiction will get some satisfaction from the occasionally arresting images of ash-strewn devastation but the action sequences, the main draw for the summer audience, are disappointing.

McG throws the camera around with abandon but, barring a couple of genuinely thrilling moments, the effect is more like playing a video game than watching a movie. It is understandable, given the iconic status of the series, that the new film would reference the Terminator franchise, but the director’s reliance on nods to other classic films; from The Great Escape to War of the Worlds, Alien and Blade Runner, are far less forgivable. Either McG is worried that his images will not carry any weight without echoing a greater work or, as I suspect, he is simply incapable of creating something original.

Bale is an actor that is at his best when grim-faced and taciturn, but he goes too far in his characterisation of John Connor, turning this legendary hero into an action-movie caricature. Monotonously intense and belligerent, Bale does achieve something original - or at least I have never seen it before – managing to shout each line of dialogue through gritted teeth. I was surprised to see Connor take orders from a squad of generals, headquartered in a secret submarine, as the Terminator mythology had consistently established that Connor was the boss. His mantle as the last messiah is further undermined by equipping him with a newly-developed gadget that, with a few frantic button presses, overrides the robot’s defence systems. Doesn’t that make the gadget the real hero? And isn’t the gadget a machine and therefore part of the problem?

Intended as a reboot for a long-dead franchise, Terminator Salvation lacks the emotion and innovation of the first two films, being a closer match for Jonathan Mostow’s uninspired third instalment than James Cameron’s original diptych. The script, which has passed through the hands of dozens of screenwriters, is constructed along an unswerving trajectory through a series of action set-pieces. Bale and Worthington aside, none of the secondary characters are given an introduction, arriving in the story when required before disappearing into the digitally composed background. The lack of connection with the characters means it doesn’t matter what happens to them, the effect is like watching a stranger crack open a toaster with a lump-hammer. There is a lot of noise and sparks but in the end, it is impossible to care.

With Bale having already signed up for two more Terminator films, the last ten minutes are spent setting up the sequel. On this pre-programmed evidence, the war might already be over. The robots won.

Drag Me To Hell

Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell might be considered cinematic loose change in comparison to the excesses of his billion-dollar Spiderman trilogy but this old-school genre horror comedy is nevertheless a pointed return to the director’s low-fidelity roots, a queasily entertaining mix of giggles and gore.

After a short prologue that establishes the supernatural roots of what is to come, we are introduced to bank official Christine (Alison Lohman) as she listens to an improve-your-diction tape on the drive to work. Her first customer on the day is Mrs Ganush, a cloudy-eyed old gypsy woman (played with uncommon verve by Lorna Raver), who is behind on her mortgage payments and looking for an extension. Christine, who is striving for a promotion and unwilling to disappoint her boss (David Paymer), turns her down and the crone retaliates with a curse.

After a showdown in a parking garage, Mrs. Ganush snatches a button from Christine’s coat and utters a croaking incantation. “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me,” she swears, before disappearing in a swirl of creepy mist. But the witch dies before Christine can ask her to lift the hex, leaving our every-woman heroine with no-one but her sceptical boyfriend (Justin Long) and a floundering pseudo-psychic (Dileep Rao) to help her escape her fate. Christine has been given just three days to live, while being increasingly tormented by a goat-like demon (a visual nod to the ghoul in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon), before a fiery chasm will open beneath her feet and claim her.

With a straightforward plot and a scant back-story, Raimi’s objective here less about reinventing cinematic horror than it is to push all the genre-mandated buttons, in the right order. He does this by relying on the things he does best; flinging the camera around his carefully dressed sets in a series of pans and crash zooms, using creeping shadows and screeching sound effects to create inexpensive mood and splashing around the fake blood and crawling maggots in order to make the audience squirm in their seats.

Considering the current economic climate, it is perhaps strangely apposite to watch a banker being tormented by the malign spirit of a defaulting mortgage holder but given that Raimi and his brother Ivan wrote their script back in 1992, it is difficult to ascribe any particular political intention to his rollercoaster creep-show. Timeliness aside, what carries the film is its wicked sense of humour, each gruesome moment matched by a macabre gag, the narrative improbabilities and clanging coincidences becoming less important as the jokes pile up. It’s no classic, but it is a lot of fun.