Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is doing two things at the moment: filling theatres like nobody's business, and garnering some of the most vehement, passionately antagonistic reviews in living memory. According to Roger Ebert, who has sharp claws when he gets them out, “if you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination”. (One of Ebert's most illustrious pans was dealt to Freddy Got Fingered: “This movie doesn't scrap the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't even below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”) Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave ROTF an unprecedented no stars: “Disguised as a human director, Bay is actually a destroyer of dreams. When Hasbro invented these toys, the intention was for kids to use their imaginations about what these bots would morph into. Bay crushes that imagination with his own crude interpretations that seem untouched by human hands and spirit. I know there are still 17 months to go, but I'm thinking Transformers 2 has a shot at the title Worst Movie of the Decade.”
This critical drubbing is all the more extraordinary in that it comes at time when the bulk of mainstream criticism has, if anything, largely acquiesced to a logic of lowered expectation from Hollywood. The current Bay-hunt cannot be qualified as a politically correct knee-jerk reaction, either; the first Transformers received, by Bay standards, fairly warm critical notices. The overwhelming impression out there is that, this time around, Bay crossed some inalienable line in the sand, a line which had already made considerable allowance for his brand of aesthetic bankruptcy and venal stupidity. ROTF has drawn fire not only for its monumental bone-headedness and narrative incompetence, but for what appears to be a fairly blatant blast of negative racial stereotyping, in the form of charmingly monikered ghetto-bots Skids and Mudflap. This controversy, labelled “Racistbot Gate” in certain quarters, is a tawdry tale in itself. What's interesting is that nobody involved in the film has actually denied that the characters are offensive; instead an undignified game of pass the buck ensued. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman pointed the finger vaguely in Bay's direction: “Its really hard for us to sit here and try to justify it. I think that would be foolish, and if someone wants to be offended by it, it's their right. We were very surprised when we saw it, too, and it was a choice that was made.” Meanwhile, the Baylord himself, with whom responsibility for the final product really should lie, made a cowardly and incoherent attempt to pass it off on the voice actor: “We're just putting more personality in. I don't know if its stereotypes – they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”
ROTF comes as the motherlode of a summer in which Hollywood has fallen deeper than ever before into a morass of geek-baiting franchises and hack directors. As all the major summer movies, with the exception of Star Trek, have registered massive fan/critical disappointment, the Dream Factory appears moribund, chasing dog tails of increasingly diminishing rewards. Everything is being resurrected, remade, rebooted; as soon a franchise is ailing, or has received the Schumacher kiss of death, the reboot is already in the works. (The logic seems to be to sooner throw away your own mother, than give up a pre-existing idea, or a recognisable brand, which has, at some point in the past, made money.) And ROTF seems like a test case, an experiment to gauge how low the bar can be set, to determine if the taste of mainstream audiences can be acclimatised to accept this absolute zero of vulgarity and inanity. As the box-office receipts and universal pans roll simultaneously in, the experiment seems to have yielded the natural next step after the critic-proof movie: an honest-to-goodness audience-proof movie. Bay's new movie seems like an open declaration of war to cinema lovers and idealists of every stripe. Look at what I can get away with, the Baylord seems to preen, God awful filmmaking, and twenty-first century minstelry!
Of course, summer block-busters are one of the less significant forces at play in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, they have a purpose and a value: they are barometers of mass cultural sensibility; they construct contemporary myths, and should, in an ideal world, inflame the imaginations of children and teenagers. With this in mind, its somehow deeply depressing to think that millions of youngsters this summer will unreflectively flock to ROTF's noxious brew of militaristic destruction-porn, misogynistic ogling, puerile toilet humour, and border-line racism. The Los Angeles Times reports that as of today, Transformers should have grossed about 190 million, making it the highest ever five day take for a movie opening on a Wednesday. The Decepticons are winning.