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Block busted / July 08, 2009
I knew I was in for an interesting night at the movies when the guy in line ahead of me seemed determined to push the envelope on modern-day parenting while paying for his tickets and popcorn. He and his wife and two toddler children had come to see “Ice Age 4,” and our protagonist, a youngish man, was dismayed to learn the movie wasn’t filmed in 3-D. “What do you mean, I don’t get glasses?” he barked at the girl behind the cash register. Turning to his wife, he announced: “I don’t want to see it. I’m serious.”

Wow. The guy really was serious. Glad to know there are parents out there who refuse to bend to the will of their children every time an animated movie comes along — who needs kids when it’s the grown-ups who are dying to see the show? Watching this conversation unfold, I’m thinking to myself: Dude, it’s Ice Age 4 … probably not a whole lot different from Ice Age 1, 2 or 3 no matter how many dimensions they added to the sequel. And by the way, good luck with the little ones once they grow up to be teenagers.

I was at the movie theater with my 11-year-old son and his 13-year-old cousin to see “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,” which I’m happy to report is an almost-perfectly named summer blockbuster. The movie itself is a mess — Sweet Mother of Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever sat through anything so stupid in my entire life — but the title is spot on, after a sort. While nothing makes sense in Transformers 2 — not the plot, not the subplots, not the parallel dimensions, and especially not the two mechanized Stepin Fetchit robot characters who on the movie minstrelry scale make Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks seem like Sidney Poitier — Transformers 2 is indisputably the sequel to Transformers 1. After the logical assaults this movie inflicts on the brain over its two-and-a-half hour running time, well, hey, I’ll take it.

The “Revenge of the Fallen” portion of the title doesn’t match up to the perfection of the rest, as it wasn’t entirely clear to my son Wil, nor his cousin Neil, who the Fallen were (or was). Don’t even bother asking me. By way of contrast, Wil can pretty much recite the Star Wars anthology chapter and verse, and he had seen the first Transformers movie and enjoyed it, so for him to leave the theater confused about what had just transpired on screen should tell you all you need to know about the quality of moviemaking on display in Transformers 2. The short story is that a lot of oversized robots bash each other around; the long version is currently being considered for inclusion in the handbook of harsh interrogation techniques at Guantanomo Bay.

Speaking of bays, I wish the director, Michael Bay, had chosen something a tad more political for his title: “Transformers 2: The Audacity of Dope” would have been nice. Not necessarily because this movie is best viewed under the influence of drugs (although it couldn’t hurt), but because Bay received a rare kind of honor from Barack Obama back when our new president was still running for office and chanced upon the filmmaker at a Hollywood shindig. As the story goes, Obama met Bay and, after realizing who he was, reportedly called Bay a “big-a—director.” (This was meant as a compliment. Bay is also the creative force behind such tender classics as “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor”, “Bad Boys” and “Bad Boys II,” and “The Rock.”) In the movie, Obama is mentioned specifically by name, and a major on-screen character is Galloway, the president’s national security advisor who orders the military unit assigned to fight alongside the good Transformers (Autobots) to stand down lest they get caught up in a looming battle with the bad Transformers (Decepticons). Galloway, the only heavy in the movie who’s a card-carrrying member of the human race, accuses the Autobots of bringing their “blood feud” with the Decepticons to Planet Earth. The storyline makes it abundantly plain that the president is eager for the entire mess to go away, even if it means capitulating to the demands of the terrorist transformers. Bay apparently never met a cliché that he didn’t like, and there are few heroes in the action-adventure genre who don’t have a bumbling, sniveling bureaucrat to serve as their foil, but Transformers 2 may mark the first time in movie history that the audience is tempted to root for the bureaucrat.

Okay, by this point you’re probably asking yourself: Why in the name of Hasbro is this fool writing about a stupid summer movie? Good question. I will confess to enjoying a good movie review now and then, and thought I’d try my hand at the format. What did you want, a long summertime treatise on carbon emissions cap-and-trade? (Maybe next week.) By the way, it is an indisputable fact that movies and entertainment can serve as touchstones for the cultural age, just as Woodstock symbolized the Sixties and polyester suits told you everything you ever needed to know about the Seventies. We live in a decade that defies easy nomenclature (The Onesies? Tensies?) to say nothing of collective mental stability, as the schizophrenic parade of presidents (Obama and Bush) over the decade would indicate. What better way to mark an utterly confusing first decade in an utterly confusing new century than with a movie that features a scene in which a giant robot breaks through the walls at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and steps out into what appears to be the Arizona desert?

Look, just because summer blockbusters are mind-bendingly dumb doesn’t mean they have to be bad. One of my favorite summer movies is “Independence Day” (1996), in which Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum fight off an invasion of all-powerful aliens with, respectively, a smart mouth and an Apple Macintosh Powerbook with a drool-inducing 500 megabyte hard drive. Plus, we get to see alien spaceships blow up the White House! Now that was a big, dumb and totally fun summer blockbuster. “Independence Day” at least had a plot you could follow, and it wasn’t hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, as opposed to Tranformers 2, which has all the coherence of a junk yard and many of the same loose parts. Returning to the theme of the cultural significance of the movies, it’s probably no accident that the robots in Transformers 2 assume the shape of cars and trucks before morphing (“transforming”) into their awesomely powerful selves. Automobiles have long held a special place in the national consciousness, symbolizing all that is bold and the proud in America (the Mustang, the Camaro) as well as the hapless and misbegotten (the Pinto, the Gremlin, and don’t forget the Hummer, which lost whatever cool factor it ever had when gas hit $4 a gallon). Independence Day was the perfect movie for the Age of Clinton, when our president was a screw-up, a hoot and yet reassuringly competent, whereas Transformers 2 lands at a time when the automakers are broke and our national fantasies rest in the hands of people who run around calling Barack Obama a socialist, a fascist, a communist or whatever else they pick up by watching Fox News. Hey, that’s it — an idiot movie for idiot America! (With apologies to the rock band Green Day, which came up with the line first).

Which isn’t to say that Transformers 2 is bereft of pleasures. It’s actually quite funny in places, never more so than when the main character, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) goes off to college. Hey, I know that place! To film the campus scenes, Bay alternated between University of Pennsylvania and my alma mater, Princeton University. I loved it when they destroyed the library by driving a motorcycle through the stacks — just the way we did it back in the day! Sam goes off to college and leaves behind his hottie girlfriend (Megan Fox — nice name) to cool her heels at home, but that’s no big deal because the campus is populated with more babes than a big-city maternity ward. In double-checking to see which scenes from Transformers 2 were filmed at Princeton, I happened across an Internet blog that expressed perfectly what any male graduate would say if asked whether the movie version of Princeton life resembles the real thing: “With all due apologies to my friends, there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to seeing 40 or 50 consistently smoking hot college girls wandering around the Princeton campus. We had a name for women like that when I was there — we called them ‘visitors’.”

True fact: when you watch the lecture hall scene with Shia LeBouf going berserko and charging up on stage to scribbles out equations that supposedly disprove Einstein’s theories, well, I’ve sat in that same lecture hall at least twelve dozen times. As a matter of fact, that could have been me in that scene, 25 years ago, surrounded by the smokin’ hot babes from the Women’s Studies Program, although don’t expect me to do the math. Anyway, here’s an inside joke: That same building, McCosh Hall, is where students would always go to watch old movies. I’ve seen everything from “Catch 22” to “A Clockwork Orange” to even less polite fare at McCosh. (One m ovie, “Debbie Does Dallas” caused a huge stink on campus, another reason not to confuse the wild ‘n’ crazy student body in Transformers 2 with the real thing.) Someday in the semi-distant future, students may traipse off to McCosh to catch the Transformers 2 movie that people forgot about a long time ago, and when they sit down it’ll be like they’ve stumbled onto a movie set. Funny!

One thing we know for sure, “Transformers 2” will be as wretchedly awful then as it is now, both as a movie and a cultural event. Polyester suits have it all over this movie. Put that in your time machine and smoke it.

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