Critics really are eunuchs in the harem when it comes to movies like Revenge of the Fallen. Calling it bad 1) misses the point and 2) makes not the teeniest bit of difference anyway. Provided the number of giant robots bashing each other compares favorably with those silly talking sections, it more than meets the expectations of its fanbase. You might as well spend your time decrying the nutritional deficits of Doritos or telling a room full of smokers that cigarettes are bad for them. Everyone knows. They just don't care.
The bizarre honesty of director Michael Bay constitutes a sort of saving grace. He doesn't try to disguise the fact that his film is soulless corporate product; indeed, he embraces it with such obvious gusto that it becomes an auteurial style all its own. He loves colossal mindless explosions, prepubescent sexual innuendo and fetishized soldiers blowing the enemies of democracy to Kingdom Come. He adores the notion of a universe where every woman stepped fresh off the pages of Maxim and behaves like a brain-dead sexpot. I'm pretty sure he's even down with the spectacular destruction of hallowed works of antiquity (Princeton's library and the pyramids of Egypt both take it in the shorts here). Point out the shocking misogyny, the barely disguised racism, the thousand asinine crudities which pepper his movies like fleas on a hound dog, and he'll ask you where the downside is.
Revenge of the Fallen contains enough reprehensible material to send any rational adult into fits of rage, but if you didn't know that going in, you probably fail to meet the definition of "rational adult" anyway. The question then becomes whether such idiocy interferes with the purpose of the exercise (see "giant robots bashing each other," above), and here Revenge of the Fallen provides its beleaguered detractors with an opening to exploit. Too much of the film concerns itself with the human cast--still as boring as ever and still far less developed than the machines on the poster. Hapless teen Sam Witwicky (Shia Le Beouf) has become a lot less hapless as he heads off to college, to the point of telling his Autobot protector Bumblebee to stay home with his folks. Mr. And Mrs. Witwicky (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) play an inordinately large part in the proceedings as well (which should come as a relief to the hordes of teenage boys interested in the sex lives of middle-aged suburbanites), as does Megan Fox's porn queen mechanic and John Turturro's deranged ex-spook. Revenge of the Fallen adds a few new faces to the equation--notably Sam's dipshit college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez)--none of whom give any impression that the effort was worth it.
It goes without saying that these figures are laughable cut-outs, delivered with stunning clumsiness and evoking the kind of embarrassed audience reactions that accompany a six-year-old telling a dirty joke. At times, the dialogue literally becomes incoherent, as when Sam is infected with an ancient Transformer language that points the way to some magical hidden Maguffin or another. All of that is part of the package, of course; the trouble is that every moment we spend on it constitutes precious, precious screen time when we're not watching Optimus Prime knock his hated nemesis Megatron into the side of a mountain.
Moreover, while Revenge of the Fallen holds the requisite amount of whiz-bang mayhem, it also contains a number of really cool action-based notions… which it doesn't know what to do with. Since the first film, the Autobots and their human allies have formed a special task force dedicated to hunting down any evil Decepticons still on the planet. It’s a fantastic idea, and the details of how it works would easily lend the set pieces a nice sense of purpose. But Bay ignores them in favor of simplistic point-and-shoot stuff--Find Decepticon, Kill Decepticon--hampered by a ADD-laden editing style that doesn't even give us a reliable look at the robots as they morph into their hidden shapes. (The choppiness also makes it difficult to tell good robot from bad unless you're seriously steeped in the mythology.)
Similar bits of squandered potential appear time and again amid the demolition derby--most obviously in a battle between Autobot twins Mudflap and Skids (see "barely disguised racism," above), and a multisectional Decepticon many times their size. Bay spoke of a little-engine-that-could motif at the film's press conference--and you can kind of see it in the scene--but it's delivered with such atonal bombast that any distinctiveness or charm is rendered irrelevant. So too is Sam's journey to manhood buried beneath colorless cliché: present but utterly unremarkable, despite Le Beouf giving it his all.
As fundamental as such failings are, it may be unfair to chide Revenge of the Fallen too sharply for them. Like its predecessor, it remains resolutely critic-proof and more honest about its purpose than most soulless corporate abominations. "Mindless fun" reaches whole new levels with these films, and the frentic kinetics on display are probably still enough to let the faithful enjoy the ride. The vocal work, too, remains a joy, despite the thin material (I'd give real money just to hear Peter Cullen order lunch someday, and Tony Todd's honey-coated rumble makes for a welcome presence as the new Decepticon villain). But even in the most basic sense, Revenge of the Fallen smacks of lost promise: missing too many easy chances to lend the empty special effects some nuance. There's a point where "undemanding" becomes "enabling," and for this film, it arrives far, far too soon.