With machines that are impressively more lifelike, and characters that are more and more like machines, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” takes the franchise to a vastly superior level of artificial intelligence. As for human intelligence, it’s primarily at the service of an enhanced arsenal of special effects, which helmer Michael Bay deploys like a general launching his very own shock-and-awe campaign on the senses. Otherwise, little seems new compared to the first installment, except that this version is longer, louder, and perhaps “more than your eye can meet” in one sitting. It will reap similar B.O. rewards worldwide.
Kicking off where the initial entry ended, part two of an eventual trilogy continues to carry Hasbro’s toys and cartoons of the ’80s to the heights of 21st-century CGI and moviemaking technology. Focusing even more on what auds seemed to appreciate last time around — that is, the stupefying sight of colossal alien robots morphing quite realistically into earthly contraptions, and vice versa — the plot serves as merely a pretext to showcase lots of well-designed creations, which run the gamut from a remote-control toy car to an actual Stealth fighter.
After a prologue set in 17,000 B.C., we once again team up with U.S. Army grunts Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), now members of an elite squad called NEST, which uses humans and Autobots to hunt down rogue Decepticons across the globe. Hoping to free their leader, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving), who was previously imprisoned at the bottom of the ocean (why he wasn’t melted down into scrap metal is a question only franchises can answer), the baddies are hoping to uncover the remaining shards of the powerful cube (“the Spark”) that was destroyed at the end of the first pic.
As was the case before, nerd-cum-hero/heartthrob Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) happens to hold the key to the Decepticons’ shot at world domination. Only this time, he’s left both his goofy parents (Kevin Dunn, Julie White) and hot mechanic g.f. (Megan Fox) behind for a college whose students all look like twentysomething actors, and whose frat parties seem to take place at expensive strip clubs. In fact, on his first night out, Sam is treated to a sort of lap dance by a Decepticon posing as a nymphomaniacal freshman — one of several more overtly sexual nods in this episode (including a shot of John Turturro in a G-string).
Cutting schematically between the military’s efforts to thwart the Decepticons and Sam’s prophesying tics (scribbling foreign symbols, speaking in tongues) provoked by the Spark, the opening hour culminates in a massive, forest-set battle that leaves the Autobots’ leader, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), ripe for the junkyard.
Like the other extensive combat scenes — including a closing, all-out war that appears to take place in the same desert location as in the first movie — the sheer amount of ripping steel, exploding mechanical parts and mutating vehicles of all shapes and sizes is something to behold. Industrial Light & Magic’s superb handling of these sequences, which are like a little boy’s playtime fantasy taken to Wagnerian proportions, are the veritable centerpieces of a narrative that makes little effort to set up the fights.
The effects are captured in varying earth tones by d.p. Ben Seresin (“Best Laid Plans”), who does a terrific job matching the CG and live-action sequences, while delving into Bay’s usual combo of a few slow-motion dramatic moments and lots of widescreen, airborne pandemonium. Likewise, a new team of editors pieces everything together seamlessly.
A few surprises arrive in the second half — involving bigger, deadlier pieces of metal, including a character, the Fallen (Tony Todd), that gives the pic its title — when the action heads to Egypt and Jordan. But returning scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — joined this time by Ehren Kruger (“The Ring,” “The Brothers Grimm”) — seem to be mining conventional motifs from “The Mummy” and “Indiana Jones” series.
Although the writers propose a similar dose of tongue-in-cheek dialogue for Sam, his parents and his techie roommate (played by Ramon Rodriguez of “The Wire”), the actors often have to shout it over constant music or thunderous bursts of crunching hardware. LaBeouf has a few strong moments during the college-set scenes, and Turturro — whose character has been demoted from a government agent to a butcher in a Brooklyn deli — once again offers some much-needed zaniness in the heavy later stages.
But the true stars here are the Transformers themselves, who continually steal the spotlight from the flesh-and-blood cast, even in scenes of tragic death or comic relief usually reserved for real actors.
“If God made us in his image, then who made him?” Sgt. Epps wonders early on, gazing with awe at Optimus Prime. If such a question seems to be hinting at a veritable Autobot creation myth, it may explain why humans here have become backseat drivers to these extremely cool cars.