Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on the Revenge of the Fallen Novelization

This is a review of the novel adaptation of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and as such is going to contain major plot points about the movie. If you're interested in remaining spoiler-free I strongly urge you to stop reading this review immediately, and come back after you've gotten a chance to see the movie. If you're like me, though, and like to know everything there is to know about the story in advance, then by all means, continue!

I actually picked up both the junior novelization by Dan Jolley, which is essentially a 140-page stripped-down, bare-bones version of the movie, as well as the full-length 325-page adaptation by Alan Dean Foster (who wrote the novelization of the first movie as well), which goes a lot more in-depth into the characterization and detailed descriptions of events, and includes numerous scenes that were omitted from the junior novel altogether. This is how I approached my introduction to the first movie as well—I absorbed the junior novel first to get a basic idea of the story, then went back and read the unabridged novelization to gain a more complete understanding of each scene. By the time the movie hit theaters, I was already fairly well-versed in movie lore and was able to immediately identify characters as they appeared on screen (which can be a useful tool, given how so many of the movie characters are the same basic color scheme).

As the story begins, we learn that Major Lennox and Master Sargeant Epps are still cooperating with the Autobots, responding to Decepticon sightings throughout the world and attempting to contain them and—in true government style—concoct an elaborate spin following each encounter to offer some alternative explanation for the disturbance besides giant alien robots from outer space. Sam Witwicky, meanwhile, is packing up for college when he rediscovers a fragment of the shattered Allspark, which immediately turns every kitchen appliance in his house into a killing machine. After Bumblebee diligently comes to the rescue, inadvertently destroying half the Witwicky home in the process, Judy Witwicky demands that Bumblebee leave. Sam concurs, but for a different reason—he's going off to college and wants better things for Bumblebee than to follow him around like a lost puppy—despite Bumblebee's insistence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, the government is holding Optimus Prime and the Autobots responsible for the increased Decepticon activity on Earth, citing concerns that despite the fact that the Allspark was destroyed and Megatron was defeated, the Decepticons have continued to pose a threat. When Optimus asks Sam if he will speak to the government on behalf of the Autobots, he initially refuses—after all, he just wants to lead a normal life. Neither the Allspark nor Megatron have been completely destroyed, however—the Decepticons send a contingent into the ocean to rebuild and revive him, and he immediately sets about to contact his master, The Fallen, who reveals that the Allspark energy is now contained within Sam Witwicky's mind. Sam himself is vaguely aware that something's happened to him, as evidenced by the alien symbols invading his consciousness. After a thwarted attempt by a Decepticon disguised as an alluring female to seduce and sedate him, Sam flees the campus, only to be scooped up by the Decepticons. Optimus Prime arrives to confront them and is mortally wounded by Megatron, allowing Sam to escape. After the new Autobot recruits identify the symbols in Sam's mind as the ancient language of the Prime Dynasty, they seek out an aged ex-Decepticon named Jetfire who may understand its meaning. Jetfire reveals that The Fallen was once a member of the Prime Dynasty, the first Transformers created on Cybertron, but that he stole the Matrix of Leadership and planned to create a machine that would destroy the Sun and harvest its power. One of the surviving Primes recovered the Matrix and buried it under what would eventually become the Pyramids of Egypt. After Sam recovers the remnants of the Matrix, he uses it to restore Optimus Prime. The withering Jetfire donates his components to Prime, who is reconfigured into a flying machine, allowing him to confront and defeat The Fallen.
Returning are Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as featured characters, with Ironhide and Ratchet appearing in slightly diminished roles. Megatron and Starscream get a lot more time together, so we get to explore their relationship in a bit more depth; Skorponok does make a brief cameo before he gets destroyed (apparently he's been hiding for the past two years), but there's no overt signs of any other Decepticon return appearances. Blackout's in the Hasbro toy line for Revenge of the Fallen (his Robot Heroes figure is back in stores, and there's a transformable Blackout redeco coming called Grindor) so I was half-expecting to see him come back, but he's not mentioned by name (there is a mysterious "helicopter Decepticon" who scoops up Sam and friends, though, so this could be him). Also, I had thought we'd be seeing more of Barricade, since he shows up in the prequel novel (and his strange disappearance from the first movie suggests he was never destroyed) but he, too, is conspicuously absent. On the human side of things, Sam and Mikaela naturally take center stage; Lennox and Epps once again play pivotal roles, Ron and Judy Witwicky are their usual embarrassingly parental selves; and the former Agent Simmons of Sector Seven fame, once a major antagonist, proves to be a valuable ally this time around.
There are lots and lots of new Transformer characters in the story, and not all of them are identified by name. Among the Autobot recruits who responded to Optimus Prime's signal from the end of the first movie are Sideswipe, a sword-toting warrior; Skids and Mudflap, collectively known as the Twins; and Arcee, a female Autobot who separates into three motorcycles when she transforms. (It's worth mentioning that Jolt is not mentioned in either of the novelizations at all—he was reportedly a last-minute addition, evidently thrown in after adaptations were already written.) The Decepticons are joined by Demolishor, an excavation machine, and Sideways, a little tag-along sports car; Soundwave, who remains in orbit in satellite mode to disrupt human operations and communications; Ravage, who is dispatched by Soundwave to the surface to assist in Megatron's ressurection; the Doctor, who in turn is deployed by Ravage to restore Megatron and who later attempts to gain access to Sam's brain (the Hasbro version of this character will be named Scalpel); the Constructicons, none of whom are identified by name in the novel, but there may be as many as eight of them; Wheels, a tiny little monster truck who defects after he decides he likes Sam's girlfriend better than the Decepticons; and a cadré of fifteen unnamed Decepticon troops who were in storage aboard the Decepticon ship on Mars and who are activated by Megatron. (One of them may be Ransack, the World War I-era bi-plane. He gets stepped on by Jetfire almost immediately after he shows up so it's difficult to make a positive identification.) I had thought, honestly, that after reading the book I would have a clear understanding of which characters actually appeared in the movie, and therefore which Hasbro toys I would want to buy, but I have to admit I'm still a little confused. I get the distinct feeling that the novel was being put together before many of the character names were settled upon—at one point there's even a reference to a "Twin 2," evidently a placeholder name that never got swapped out.

Then there's The Fallen, who is revealed to be Megatron's boss. His relationship to Megatron is not entirely unlike that of the Galactic Emperor to Darth Vader, and I'm not sure I like how Star Warsey the Decepticons have become. Megatron is, and has always been, his own lord and master—the original Megatron's coerced agreement to serve Unicron was so unsettling particularly because it was so uncharacteristic of the Decepticon leader to take orders from anyone. The notion that there are other robots even higher up on the chain of command makes Megatron a lackey, essentially, and far less compelling as a villain. He's no longer the Ultimate Evil; he's been bumped down to public enemy number two.
Since the first movie introduced the concept of plain vanilla transforming robots, I can understand that for the second movie, the writers wanted to kick things up a notch and introduce some new types of Transformers. It's not just giant alien robots, now—it's three motorcycles who combine into one robot, or two robots that combine into an ice cream truck, or seven robots who combine together into a gigantic robot. There's no real explanation for how any of this new technology came into play, suggesting it's pretty run-of-the-mill stuff and that we just weren't privy to it during the events of the first movie. The writers did specifically mention that they nixed the idea of doing female Transformers last time because they didn't want to have to explain the differences in gender, and yet there seem to be absolutely no explanations revolving around Arcee, so the point seems largely moot. I was also expecting some kind of explanation for the reason for Skids and Mudflap's disfigured appearance (and completely ridiculous speech impediments!) but it seems unlikely there will be one offered in the movie, since there's nothing of any sort in the novel. (Were their protoforms damaged? Did the Decepticons scramble their circuits? We'll apparently never know. Just accept the fact that they're freaks who promote strangely-flavored M&M's and move on, I guess.)

Jetfire also deserves special mention here, as he's depicted as this elderly, decrepit robot, exhibiting all the robotic-equivalent symptoms of a human losing control of his faculties, up to and including nearsightedness (he wears robotic spectacles) and incontinence (yes, you read that right) and senility. He's played for comic relief and I'm sure he'll get a laugh out of theatrical audiences, but given the previous depictions of Jetfire/Skyfire from G1, this alternate version of him—a cranky old coot with Alzheimer's—does take some getting used to. He's described as an ex-Decepticon, which is at least consistent with the character's history from other media. He's also referred to as a Seeker, and I must begrudgingly admit I appreciate the G1 reference, even if it's being used out of context (to me, the term has always meant Decepticons-who-are-designed-like-Starscream—which Jetfire is clearly not).
Among the new human characters are Leo Spitz, Sam's roommate at the college dorm who runs a giant alien robots conspiracy web site. He's approximately as useless as Miles, Sam's best friend from the first film. His character serves to illustrate that not everybody takes what the government spoon-feeds them at face value, particularly when it comes to potential cover-ups—and in an example of art imitating life, his rivalry with a competing web site reminds me of some of the fierce in-fighting within the real-life Transformers fandom. This online feud proves to be particularly significant when the rival webmaster is revealed to be, in fact, the former Agent Simmons himself, who managed to collect some vital information about the Transformers before the final dissolution of Sector Seven—including the revelation that the Transformers have been visiting Earth for thousands of years, and that they have been hiding among us not just in the guises of military aircraft and cell phones, but going back all the way to the early days of the Tin Lizzy and steam-powered locomotives. (As an aside, I would love to see Hasbro produce some steampunk-style concept toys.) Another pivotal character is Alice, who is actually revealed to be a Decepticon who took the form of an audio-animatronic Alice in Wonderland puppet from Disneyworld in an attempt to capture Sam. (In the novel, they never come out and actually identify the theme park by name, but there is a rather obvious trademark-sidestepping reference to "Mickey the friendly mouse.") Alice's involvement in the story raises so many unanswered questions—why does she waste time trying to get Sam into bed when she could just immobilize him and deliver him to the Decepticons? If Bumblebee really suspects she's a Decepticon, why does he passenger her around, slam her into the dashboard a few times and then let her walk away? (This is not completely out of character for Bumblebee, mind you, since he allowed Sam to get into serious danger while supposedly serving as his guardian during the events of the first movie, too.)
There are a handful of other minor plot elements that sort of left me scratching my head. There are numerous times when Skids and Mudflap are described as normal-looking vehicles that can blend in fairly well with their environment, but that Bumblebee poses a constant problem because he's so terribly conspicuous. Putting aside for the moment that a yellow sports car isn't any more or less out of place than a bright green smart car—if Bumblebee's vehicular mode of choice is such a big issue, then why doesn't he scan something less conspicuous? He upgraded his vehicle mode for the most pointless reason in the universe in the first movie (Mikaela basically called it a piece of crap), so why does he act like he's stuck with it during the course of the novelization? By the time they get to Egypt, Bumblebee's covered in a thin layer of dirt and everyone's so thankful that it helps to disguise him a little. Speaking of ridiculous Bumblebee plot points, he's suddenly reverted to not being able to speak again, despite the fact that he seemed to have fully recovered (and was speaking intelligibly) by the end of the first movie. The first time, his lack of verbal communication was an artificial but cute contrivance; this time it just strains plausibility. (Maybe if they'd killed Ratchet in the first movie instead of Jazz there would be some reason for his slow and difficult recovery.)

It's worth mentioning that there are a number of scenes that differ considerably between the junior novel and the full-length adaptation; my suspicion is that the junior novel just changed some plot points or left some things out due to space, but it's difficult to tell. For example, the entire scene with the kitchen appliances coming to life is completely missing from the junior novel (interestingly, this scene in and of itself was adapted into another children's book called When Robots Attack! (which sounds like one of the sensationalized TV specials on FOX). There's a particularly gruesome part that's completely absent from the junior novel—in the abridged version, the Doctor completes Megatron's recovery on his own, but in the full length edition, the Doctor notes that Megatron's body is incomplete and requires replacement parts, so three of the Constructicons turn to a fourth member and completely cannibalize him. (I wonder how this affected their Devastator configuration?) Also, while the full-length novel is somewhat vague about this, the junior novel specifically states that Megatron can transform into both his original Cybertronic jet form as well as his new tank mode. While in the Egyptian pyramids, the ancient Transformer symbols are revealed in the junior novel when somebody throws a clay pot at ex-Agent Simmons; in the regular novel, a scuffle between Mudflap and Skids uncovers it. Also, the little monster truck Decepticon-turned-Autobot is called Wheels in both books, but the upcoming Hasbro toy is going to be named Wheelie. It will be interesting to see which version of events plays out in the movie proper.
Some other details I liked: The Decepticon ship that landed on Mars is, in fact, named the Nemesis. (This was the name retroactively applied to the original Decepticon space cruiser from G1, as told in the Beast Wars episode of the same name.) Also, here's a gag that not everyone is going to get. The government is trying to pass off the Transformer sightings as human-built, remote-controlled anti-terrorist machines that have malfunctioned, and the name of the company claiming responsibility for them is Massive Dynamics. This just happens to also be the name of the secretive technology organization from the FOX television series Fringe, which was also created and written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. (The fictional company even has its own web site, massivedynamics.com, though at the time of this writing it does not include any Transformers-specific content.)

Overall, I think I like the direction they took the movie—we get a little bit of Transformers back story while still propelling the characters forward in interesting directions, and even though there's a lot of focus on the humans, there's considerably more screen time for the giant alien robots than we got last time. With this being the second act of a three-part story, I had actually assumed that they would follow the Star Wars storytelling model and that the Decepticons would basically win the fight this time, giving the Autobots a chance to redeem themselves in the third and final movie. (Sure, Optimus Prime was badly wounded, but is there really any question in anybody's mind that he's not going to pull through?) With that in mind, the second movie ends on an almost anticlimactic note. There are hints that Sam is not fully aware of what role he will play in the future, suggesting there are big things in store for him for Transformers 3, but there really weren't enough plot points left dangling to even take a guess at what will be coming in the next sequel. In the meantime, however, now that I've read the book, I absolutely can't wait to see this story realized on celluloid. June 24th can't come soon enough for me!


Zob

6 comments:

B-W said...

Also, here's a gag that not everyone is going to get. The government is trying to pass off the Transformer sightings as human-built, remote-controlled anti-terrorist machines that have malfunctioned, and the name of the company claiming responsibility for them is Massive Dynamics. This just happens to also be the name of the secretive technology organization from the FOX television series Fringe, which was also created and written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. (The fictional company even has its own web site, massivedynamics.com, though at the time of this writing it does not include any Transformers-specific content.)

If it turns out that Massive Dynamics has a representative named Donny Finkleberg, the cycle can be complete!

Anonymous said...

The Fallen remind me of Cobra-La from GI Joe; someone from out of the blue that just happens to be the true leader.

Is this movie safe for kids to watch or are there bits that are inappropriate for kids?

Jeff said...

Isn't the company in Fringe called
"Massive Dynamic"
(without an "S")?

Zobovor said...

Anonymous: If the last movie is any indication, it's very possible they will change some scenes from the way they're depicted in the novel. (The scene from the 2007 movie that bothered me the most wasn't in the novelization at all.) It also depends on what you consider objectionable. I would recommend screening the movie first before taking any young children to see it, just in case.

Onslaught Six said...

I stopped halfway or so to post this comment--please tell me that it's the novelization itself that uses the incorrect spelling Skorponok, and not a momentary lapse in your own judgment, Zob.

Otherwise I have to break this out:
http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v304/onslaught86/Art/Scorponok.jpg

Zobovor said...

Regarding spelling errors: The novelization does call the company "Massive Dynamics" with an "s," but Jeff is quite correct that the organization from Fringe (as well as the web site) are in the singular, not plural. Thanks for the correction!

As for Skorponok's name, the novel for the 2007 movie spelled it with a "k," as does the current novelization. That's how I've taken to spelling the name of the movie character, specifically, but I know Hasbro spells it differently. (Cute drawing, by the way.)