Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

by Patrick Bromley
I can't get worked up about these movies anymore.

I'm on record as being no fan of Michael Bay's Transformers series. I have found them to be mostly loud and stupid, devoid of any story, characters or entertainment value. They are movies that have no interest in being good, only marketable. They are Michael Bay's fuck you to the audience; where once was a director who made obnoxious movies that at least tried to be good now stands a director making obnoxious shit that doesn't even try to be movies.

That's ironic, because these are some of the busiest, loudest, most expensive blockbusters ever made, their every second meant to "entertain" us with something, whether it's the explosions or the car chases or the stupid jokes that have passed as character development or the shiny things that turn into other shiny things. Any semblance of narrative is gone, replaced by the fetishes of 13-year olds, nostalgic 35-year olds and Michael Bay. Like I said, I'm just not a fan.

With that in mind, I think I've been more than fair to the franchise. I watched the first one twice before I really made up my mind about it (I made up my mind about it after a single viewing, but so many people were giving it a pass that I had to take a second look to see if I was just being an asshole). I tried to find things to like in the third movie, 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which I thought improved on the previous two installments and showed me a couple of things I hadn't seen in a movie before. I went into Age of Extinction expecting to not like it, but not looking to not like it. The distinction matters.

I'm still waiting for the Transformers movie that feels different from the others, where Michael Bay gets out of his own way or tries to develop the robot characters or does something that breaks the shitty mold he created in 2007. This was the movie that had the best chance of doing it, too, as it introduces all new human characters and is designed as both a sequel and the start of a new trilogy. That it's probably not the best movie in the franchise is a disappointment. That it's not the worst movie of the summer is a pleasant surprise.
It's been a few years since the destruction of Chicago seen in Dark of the Moon, and the U.S. government has named the remaining Transformers alien enemies and is in the process of hunting them down. They've all gone into hiding, and it isn't until failed inventor Cade Yeager (yes, CADE FUCKING YEAGER is the name of a character in a movie that cost over $200 million; he's played by Mark "I think we just found a Transformuh!" Wahlberg) buys what he believes to be a junk truck that he discovers it's a robot in disguise -- Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, to be exact. Faster than you can say "I think we just found a Transformuh!," government agents show up at CADE's Texas farm and want to know the location of Optimus Prime. They threaten his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz of The Last Airbender, orange and dead-eyed), but the Yeagers are rescued by Tessa's secret boyfriend (Jack Reynor, handsome and dead-eyed), which sends CADE into stupid dad panic because he can't stop worrying about his daughter's vagina even when secret government agents and ROBOT ALIENS FROM SPACE are trying to kill him. Eventually, they all cross paths with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a tech company guru who is mining TRANSFORMIUM, the metal of which the robots are made, to create his own transformers to be controlled by him.

Wait! I forgot to mention Lockdown, the robot alien bounty hunter working with the American black ops to team to hunt and kill the remaining Transformers! And Kelsey Grammer as the embittered CIA agent leading the public charge against the Transformer threat! And Hound, the Transformer John Milius voiced by John Goodman! And Galvatron, the Transformer being built from pieces of Megatron's destroyed head! And the fucking DINOBOTS, which would be a spoiler if the entire fucking ad campaign wasn't built around them despite the fact that they have about 10 total minutes of screen time. Their inclusion is pointless, there only for those nostalgic for the toys and wishing Bay would bring robot dinosaurs to the screen despite the fact that robot dinosaurs make even less sense than robots that transform into cars. And I should probably mention TRANSFORMIUM and CADE YEAGER again, because never forget.
Michael Bay has now reached a point where it doesn't make sense to compare his work to other movies. There is no point. They can only be measured against other Michael Bay movies. On that scale, Age of Extinction isn't his worst film. It is less hateful and ugly than his last movie, Pain & Gain, which even movie geeks seem to think is pretty good (it isn't). There's less of his brand of racist, misogynist humor -- unless you count a brief appearance of the tiny Sambo-bot from previous movies and the fact that the samurai Transformer is voiced by Ken Wantanabe (though at least he gets the movie's best line: "I was expecting a giant car.") There's less a temptation to always go for the "joke" here, even though the movie does it more than I would have liked. In every scene, I found myself getting angry that the characters aren't allowed to be people. They have to bicker about stupid, trivial shit while the fate of the world hangs in the balance. An alien ship crashes into a car and the first thing the driver (a nerd out of central casting) says is "I hope you have insurance!" Everyone is a shithead, no one is a person. Imagine how much more compelling these movies could be if the humans were allowed to really react to the things happening around them. Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on these things. How have we learned nothing from him?

Age of Extinction also does a better job embracing the big sci-fi angle of the Transformers universe. This is, after all, a series about giant robots from outer space fighting a war on Earth. In this movie, we get a fairly cool alien bounty hunter and giant ships that the characters get to board and escape from and at one point even fly. We've come a lot way from the robots hiding on a suburban lawn in the first Transformers. It doesn't automatically make Age of Extinction a better movie, but it does make it one that better delivers on its own premise. There are a lot of giant robots fighting one another. If this is your only criteria for enjoying a Transformers movie, you're probably going to really like Age of Extinction. And very few other movies.
While Mark Wahlberg isn't giving one of his best performances, he's a step up from Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, a terrible character gratingly realized over the span of three films. CADE YEAGER is a lot like Harry Stampler from Armageddon: he's out of his depth, wants to do the right thing and doesn't want some hunk fucking his daughter. And at least when he tells Tessa "You're my best invention" before possibly going off to his death, we believe there's something at stake. Even if it is ripped off from Data's dad in The Goonies.

Bay continues to attract impressive casts for these Transformers movies (in the character roles, at least; the leads are almost always painfully bland) and hardly any of the actors embarrass themselves. Some, like T.J. Miller, Titus Welliver and Stanley Tucci, are actually kind of fun. By the time Stanley Tucci is standing in a room full of people screaming "Algorithms! MATH!" you either have to embrace the ridiculousness or give up on the Transformers movies. I would not blame you for choosing the latter.

What's perhaps most frustrating about Trans4mers is that despite his unlimited budget and resources, despite the sheer amount of spectacle and destruction on display, Bay never bothers to stage any actual set pieces. There's nothing as memorable as the 360 shootout or crazy car chase of Bad Boys II, or even the crazy car chase from The Island that's really just a copy of the one from Bad Boys II. Even Dark of the Moon had a handful of standout sequences that felt as though some care went in to making them work as standalone action scenes. But Age of Extinction just features endless variations on robots shooting at each other as humans run away screaming from explosions, often in slow motion. It's only been 24 hours since I saw the film and I'm incapable of remembering any of the action. One scene, in which CADE YEAGER and Tessa and her douche boyfriend have to climb across some wires thousands of feet in the air, threatens to be tense or exciting, but then everyone stops acting like people and just start bickering again. These movies constantly ruin their own moments.
For as much shit as JJ Abrams gets for having too many lens flares, most movie geeks give Bay a pass, agreeing that for as much as his stories are rubbish, he knows how to make a movie look great. I'll call bullshit on that. Not that he doesn't have an eye or that his movie have a very specific polish to them -- he invented a very particular blockbuster aesthetic that's been copied by more than one filmmaker -- but by Age of Extinction he's just repeating himself. There are low-angle shots. American flags are constantly positioned in the background. The sun is in a perpetual state of setting. Logic is abandoned at every possible point so that characters can appear all over the world on a moment's notice. Every female character, from the extras to the scientists, look like strippers. Bay's camera is constantly sexually fetishizing the impossibly short shorts and orange legs of a character the movie goes out of its way to point out is underage. For a director as concerned with visuals as we'll all agree Bay is, he no longer seems all that interested in visuals. The guy who once pushed the language of cinema to its breaking point is completely on autopilot. He has become a parody of himself.

It being a Michael Bay movie, the product placement is beyond obnoxious, the most egregious of which is setting the climax of the film in China for no other reason than to shore up big overseas grosses (Surprise! It worked!). There is no brand, no corporate entity to which Bay will not sell out. It is product based on a product and designed to sell more product. Back in the days of The Rock and Armageddon, he used to try to include a movie inside that package, but has now dispensed with that pretext. There's no need to bother. People come see these things anyway.

And, of course, this is the start of a new "trilogy" (which itself suggests the first three movie comprise a proper trilogy, an idea so ludicrous I would laugh if I wasn't crying), one that appears to borrow a page from Prometheus in that it pretends to explore the origins of life (of Transformers) and suggests creators (of Transformers) that have turned on their creations (Transformers). The movie ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, suggesting that there is more story to be told (he said, suggesting that this one tells a story and choking back blood). Between that and the fact that it's going to make a fuck ton of money, we must resign ourselves to the fact that there are going to be more Transformers movies. I hope another director takes the series over from this point, not because I'm all that excited to see Bay move on -- he makes Pain & Gain when he does -- but because I've now seen four fucking Transformer movies from the guy and don't ever need to see another one. He has nothing more to say about a property that required him to say very little to begin with.
An interesting thing has happened in the critical community as reviews of the film started surfacing. There was, of course, the barrage of angry essays from writers calling it another piece of slick garbage thrown atop a bigger pile of garbage. But then there was a second wave of critics -- the taskmasters -- complaining about those critics, accusing them of writing reviews only to entertain other critics or reviewing Bay instead of actually addressing the movie. So you're not allowed to like it because it's bad, but you also have to be careful about how you call it bad. You can't win with this goddamn movie.

I'll just do what I always try to do, which is report my honest reaction to the movie I saw. I didn't hate Trans4mers. That's not a recommendation. The movie still isn't good and I wouldn't actually suggest anyone go see it -- particularly if they haven't enjoyed any of the other movies in the series. Michael Bay has made worse movies, even worse Transformers movies. I've seen worse movies this summer, though that's probably just a function of affection for the source material. When Marc Webb makes a terrible Spider-Man movie, it breaks my heart because I like Spider-Man. When Michael Bay makes his fourth bad Transformers movie, I can't really get my blood up.

I knew the motherfucker was a scorpion.

15 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed the scathing criticism of this review. I can't say I'm surprised, after listening to the podcast, but it was great nonetheless. It certainly made me feel somewhat better about how volatile I've been about a number of the films I reviewed for Junesploitation. Keep up with this writing style.

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    1. Thanks, Chris. To be honest, I wasn't really trying to be scathing. I didn't hate the movie, which -- compared to what I was expecting (based on other reviews) -- I would consider a positive. I'm still not looking to ever see it again or for any more Transformers movies to be made.

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  2. What I continue to find fascinating (and chilling) is how financially successful these movies seem to be. If they did a demographic survey I bet we would find that the audience is mostly kids, teens, and twenty-somethings. Is it possible that they like these kinds of movies because they can text and tweet to their hearts' content during the film and not worry that they're missing anything? Is the younger generation so attention-deficit that they require constant, numbing stimulation?

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  3. I liked the Lockdown character as well, as he did add something a bit different to the movie. Bounty Hunters almost always improve a movie (unless the bounty hunter is played by Gerard Butler). Too bad they were unable to follow through with Lockdown, and he was made into an incompetent idiot by the end of the movie.

    Aside from him everything else is the movie was a hot mess. Even the little kids I saw the movie with thought it was awful, and started pointing out many of the same plot holes and issues I had with the movie. When 11 and 12 year old kids can see the many problems that easily, you know the movie is no good. Another issue I had with the movie is that it tries to be funny occasionally, and I don't think I laughed a single time. Say what you will about LaBeouf, but at least his antics got an occasional laugh out of me in his movies (if I remember correctly that is).

    I am interested to see what movies you have ranked BEHIND Age of Extinction though? Maleficent I suppose, but what other movies have been bad enough to actually be called worse than Transformers? The only movie of 2014 I would rank behind Transformers would be I, Frankenstein (and Pompeii). Bay would have had to of made a monumental effort to of made a movie worse than those disasters.

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  4. Wait - as potential father of a potential daughter, aren't I supposed to want a hunk to fuck her? I'm so confused.

    Did you throw up in your mouth a bit when you typed "TRANSFORMIUM"? Because I did reading it! Why couldn't they come up with something awesome like UNOBTAINIUM?

    Great review and though I appreciate that you don't hyperbolize your criticism, I certainly don't blame reviewers who are angry (though life's too short for that IMO) or who write reviews to entertain other critics in this case - these movies take a big moneygrubbing dump on the artform we/they hold so dear - critics have every right not to take reviewing them seriously.

    Might watch this if I really need 3 hours of air conditioning in the next few weeks.

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  5. So this was a big deal for me because I seem to be F This Movie's resident Transformers nut. As JB said in the Godzilla podcast, I'm known to opine Transformers from time to time and defend the original universe (not these movies) as being more than glorified toy commercials and actually having something to say. So I feel loyalty to Transformers as a property and as a creative universe full of potential.

    That being said, I will not be watching this movie. I can't support what this director and the studio behind him are doing anymore, particularly after Michael Bay responded to the criticisms of his movies and his lack of character (or even understanding that these Transformers ARE characters) by saying that the "haters" (because if you criticize these movies you're a hater) are going to see the movie anyway. No I'm not, Michael Bay. You can't shit on the movie screen and expect me to go see it. So not only will I no longer be supporting these movies, I don't plan to watch another Michael Bay film. I'm boycotting Bay. I've watched EVERYTHING he's done and I know what kind of movies he makes. I truly enjoyed The Rock waaaay back in the day, but it's all been downhill from there. I'm out.

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    1. Bay's view on the criticism of his Transformers movies, and really, anyone who holds a similar view, annoys me to no end. It's just such a shitty way to approach film making to say "I don't give a shit what's on the screen or what the quality of the writing is or if I'm being offensive, people will see it anyway." How about attempting to create something that is artful, well written, AND bankable? Ugh, I'm sorry, but Bay is terrible. I can't support anyone who cares so little for the quality of the film, just that they'll make money.

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    2. It's arrogance at the highest level. It also kind of freaks me out how much money these movies make. As offensive as Bay and these movies are, this seems to be what people want to see. They keep going back. I don't know how to process what that means for the industry I love.

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    3. That interview Bay gave sealed my decision not to go see this. What aggravates me is that he is so wrong, that he SHOULD be concerned with characters and story, but that he's also kind of right. I have done nothing but complain about Bay and the Transformers movies for the past seven years, but without fail I went to all three on opening weekend. Everything I've heard has made me so happy I sat this one out.

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    4. It's not Bay's fault anymore. It's ours collectively for paying to see his movies. I just wish Hollywood made it easier and actually gave an alternative of something to see besides Transformers the weekends they come out. It was hard to not go to a movie this weekend. It sounds silly but seriously, if Hollywood gave people an alternative on a given weekend, Transformers would gross a lot less. The problem is Hollywood and theatre owners are in the business of making money (understandably) and they'll give Transformers all the air cover it needs.

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    5. I understand that Hollywood is all about making money, but I still think they should seek out more properties and directors who can make something interesting and with actual things to say AND be bankable. The most recent example of this that I can think of is The Lego Movie. We need more The Lego Movies and less Transformers: Age of Extinctions.

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    6. Adam, if I were the type who felt compelled to see a movie, any movie, on any given weekend - which, full respect, but I am not that type - and if I even had a morbid curiosity to see the new TF movie (again, not me), then, in that case, I would definitely not buy a ticket for a different, more deserving movie and go to the intended screening anyway. No, I would not do that, because that would be naughty.

      Yep, nope. Totally.

      :P

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    7. I saw this yesterday. I didn't hate it (not to be confused with me liking it). It's not very good but it's also not the worst. Great review Patrick!

      I honestly am surprised that many critics are so worked up about this movie. It's not that kind of movie. If anything I think people are hating it because they think they're supposed to hate it. I get not liking it, but hating it seems silly to me based on the movie I saw.

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  6. Michael GiammarinoJuly 5, 2014 at 1:13 AM

    The success of this movie baffles me. Essentially Bay took Hasbro's toy line and made exploitation films with them; exploitation films that are cleaning up. It makes me wonder what Luigi Cozzi or Mike Hodges could have done with the budget of Age of Extinction.

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