15 July 2014

First Impressions: Transfourmers: The Age of Extinction

I spent far too long debating how to exactly tackle these impressions. Is it masochism that I voluntarily immerse myself in the Michael Bay Transformers world of insane stupid blockbuster filmmaking while being pretty fully aware of its ill effects on my artistic integrity and pop culture psyche? It's a tricky line to draw. I'm hesitant to write it off as a "popcorn movie" or "summer fun" where our brains should be turned off, because our brains should never really be turned off while trying to understand the merits of any film. I'm also well aware, however, that in any review you can't treat this like a studio prestige picture. I figure that the best way to judge Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is whether or not it's successful in being the film it's trying to be. Really that should be how we judge all films - is it able to accomplish what it intended? There are plenty of mindless summer action films that fail in this regard (Roland Emmerich always seems to me like he's trying and coming up short of being Michael Bay). There are also dumb popcorn movies that have no idea what they're tying to be (something like Hancock [2008] comes to mind), and those too, are generally disappointing experiences.
Ha! You got hit in yo chest!

But for all the criticism that Bay takes, and perhaps this is why he doesn't really care about it at all, his films are always exactly what they want to be. Maybe not Pearl Harbor (2001). That one could never decide if it wanted to be an historical epic, an explosive action movie, or a cheesy love story. Every Transformers film, though, has a very definitive brand, intention, and execution. Now, if you've escaped the Transformers brand so far, somehow, you may be in for a rude awakening. Age of Extinction is really what you'd expect from this loud, crazy franchise. Even though it's supposedly a "soft reboot" (whatever the hell that is), it's still totally a Transformers film, which means you can't really be on the fence about it. You either dig it or hate it at this point, and you know how you feel. Or you hate it but watch it anyway, then complain that Hollywood keeps making these movies while you're giving them money. Either way, your mind should already be made up - you know what to expect going in to this.

All of this is a preference to say that I liked this movie and it does a nice job of elevating itself even a little bit above the first trilogy (words I never really thought I'd type, for sure), and it absolutely knows what it's trying to be. There is plenty of criticise, of course, but honestly, criticising these movies is like criticising a dog. You can bitch all you want but it's just going to stare blankly for a while and then continue licking its balls. It's just futile. So let's get our bitching out of the way.

One big lesson that Bay learned from Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg) is how to keep the story flowing to feed an emotional response at the expense of logic. This is sometimes slight, depending on the skill of the director. For instance, you don't really notice that suddenly Alan Grant and the kids are climbing down a sheer cliff in the Tyrannosaur pen until the fourth for fifth viewing of Jurassic Park (1993). It's a gap in logic that serves the story beat needs of the story. This is all that Bay does as well, except it's continually insane enough to bring viewers out of the film instead of being alluring enough to keep their attention so distracted that no one really complains. This is probably where most of my criticism comes from. From here on out folks, even though if you wanted to see this movie, you probably have by now, SPOILERS will lurk in the mist.

There are just too many elements of this film that serve nothing but plot. It really fucks with character. Like, apparently KSI's Director of Chinese Operations just a crazy kung fu artist and former cop when the time needs her to defend Stanley Tucci. Same deal with the random Chinese guy in the elevator in Hong Kong. Now I would be curious to see the Chinese cut of the film, which apparently featured more extensive scenes with the Chinese actors (which in itself, is a brilliant move on every level), but these people appear out of no where for no real reason.

There's so much of this. This kind of movie, it's just too stupid to try to list every inconsistency. Optimus Prime sprouts jets in his feet for the ending scene and blasts off into space which...he could apparently have done this entire time. He scans another Peterbilt and instantly heals himself after so much of the early parts of the film deal with him being a rustbucket. KSI's matter shifting technology, I mean, whatever, that's weird but shouldn't their robots need a power source to function? And why are there like three versions of the evil KSI Transformer Stinger? It's still a great twist on "Bumblebee" - not the cute friendly bee, but the dangerous part! - but it's just inconsistent and unexplained. But it's also too cumbersome too explain, which is just all around horrendous.

I love why Darcy exists. She gets this badass introduction in the frozen wasteland, but then fades into the background as a woman for every other character to dump exposition on. And she actually seemed like an interesting female Bay character, briefly. I also dug Kelsey Grammer's character, because as is often the case in movies like this, he's completely reasonable and doing his job really well. The Transformers are causing so much destruction on earth and really should be dealt with with prejudice, but he's just painted as this terrible villain. Stanley Tucci starts off this way but is then actually granted one of the more interesting arcs in the film. And of course, Mark Wahlberg - this was the part he was born to play! Equal parts sincerity and insanity, he's a spectacularly deadpan genius robotics inventor with huge biceps. Michael Bay has been waiting twenty years for this. But all his characters' efforts to save the world isn't going to pay his bills or get his house back. He's still kind of screwed.

He does have more to do than any other
human in this stupid franchise.

I like sequels that sometimes deal with that, actually - that heroes always get screwed. Ghostbusters II (1989) reduced its eponymous heroes to birthday party entertainers, and even Sam Witwicky, especially in Dark of the Moon (2011) is really frustrated by his lack of stature he ought to have received from starring in two world-saving adventures. I'm curious where Mark Wahlberg's adventure takes him, because the film does such a good job of demonstrating how every part of his life sucks, but then the narrative doesn't really solve any of his problems.

And they pulled the voice of John Goodman somehow! Hell, his Hound character really livened things up even if the rest of the Autobots are inexplicably racist or just angry at life for no reason. But at least we get to know these characters, which no Transformers film has really pulled off since introducing everyone with proper articulation in the first film. In every otehr film there's just like, random Ferraris and Chevy Volts. But why does Hound kill those things in Lockdown's ship? And what ARE those things? These questions will never be answered.

Finally, let's talk Lockdown. He's actually a pretty cool villain, and I love when he fights Wahlberg (who somehow deflects against a direct blow by the twenty-foot robot with only an alien gun to brace himself with). But why did any of the protagonists care that Lockdown was going to get the seed with his magnet-o-ship? Didn't he have like 14 of them? It's as if they all forgot the motivations of each villain for a second.

Speaking of that - Galvatron! Finally! It's good that they worked Megatron in, and this is how you do it - there's so much precedence for this transformation, although in spirit he seems more like Nemesis Prime, this evil version of Optimus. But he has no soul! Oh no! I love this movie. There's actually this interesting undercurrent of commentary here on like, the nature of the homunculus or the nature of souls. It's even got this Prometheus (2012)-like vibe of understanding both the responsibilities of creating life and the origins of one's own creation. This is especially true of the ending which features Optimus flying off to find his creators, presumably the Quintessons or even Unicron in a future installment (obviously to be played by the GHOST OF ORSON WELLES). I wouldn't be surprised if he passes Naomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender's head in space, though.

In addition to this possibly interesting discussion of the nature of souls and creation, some out there in Internetland have posited that the film is actually this meta-commentary on filmmaking and criticism or at least a reaction to the outrageousness inherent to modern blockbuster filmmaking. I'm not so sure to go that far, but there's certainly some self-awareness of the stupidness of this whole thing, and how the Transformers themselves are the doom of all the earth. There are scenes that feature Mark Wahlberg chastising the younger dude in the action hero mold for fooling around with his 17-year old daughter, which is not entirely all that different from our fascination with a young Megan Fox in Transformers (2007).

Speaking of that that action dude role - Shane Dyson (played with apathy by Jack Reynor. Yes, I had to look that up) is nearly identical to Cade Yeager (every film needs names like this now), but for his cowardice and actual inability to save his daughter Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz). Tessa actually more than anyone else is self-reliant, independent, and capable of saving her father and boyfriend. She's also one of the only reasonable characters in the film, and only really breaks down when they have to climb those insane cables over the city of Chicago, but who wouldn't be?

I'm curious if there is something here with the film's treatment of the Rally Car Driver, Shane. He's totally generic in that Charlie Hunnam / Taylor Kitsch / Garret Hedlund / Luke Evans (jeez there's a lot of them, eh?) variety of random scruffy white guy thrown in big blockbusters. Yet he's totally emasculated, irrelevant, and forgotten about. This film also kills off its comic relief, TJ Miller real REAL quick, which provides some startling stakes early on.

The humans in general are what elevates this film above some of the earlier Transformers pictures. There's no doofy scenes of Shia LaBeouf and his parents running around being silly on pot brownies or cringe-worthy moments like "This is so much better than Armageddon!" or positions under the enemy scrotum. It's all a bit more interesting, serious, and less cartoony, although to be fair, they're still all doing ridiculous things that keep it firmly grounded in the ridiculous.

Yeah, what the fuck was all that Knight stuff?

The action is also crisper and clearer than ever. Trust me, this is true in comparison to the first trilogy. Like I said earlier, little things like limiting the Autobots and Decepticons, introducing them, and giving them all personalities, even if they are stereotypes or racists, goes so far. And the Dinobots. Holy shit, those Dinobots. Their existence makes no sense, even within the context of the film, but none of that matters, because they are spectacularly awesome and get more screentime than Godzilla did earlier this summer. My only gripe is that they have really cool robot modes too that we barely see, but would be so cool in action.

Another thing that's really noticeable here is the product placement. Films can get away with this if it's subtle, but this is getting to Mac and Me (1988) levels. It's great to see Stanley Tucci instantly create Beats audio boxes out of random matter or to see Mark Wahlberg aggressive chug Budweiser aluminum bottles that spill all over the city. It's all insane, but really par for the course in this film.

The "soft" reboot concept is delightful, by the way. It's almost Skyfall (2012)-like in how by the film's end things are basically where they need to be to line up with the main Transformers Universe and to get things rolling on the fifth film. There's a lot of interesting things going on within and around the noise and stupidity of Age of Extinction, but similar to Bay's Pain & Gain (2013) I'm really not sure if it was intentional satire or Bay just being a douchebag. It really doesn't matter. You're going to get out of this thing whatever you want, and whether that's the epitome of big dumb blockbusters or a keen commentary on big dumb blockbusters will probably depend on how inquisitive your mind is and how well you can argue.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is beginning to get slaughtered by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) so see it in theaters soon. What do you think? Does any of this have merit or should we refrain from intelligent criticism at all? Leave a comment below!

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