Transformers: Age of Extinction
(SPOILERS) There’s a strong argument for not sitting down and watching the fourth crappy instalment of a franchise when only the original had any merit. Particularly when that original was passable but nothing special. And yet I still find myself curious to see if something or anything can salvage a latest outing of the robots in disguise. The sequels don’t even qualify as terrible, not in the sense of being actively offended by their existence (although the racist robots in the second deserve attention in that regard); they’re technically outstanding yet entirely indistinct, banal and bereft spectacles. Bloated in length out of all proportion to their content, as if running time is a barometer of value, they leave the viewer numb and exhausted but not mindful of their content. Transformers: Age of Extinction is no exception, but it does have one not-quite saving grace.
I can recall that actors like Johns Turturro and Malkovich cashed cheques for obscene amounts of money, that Megan Fox bowed out after two to make way for a Victoria Secret model, that Shia LaBoeuf just about made it through the trilogy before he lost the plot entirely, and that the third one (I think) had an impressively staged spectacle within a collapsing building. But for the most part one scene of battling robots is interchangeable with any other, and one moment of pontificating Transformer philosophy is as laughable as any other.
This strange predilection for epic posturing one moment while tucking into fart gags the next is essential Michael Bay, of course. He’s never been remotely artistically scrupulous in his choices, but for a few years back there somewhere he was delivering reliably overblown Bruckheimer spectacles. Things seemed to short circuit for him sometime around Pearl Harbor. What can possibly have inspired him to devote the best part of a decade to Hasbro toys? He can’t claim accolades from critics or an adoring public like, say Peter Jackson (who at least has one of his two trilogies marked as a classic by cinemagoers and the Academy). Was it the fee that “inspired” Bay to climb on board for a fourth Transformers? I’m sure it didn’t hurt. And he’d made his serious little picture (the not bad Pain & Gain, where he made pals with Mark Wahlberg) to satisfy his visionary urges, even though it looked every bit as unsubtle, leering, and overblown as everything else he touches.
Cynically (of Bay?!), I suspect he wanted to lay further claim to the billion-dollar club; another Transformers takes him up a second rung on that ladder without any effort to get there. It puts him in company with Cameron, Jackson, Nolan and Verbinski. He’s probably indifferent that they can all at least lay claim to distinctive and/or memorable features (I may not be a fan of either of Cameron’s greatest hits, but I wouldn’t suggest they’re forgettable). Bay’s approach here is identikit to everything else he has ever done but, even given my disappointment that he consistently fails to channels his OTT-style into full on self-parody, I have to give him some credit for the moment where the front wheel of a flying car brains a black ops guy).
Is there any point trying to relate the premise of this? Since the Battle of Chicago (that was where that building toppled, I believe) opinion has turned against Transformers. A CIA black ops unit is in league with Transformer bounty Hunter Lockdown to bring Autobots down. The motivating force is, in the words of Kelsey Grammar’s CIA guy, to rid the world of these alien terrorists who also happen to be here illegally. What’s this? They’re immigrants? Is Michael Bay revealing an unlikely liberal agenda?!! Part and parcel of this plan involves developing the government developing their own Transformers, aided by spare parts from slaughtered bots and the acumen of Stanley Tucci’s corporate inventor Joshua Joyce. Joyce has identified the Transformer metal, called Transformium (not since Cameron’s Unobtanium has a substance been so scintillatingly titled), which can “change anything into anything”.
It might be worth mentioning at this point that, while many of the effects in this picture are as photoreal as one would expect form the series, Bay's team, perhaps suffering from metal fatigue, make occasional missteps. The flying-transforming-morphing effects of the “human” Transformers are sub-Transcendence in quality, and there’s a high wire sequence between two buildings where the director isn’t fooling anyone that the actors are more than a couple of feet off the ground on a green screen stage. Likewise, the twirling slow motion rescue-the-humans slices of Transformer action look a wee bit daft and cartoony; perhaps it looks so much better in 3D…
Into this scenario (the Decepticons aren’t here, or anywhere this time, except in spirit) comes unlikely inventor Mark Wahlberg with the unlikely name Cade (??!) Yaeger. He’s also a creative type, which later gives rise to the preposterous line, “Look, I know you have a conscience. Because you’re an inventor just like me”. Well, of course. Cade is the latest example of Wahlberg’’s occasionally dubious vocational casting; past examples include science teacher (The Happening) and astronaut (Planet of the Apes). Don’t play brainy types, Mark. You’re no Rick Moranis. Cade rescues/salvages Optimus Prime, so before long he and his daughter (Nicola Peltz, who leaves no impression and has the honour of being Razzie-nominated for The Last Airbender; perhaps she and Wahlberg got to share Shyamalan war stories together), and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor; one wonders at points if his character is intended as a rebuke of the LaBoeuf type, but alas he’s shown to be alright at the end) are on the run from the government. Could this be Bay’s conspiracy movie’ All the President’s Autobots? No, not really.
As is more-often-than-not the case with Hollywood movies, Age of Extinction’s bad guys are a rogue element within the government. The White House likes Autobots (the White House likes immigrants) and the Chief of Staff is shown to be in the dark about Grammer’s activities. Come the conclusion, order is restored, the rogue element is disposed of, and there’s no need for good American folks to worry. Titus Welliver offers full-on snarling Mr Nasty conviction as the lead black ops guy (these guys are so evil they point a gun at Cade’s little girl’s head and intend to pull the trigger!) Anything remotely inclusive or progressive here should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. This is a picture where the human hero drapes the Stars and Stripes all over his barn and the optimal Autobot, who never kills humans, turns all Dirty Harry to make an exception for the really bad one.
Age of Extinction is keen to appropriate philosophical and metaphysical notions, with Bay and Ehren Kruger desperately holding on to the idea that the picture is about something. It will comes as no surprise that this is at best lip service. Optimus keeps waffling on about the soul (Spark), marking out Galvatron as distinct because he lacks one. Yet Optimus is informed he was built (so soulless) and his creators want him back, while Galvatron is revealed as the reincarnation of Megatron. Despite the imposition of a rational explanation for the existence of Autobots, Optimus’ offers a parting shot of ludicrous lyricism (“Look to the stars, think of them as my soul”). One might read into this the prizing of creationism over evolution, even when the believer has heard the arguments against, if one was so inclined.
The humans aren’t any better when it comes to makeshift wisdom. Brainy Mark has the audacity to say, “Being human means we make mistakes. Sometimes out of these mistakes come the most amazing things”. Yes, he went there. ‘60s Star Trek, instructing the alien natives American values (or in this case the illegal immigrants).
More curious still is Bay’s apparent fixation with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. The ancient astronauts theme has run throughout the Transformers series, doing more to dispel any cachet the concept holds than any amount of scientifically inclined naysaying. Age of Extinction begins in the Cretaceous period, but before we get the idea Bay has gone all Terence Malick on us we discover that, not dissimilarly to Ridley Scott’s uneven sci-fi semi-prequel, the Earth is being seeded (Cyberformed, leading to mass extinctions). Later, the action transfers to Lockdown’s ship, which will take Prime back to his creators. As with Prometheus, they are presented as a malign force; jealous and destructive gods.
Then there’s the strange manifestation of Arthurian myths, complete with Optimus’ own Excalibur. This magpie approach to thematic elements serves to highlight how Lucas got it so right with Star Wars (at least at first); Kruger and Bay get it so wrong.
Age of Extinction also prefigures the (hoped for) resurgence of all things prehistoric by a year (Jurassic World is incoming) with the appearance of Dinbobots. Much like Transformers generally, they are a design gimmick in search of anything going on under the lid. Less effective still are the whacky new Autobot stereotypes, including Ken Watanabe voicing the samurai-styled Drift and John Goodman as the obesity-styled Hound (complete with an autobeard).
With this barrage of pixelated machines it’s no coincidence that the best scenes involve humans. Unfortunately it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through this not-far-from three-hour endurance test that we get any interesting ones. Stanley Tucci comes on as your shameless capitalist opportunist and is, through no particular change of heart on his part, rehabilitated as a reluctant hero. How much of Tucci’s performance is ad-libbed is anyone’s guess – I suspect it’s merely his inimitable delivery that makes the difference – but the picture almost feels alive and spontaneous when he is onscreen. Particularly strong is the extended sequence where he makes off with the Seed, accompanied by the stunning Li Bingbing. Whether he’s sitting on a roof sipping from a juice carton, laughing in a lift, bypassing young (“Hi kids!”) and old (“Excuse me, ladies”) or showing impatience with pedestrians (“Just hit ‘em, just hit ‘em!”) he’s the absolute highlight of the picture. And given the multi-million dollar CGI action spectacle, it’s also telling that by far the best bout is Bingbing’s kick-ass lift fight.
Why Wahlberg felt the compelled to show up in this is anyone’s guess. I guess it guarantees more green lights (it made double the amount of his previous highest grosser) and he must be one of those few who digs the Bay. Hopefully Sophia Myles got paid well, as her role is utterly forgettable. T J Miller gets/gives himself some good lines before he leads an early exit. He helps to highlight the rather queasy obsession the picture has with the acceptability of lusting after Cade’s 17-year-old daughter (the obsessive dad thing is also highly dubious). Miller refers to her as a “hot teen-ager” and her 21 year-old BF testifies that it’s okay to be dating her because of a Romeo and Juliet law. Is this the Bay agenda? That he wants the world to know it’s okay for him to slather over teens? Most disturbing is his fixation with painting them orange. Peltz looks like she’s overdosed on beta-carotene.
The success of Transformers: Age of Extinction – the 10th highest grossing picture of all time worldwide, despite most discerning people being barely aware of its presence – is certainly not attributable to the series’ dwindling US popularity. As with a number of franchises (Spider-Man, The Hobbit) the US is no longer the key market. This picture made $300m in China alone, the most successful movie ever there. No doubt it was helped along its way by extensive location filming there (this being Transformers, it could have filmed anywhere in the world that granted a permit to blow shit up and it would still have all looked the same). The baffling thing about this series is that its attendees cannot solely be those who buy the toys, yet it’s impossible to see any reason for its existence or popularity other than to sell them. Michael Bay is not returning for Transformers 5 in 2016. I look forward to him spreading his wings as the true auteur he is, as he enters his sixth decade.