Saturday, June 28, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction Review: Same Old Explosions, (Somewhat) New Coat of Paint

By Andrew Braid



Directed by Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Li Bingbing, T.J. Miller
Voice Cast for the Transformers (aka the characters you actually care about): Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, John DiMaggio, Mark Ryan, Reno Wilson
Release Date: June 27, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D (shot with IMAX 3D cameras)


Transformers: Age of Extinction is a spectacularly dumb movie.
Four movies into director Michael Bay's mega-blockbuster Transformers series this statement must sound beyond redundant, especially since the presence of the Dinobots in this new entry should be a pretty immediate tipoff to that fact. Loved by many general audiences and despised by most critics and film fans, Michael Bay's films have always sharply divided these two since the beginning of his feature film career, and the Transformers movies in particular have become emblematic of this lowbrow/highbrow divide. It's loud, stupid, often crude spectacle, and it sends any respectable or self-respecting film viewer into a spiral of despair when they see just how many boatloads of money the latest one has pulled in at the box office (not to mention the sh**tons of money these movies make off of toy sales and merchandising). It's very much an "us or them" kind of divide, not unlike the duelling factions of Autobot and Decepticon: you're either a fan of these movies (and will most definitely enjoy the rebooted yet still familiar approach that Age of Extinction has to offer), or you will hate them with a fiery passion (in which case I can guarantee all the changes made for the better compared to prior entries still won't change your mind).
Me, I'm more on the fence. I grew up as (and still am) a fan of multiple iterations of the Transformers animated series, even if it's often on a guilty pleasure "cheesy dumb fun" kind of level (though the most recent series, Transformers Prime, is genuinely pretty great). I've played and enjoyed the War for Cybertron game series by High Moon Studios, which showed genuine respect and reverence for the franchise's history. As for the previous Michael Bay Transformers movies I enjoyed the first and third films on a guilty pleasure "trashy yet fun" level, while vehemently despising the second instalment Revenge of the Fallen (still Bay's worst movie to date, and one of the absolute worst Hollywood blockbusters in recent years). I'm never going to defend these movies as "artistic" or even any genuine kind of good films, but part of me has to admit when I have fun in spite of my critical standards, even when it feels trashy and kind of shameful afterwards. And despite its several rebooted changes (many of which are for the better), Transformers: Age of Extinction isn't really any different.
So yeah, I had some fun. What else can I say? Well...

Optimus Prime readies his blade to defend against the impending onslaught of critics...

In terms of plot (aka that thing these movies still technically have), Age of Extinction is distinctly different from the previous entries, yet ultimately rather familiar. In the four years since the attack on Chicago that closed out Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the U.S. government has ceased ties with the Autobots and begun hunting and eliminating the transformers (good and bad) through an elite CIA task force headed by cold-blooded agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer). He then hands the transformers' parts to genius technological billionaire and obvious riff on Steve Jobs Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who has figured out how to use their genetic makeup (called "Transformium"- no, really) to build their own man-made transformers who can remain under government control. However, some of the Autobots are still out there in hiding, as down-on-his-luck Texas robotics inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg- and yes, that's actually his character's name) indadvertedly finds and repairs an injured Optimus Prime. Once the CIA picks up on Optimus' presence Cade and his teenage daughter Tessa (Nikola Peltz) become fugitives from the law who must evade capture and try to take out this new threat to their very livelihood. But Cade, Tessa and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) have more than just human agents and man-made transformers (led by Galvatron) to worry about: Attinger's ace in the hole is Lockdown, a transformer with no allegiance to Autobots or Decepticons, an intergalactic bounty hunter with a massive, fearsome ship of alien relics and captives. Though he works for Attinger now, Lockdown has his own plans involving an ancient "seed" that may be the source of how the transformers first came to be...

Lockdown easily stands as the series' best villain to date (though it's not like he had much competition).

Whereas the previous three films didn't really have much of any kind of message or anything to say aside from "good must stand to fight against evil when it comes, blah blah blah something explosions", Age of Extinction actually does raise a few ideas that hadn't really been raised by the series before. The conflict involves scientific ethics, the dangers of seemingly limitless possibilities, and the notion that some things just shouldn't be invented. Transformium (I seriously can't believe I have to write this with a straight face) can and could accomplish untold wonders, but under the control of someone like Attinger it's only ever going to accomplish bloodshed and destruction. Moreover the film reminds us that contrary to Attinger's cold conviction, the transformers are more than just metal machines, but living, feeling beings who even literally possess souls (aka their "spark"). So the fact that they're being indiscriminately hunted down by people they used to trust actually has some weight to it, and informs the Autobots we have left in that they're much less willing to still put up the good fight. The Optimus Prime we're introduced to here is one angry, wounded and betrayed, and he seems to be sharing the other Autobots' sentiments to abandon humanity. He's a symbol of hope who's lost said hope, and it opens up opportunity for some kind of actual character arc for Optimus as Cade becomes his new link to the human race, another chance to convince him that we're worth saving and, more importantly, worth fighting for. Considering how little growth or character development the stoic leader of the Autobots ever tends to see, the fact that the film at least offers something is appreciated.
Then again, all of these things would be considerably better if the film actually spent much time focusing on or developing them. Instead the film gets so caught up in its huge displays of over-the-top action that by the final stretch it seems to have almost completely forgotten about them. It does effectively set up and establish what the thrust of said action is about, but you'd expect at least a little more time for character development in a film that's 165 minutes long (oh yes, you read that right). The first act plays relatively fine, doing an adequate job establishing the new cast, but once the action kicks into high gear it really doesn't take much time to ease off said gear for the remaining 2 hours. Then again, this is certainly a boon for the many people who got impatient waiting for the big action setpieces they wanted to finally get underway in previous Transformers films. After the first half hour or so you get all that action in spades, without having to wade through at least an hour and a half of crude comic relief hijinks or military fetishism (unlike the previous entries, the U.S. army gets practically no mention at all, and the government is portrayed as either incompetent or villainous rather than patriotically hero-worshipped). Don't get me wrong, the film still has plenty of plot squeezed in (recall the bloated 165 minute runtime), but it often gets distracted from making the most of its characters or whatever ideas and themes it has. We certainly know why everyone's fighting and why the Macguffin ("the Seed") is important, but the implications surrounding the big destructive carnage are often lost in the shuffle.

Transformers 4, also starring Marky Mark, dead weight, and who cares?

Not that the action isn't impressive, mind you: in fact, on a purely technical and filmmaking level this is the best action and direction the series has yet seen. 3D is probably the best thing that's ever happened to Michael Bay, as the format has forced him to restrain his former frenetic rapid-cutting tendencies which at their worst made all the overblown action scenes practically incomprehensible (just try watching the climax of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and tell me you can actually follow everything that's happening. I dare you). Combine that with hugely improved, varied and distinct designs for all the transformers themselves (unlike the previous films, I could unquestionably distinguish which robot was which at any given moment) and the metal-on-metal smackdowns have never looked so good. About 60% of the film was shot with IMAX 3D cameras, and if you're honestly going to go see this then I can attest that is definitely the way to go- you get a massive sense of scale and detail from the frame-encompassing compositions (not to mention sound that may literally shake the earth around you). This is an undeniably admirable film on a technical level, and I say that as someone who is (most decidedly) not a fan of Michael Bay in general.

Plus there's this Autobot who's voiced by John DiMaggio (Bender, Jake the Dog, etc.), if that helps entice you at all...

It also helps that the Autobots finally have an interesting villain to go up against in Lockdown, a skilled and experienced mercenary with no allegiance but to the mysterious "creators" who apparently disapprove of Optimus' desire to protect humanity. Aside from a great design, Lockdown rises above his (kinda pathetic) competition from the previous entries by giving us an antagonist with an air of intrigue who serves a higher purpose than some long-raging civil war yet still distinctly fights for himself in his remorseless pursuit. The extended action setpiece exploring his massive alien spaceship is a big highlight, providing a more otherworldly and enigmatic atmosphere that stands in high contrast to yet another human city getting blown up real good.
Also joining in on the fight is the much-hyped live-action debut of the Dinobots, although many are bound to be disappointed that their screentime is decidedly lacking. After being set up in the early opening scenes, they don't actually pop up onscreen and do, well, what giant robot dinosaurs are wont to do until the last 25 minutes or so of the movie. In fact, they really aren't relevant or necessary to the plot at all- they just show up, do some sweet action stuff, and then go off to do who knows what at the end, presumably waiting to show up again in the next movie. They exist purely as attention-grabbing excuses for more spectacle and nothing more. Then again, any scenes involving fire-breathing robot dinosaurs are way better than none at all, so I guess I'll take what I can get.

Dinobots: so awesome that you don't really care that they basically have no actual reason to be in this movie...

As for the human cast running away from all those technically-proficient explosions, Age of Extinction is (for the most part) a notable improvement for the series. The characters are, as you've probably pieced together, pretty thin and archetypal, but the actors generally make the most of what little they have. Mark Wahlberg leads the way as Cade Yeager (once again, yes, that is his real name), making the most of his gift for combining dopey earnestness with macho action star coolness (even if he's hilariously unconvincing as a robotics scientist). The film smartly carries much of its bloated weight on Wahlberg's shoulders, as he's the perfect kind of actor to anchor a film this over-the-top ridiculous yet frequently straight-faced (it helps that the crude and often all-around terrible comic relief of previous entries is mostly absent this time). Grammer is growling and ruthless as Attinger, while Stanley Tucci gamely commits to Joshua Joyce's perfection-obsessed smugness and bumbling panic. Jack Reynor, a relative newcomer in Hollywood, has been getting his name thrown around a lot in Hollywood casting calls in recent weeks, and it's not hard to see why as he shows a solid mix of wannabe tough-guy machismo and bumbling earnestness that could make him an ideal leading man type in the future (he plays quite well opposite a similarly earnest Wahlberg). The only real weak link in the cast is Nikola Peltz as Cade's teen daughter Tessa. Aside from the playing a whiny, bland, and generally useless character who might as well have the words "Kidnap me!" tattooed on her forehead (not to mention how the film awkwardly- and kind of hilariously- tries to justify sexualizing her 17-year old character), Peltz proves that her godawful performance in the infamously disastrous The Last Airbender wasn't a fluke. Rosie-Huntington Whitely played a better female lead in the last Transformers, and she was a Victoria's Secret model with literally zero acting experience.
Look, if you liked the previous movies (well, the first and third ones, anyway), then you'll more or less know what you're getting into and odds are good that you'll enjoy what you see. My opinion or anyone else's isn't going to matter any which way in that case. On one hand, I cannot in any honest way say this movie is actually "good" in any non-technical-based sense: it's bombastically stupid, practically redefines the words "overlong" and "bloated", shamelessly filled with product placement, and weirdly littered with Asian stereotypes. On the other hand, though? I can't deny that I still had a good deal of fun snickering at all its straight-faced silliness and impressed by its array of robot battles and pyrotechnics, now shot and edited in a way where it genuinely feels huge-scale (not to mention visually comprehensible). It's like going out to party at some popular clubbing spot- it's noisy yet aesthetically pleasing sensory overload, and you have some fun despite the music being trashy, the drinks being even trashier, and the fact that you end up staying waaaay longer than you should have.
That's essentially how I felt walking out of the theatre after seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction in IMAX 3D. My ears and head felt all buzzed and hungover, my ass was sore, my legs felt wobbly walking home, and I was struggling to remember much of what happened in the earlier parts of the movie. It was probably pretty bad, and undeniably bad for me, but I also had more fun than I expected and would feel comfortable admitting. Besides, I've also seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, so I know I've had much worse clubbing experiences...


(Probable) Actual Quality Score: 3 / 10

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Guilty Pleasure Enjoyment Score: 7 / 10

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Final Score: 5 / 10


Pros:
+ The action scenes sure look fantastic in IMAX 3D, especially now that Michael Bay seems to have learned how to direct and edit in a (mostly) coherent way
+ The cast makes the most of what (embarrassingly little) they have, led by a reliably dopey and earnest (yet still somehow kinda cool) Mark Wahlberg
+ The transformer redesigns look much better than the previous movies
+ The loose semblance of what people often call "plot" in these movies actually tries to do something interesting this time
+ Lockdown is easily the best villain this series has yet had (and his ship is really cool)
+ The terrible "comic relief" of the previous films is mercifully lacking this time around, replaced by a generally darker tone
+ It's a Transformers movie!

Cons:
- It's a Transformers movie...
INCREDIBLY dumb, even by most Michael Bay standards
-  I don't care how many transformers, robot dinosaurs and explosions you have, it still doesn't excuse a preposterously bloated 165-minute (2 and 3/4 hours!!) running time
- Nikola Peltz  teen daughter Tessa makes for the worst female lead this series has yet seen
- It's too bad whatever ideas this movie actually tries to have get almost completely forgotten about by the last third...
- The script and dialogue are often laughable
- Disappointingly lacking in Dinobot screentime
- Galvatron and the other man-made transformers end up feeling like afterthoughts by the end of the movie
- Hilariously blatant product placement, ranging from Bud Light and Beats audio to Lamborghini and... My Little Pony?!
- Still kinda racist... (though it doesn't even hold a candle in that department compared to Revenge of the Fallen)