“Transformers: Age of Extinction” * (out of 5)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, T.J. Miller, and Sophia Myles
Written by: Ehren Kruger (screenplay), based on the Hasbro action figure line
Directed by: Michael Bay
‘Transformers’ producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura recently lamented that critics don’t properly understand today’s films, specifically as it relates to this series. They are easily swayed by popular opinion, he said, and in essence, cannot take a stand or think for themselves. Lorenzo, Lorenzo, come on, buddy. I paid for “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, and I’m going to make my opinion as a critical audience member crystal clear– it’s a dreadful turd of a movie, almost completely bereft of joy, sensibility, and meaning. I wasn’t wowed, I didn’t laugh (intentionally), and I wasn’t transported to a different place by the film. What’s worse is that by defining what they meant to create, Di Bonaventura can make up any story he wants to fit the narrative of his films. Whichever way you want to define this film (since it certainly has little clue what it is)- a popcorn film, a technical marvel, a joyride, a science fiction tale, a cautionary tale, what have you, it is still awful.
Let us take apart the ‘film’ itself. Following the events of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, the city of Chicago has been destroyed (yet remarkably livable here), and even the ‘Autobot’ aliens (the good guys) are being hunted down by a sinister government conglomerate (is there any other) led by Frasier (Grammer). Frasier is ‘working with’ Joshua Joyce (Tucci, completely over the top here) to ‘create’ Transformers using a recently discovered metal that they’ve dubbed…(wait for it)…’Transformium’. Awesome. Despite his otherwise fine acting chops, Frasier isn’t the least bit menacing here, and stands out as an odd choice for the role. Ditto for his brutal-for-no-reason first lieutenant (Welliver), who delivers perhaps the most unintentionally humorous line in cinema history- “My face is my warrant”. Hilarious! Were the standard “nasty government agent” actors like Brian Cox, Albert Finney, and Danny Huston all busy?
Cut to Texas, where Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) passes the time building robots for a living and caring for his 17-year-old daughter (Peltz). Let’s try to ignore the thought of a native Bostonian passing for a Texan named ‘Cade’, for the idea is that Mark Wahlberg can be taken seriously doing anything. The man did pretend to run from air (“The Happening”) and talk to a stuffed animal (“Ted”). Only an actor as uniquely talented as Wahlberg would be capable of delivering a performance worth taking seriously here, which he does. Peltz, on the other hand, is a striking young woman who flatly delivers her lines and exhibits zero charisma. This film isn’t interested in her line delivery or charisma, however, preferring to focus on her short ‘jorts’ as the camera disgustingly lingers up and down her legs. Peltz, who is actually 19, plays a 17-year old character here. I’m acutely aware of the reason for her presence in this film, but I’m also acutely aware that Bay made a clear choice to play around with the sexuality of an underage character, to the extent that the script actually takes time to discuss Texas’ apparent ‘Romeo & Juliet’ law. Seriously, just make the damn girl 18 and be done with it instead of teetering the line between sexy and perverted.
Where do the actual Transformers fit in? Surprisingly, the only robot maker in the dust bowl lands of Texas just happens to come across the most important Transformer, Optimus Prime. This catches the attention of Frasier, so naturally, he sends his no-nonsense crew to investigate and neutralize the head Autobot. Classic Michael Bay scenes ensue, including the trademark “multiple cars of authority driving furiously to a location” shot, the “angular, from-the-ground shot of a character with five-o’-clock shadow” shot that apparently adds gravity to a scene, and the “out-of-place, too-intense-for-this-material” shot (Mr. Face Warrant holds a loaded gun to the skull of a 17-year-old girl). All of these typical Bay-isms would be fine if they added something to the story, but they don’t work with the ‘Transformers’ franchise. It worked with ‘Bad Boys’, but here it adds a gloss of commercialism to a subject that already has a 30 year built-in market.
At any rate, explosions carry the story to a point where Optimus rounds up the remaining Autobots and rallies an ancient group of Transformers that were modeled around dinosaurs. I’ll admit to having a penchant for the ‘dinobot’ toys when they arrived in the mid-’80s, and the child in me grinned when Grimlock (the dinobot most resembling a t-rex) breathed fire. There’s a subplot involving a great many alien robot ships, a Decepticon (the bad guys!) named Galvatron, a Decepticon named Megatron, they might be one and the same, and really- it doesn’t matter. Metal will fly, things will explode, grand threats will be made, and few real consequences other than destruction will be the result. Sure, the actual ‘transforming’ has become a much ‘crisper’ effect, and the stories are grander in scale, but it seems to mean even less. This time it’s ‘extinction’, which apparently means ‘a section of Asia’ sustains damage. Optimus Prime, Sentinel Prime, Galvatron- it doesn’t matter what their names are, for even with the faces they’re given, they have little in the way of personalities. I don’t care if Sideswipe or Monkeywrench or Snake Eyes or whatever name I just invented is destroyed, for none of it matters. They are simply toys moving kinetically. The filmmakers have yet to elevate the subject matter.
Bay seems content to create monstrosities of cinema without thinking for a moment if anyone besides himself wants them or cares about them. He creates worlds full of biceps, short shorts, sunshine, sweat, perpetual facial stubble and flying metal, then calls it a ‘movie’. They aren’t- unlike fellow music video directors before him, he has never progressed as a filmmaker, and seems content to film bloated commercials. Simply, he’s the King of ‘Splosions, looking down on us from his throne, forged from our discarded summer movie tickets. I wonder what his daily caloric intake is. How this man can come up with two hours and forty-five fluid minutes of cinematic steroids is beyond comprehension. I opined back in my review for the original “Transformers” that his characters spouted off nonsense as if they had all been contractually obligated to throw back a Red Bull before takes; here, one of the main characters (Reynor) actually drives a ‘rally car’ for Red Bull. I’m not surprised. I cannot pinpoint where Bay’s creative sensibilities come from, but I envision a scenario in which he sits in front of a stereo or TV, leans back in his chair, turns up the sound, and allows his brain to meld with the noise. In other words, Michael Bay may just be the new age equivalent of the Maxell ‘Blown Away Guy’.
The defenders of such frenetic film experiences are quick to marvel at the technical achievements these types of films are. Might I ask what “Gravity” was, if not a technical achievement? Did it not take a moment to realize the awe it presented to us? Is Bay aware of this awe I speak of? Unlikely. Aside from their stark differences in how to tell stories with moving images, Cuaron is at least cognizant of his audience, for he is a fan of movies as well. Bay is a fan of noise, but has never adequately organized it, or filtered it through the eyes of a story. “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, like most of his films, is a relentless, a non-stop assault on the senses, pounding the viewer into submission until the mind requires a break. I briefly fell asleep during this film, waking moments later, I presume, for little had changed in the ‘story’. Congratulations, Michael & Lorenzo, you beat me into submission with the ‘experience’ you created. The world audience has allowed for their cinemas to be overtaken with 15 screens of this dreck on four separate occasions in the past seven years, while thought-provoking brilliance such as “Enemy” scraped by and required discovery. I suppose I can harp on Bay (and I will gladly do so until he becomes a complete filmmaker), but sadly, this really is the movie we deserve; just not the movie we need.