Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of… Doctor Frasier Crane
by Thom Yee
There’s little doubt in my mind that the movie director’s job is incredibly difficult and demanding. The level of vision and ability, the attention to detail and dedication to a cause must be incredible, and one need look no further than the end credits of pretty much any movie — packed to the brim with thousands of individuals who all had to come together to form what we’ve just watched — to get a glimpse of the enormity of the director’s duties. Having to deal with producers, delegate tasks to second-, third-, fourth- (and so forth) unit directors, direct hundreds of individuals in charge of things like decorating, costuming, grips and various other hanger-on duties, and appeasing the egos of fabulously wealthy actors would all be enough to leave any middle-management-type (say, like YOU, with the two- to four-member team you’re “responsible for”) curl up into a fetal position, ready to return to whatever womb-like structures you can in your attempts to find protection at the most primordial level. There are so many things to go wrong, so many variables in play far your beyond control and far more wide-reaching than the simplistic notion that having a good script will make for a good movie, and it must take an enormous amount of talent, perspective, and experience to put together something that entertains and stimulates. Even our most celebrated directors have their Godfather Part III’s (Coppola) Ladykillers (Coen Brothers), and Color of Moneys (Scorsese).
Whether or not you can appreciate the challenge of the director’s chair, it’s pretty easy and pretty common to take shots, cheap or not, at Michael Bay and his… oeuvre. But let’s not forget just how complex the machine of the Transformers movie franchise must be. With an average budget of $188 million dollars and an average running time of well over two hours, it was and has been Michael Bay’s job to corral some of Hollywood’s worst people (Shia Labeouf, Megan Fox) into starring roles that most people will naturally hate because they distract from the giant robots. Like their children’s toy forebears, these are intellectual properties specifically designed to make money and very little else, and in that sense, the franchise has been incredibly successful.
Having acknowledged all of that, none of that, NONE OF THAT, excuses what we see from Bay and his transformers every two to three years since 2007. Virtually devoid of any redeeming values — including base entertainment — the Transformers movies have been a virtual blight on every element of the movie-going experience, a walking, talking and offending series of movies that provide hyper-visual fodder for the critics who can’t stand summer blockbusters, immature, inchoate plots for a generation of kids who may never know the meaning of the word coherent or restrained, and all the fuel necessary for the hateful, contemptuous polemics who would lay waste to the glory and complexity of childhood imagination with the dismissive question, “Well what did you from a movie based on kid’s toys?”
Here’s everything I think you need to know about Michael Bay in two minutes or less:
So maybe you can imagine how I felt about the movie.
Five years after the Battle of Chicago (y’know, this overwrought, seemingly neverending monstrosity), all transformers, Decepticon and Autobot, are being hunted by the secret cabal known [ominously] as Cemetery Wind, led by the enigmatic, but no doubt evil Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer). Meanwhile, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a failed mechanic inventor, finds a damaged truck which he plans to sell for parts before finding out it’s the damaged body of Optimus Prime. Along with his employee Lucas, daughter Tessa, and her race-car-driving (secret) boyfriend Shane, the four become entangled in the war between the Autobots, Cemetery Wind, KSI a corporation led by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) that’s building its own transformers, and the mysterious, Lockdown, a Cybertronian bounty hunter who wants nothing more than to capture Optimus. Also, there’s some subplot about the original transformers creators that’s never properly explored and the broad concept of what it means to have a soul.
There’s something to be said for the series’ central conceit of mechanical beings turning into familiar devices and hiding in plain sight, and it’s something that’s forgotten and ignored after the first half-hour of the first movie, especially in this one where espionage is actually part of the plot. At about the movie’s midway point, the script calls upon our protagonists, human and Autobot, to infiltrate the KSI R&D lab that’s been studying the unstable metal our transformers are built out of. Never mind how unnatural it is to ask a rural inventor and a rally driver to suddenly become spies, what becomes particularly egregious is the choice of forms the transformers take in trying to hide from humanity. As much as I can appreciate Bugatti’s and Pagani’s and Lamborghini’s, those are all extremely exotic choices that would stand out in any city and very much go against the basic logos (as in, of ethos and pathos) of doing things without being noticed (as in, Robots in Disguise). Particularly given that Autobots and Decepticons are being hunted with extreme prejudice, it would behoove the transformers to choose more ordinary, pedestrian disguises, particularly given the haphazard way they seem to change from one vehicle form to another at will (see: Bumblebee’s 1967 to 2014 Camaro transformation). Didn’t they used to need to scan vehicles before taking their forms? As much as these superficialities are just that, they help to inform the general style of a movie where there are no sensibilities or rules, nothing to care for, and no thoughts to provide or engender.
As for our human protagonists, ostensibly, the reason why there are humans in any of the Transformers, from Saturday morning cartoon to monthly comicbook to billion dollar movie franchise, is so that you, me, all of us humans, have a point of view with which to gain access. The humans, unfortunately, are also consistently the most annoying part of any Transformers story, whether they’re playing the part of victims, hostages, or improbably saviour-heroes. The original cartoons, however, have the excuse of not being written for a mass audience, and even they eventually fell away from the humans as central focuses in the better shows, including the 1986 movie and latter-day series like Beast Wars. As much as I like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer in general, I don’t think I can stand behind any of our human heroes or villains, newly brought in to help fan away the scent of everyone’s favourite troubled, self-aggrandizing, plagiarist, alcohol-abusing former lead. Like their predecessors, Mark Wahlberg’s Yeager family dynamics leave a lot to be desired, and their story is built on clichés so broad that it’s possible to contemplate (though probably not conclude) that Megan Fox isn’t the worst thing ever. I didn’t absolutely hate the characters, but I did find myself squirming in my chair at the banality of their lives (and the soundtrack as we take long gazes at the soulful country skies of America), and while there are obvious parallels to the state of modern American property with the Yeager family farm constantly being foreclosed on, there is no empathy to be found here, no portrayal too shallow, and no emotional content.
What’s truly astonishing about Age of Extinction is that it actually makes the previous three movies look a lot better in retrospect. I’ve always found Bay’s original Transformers to be a surprisingly strong if deeply troubled entry given what we should have expected, even as it held no reverence, respect, or even easter-egg references to the original series and its fans. They all got progressively worse from there, however, becoming incredibly (rather than just merely) self-indulgent, culminating in the aforementioned Battle of Chicago, a series of battle sequences that, to me, were just completely exhausting. Now we can argue all day about how bad those movies truly are — that they lack nuance, that the characters are all incredibly annoying clichés, that the battle sequences don’t give proper weight to what’s happening and are often hard to follow, that the scripting is painfully bad, that the transformers are soulless robots with no real viewpoint and sometimes it’s hard to even attach voices to robots since most of them don’t really even have moving mouths, and that there are no attempts to find meaning in any element of the story beyond Optimus Prime monologues that wrap things up before the end credits — but Age of Extinction goes so far in the direction of bad movie making and unrestrained idiocy that I actually miss the original three.
Age of Extinction is by far the worst of the Transformers movies and the worst kind of movies in general. It’s headache-inducing, shrill and ear-splitting (none of which had anything to do with the sound system), pointless and bloated, and it kills nostalgic, childhood favourite characters, both literally and figuratively. The sequences inside Lockdown’s ship are tone deaf, almost nightmare-inducing from the perspective of children, and nowhere near anything remotely fun. The Dinobots, probably the biggest differentiator for this installment, show up at the last minute, are almost completely lifeless, and literally have no lines. The movie starts to ask intriguing questions about the mythos and origins of the transformers, but stops well short of anything remotely thought provoking. There are no Decepticons and sometimes a lack of clear antagonists, and even though Kelsey Grammer brings a level of gravitas generally missing in the wake of characters like John Turturro’s Agent Simmons or John Malkovich’s Bruce Brazzos, his character’s inherent emptiness prevents him from becoming a strong villain. As a movie, it’s closer to resembling a movie than being one in the same way those Swedish guys on Family Guy almost sound American.
One of the deepest and darkest secrets of this entire GOO Reviews venture Grace and I are on is that we’re mostly going to be giving pretty good reviews. We just don’t have time (or the inclination) to see every movie, watch every TV show, or read every book, so we’re mostly going to be writing about things we wanted to see, watch, and read. I may not have gone into Transformers: Age of Extinction expecting much, but I did feel compelled to review it simply because it’s one of the biggest movies we’ll see this summer. And as much as it occurred and continues to occur to me that these movies aren’t made for me (even though there’s an argument they should be, given the demographics), what’s most striking about Age of Extinction is that I can’t peg down who it is for. Unlike the originals, which were primarily stupid and over the top, Age of Extinction is actively bad and, frankly, it seems far beneath even Michael Bay’s standards. It’s full of scenes that I can’t imagine anyone enjoying, boring, lifeless characters (human and transformer alike) that are mere echoes of the horrible, monstrous, but at least memorable clichés that inhabited the originals, and it completely wastes its potential by misusing the Dinobots, miscuing questions of origin, and underdeveloping the possibility of a Shia-free Transformers experience.
It’s also way too f*cking long.
Transformers: Age of Extinction Final Score: 2