Review: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION Is The Film Michael Bay Was Born To Make

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Review: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION Is The Film Michael Bay Was Born To Make
Like the film I'm talking about, this is going to take a bit to get through. My advice for both film and review: Sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is, if one wants to rank such things, the most Michael Bay-y film that Michael Bay has ever made.

If the auteur theory suggests that the authorial intention must come through even the industrialized machinery of film production, and that the director's unique voice and vision can be traced project-to-project as a coherent whole, then Bay's often preposterous films do genuinely have a signature consistency in keeping with this notion.

Few filmmakers have been so delightfully overt in their coddling of the Id. From Bad Boys through to Armageddon, he has often eschewed common sense, along with rich characters and witty dialogue, in favour of unabashed Hollywood tripe. Pearl Harbor was completely egregious, a melodrama that was as abortive to history as it was to melodramatic romance, that scene in the parachute room still seared into my brain like a malignant scar.

When Steven Spielberg tasked Mr. Bay with the Transformers franchise, the hope would be that we'd get all the good bits (think "bomb cam" in Pearl Harbor) without all those pesky moments of awkward romance and jingoistic diatribes.

Instead, we got something wretched.

There are those who defend the first Transformers as passable entertainment, and for my money those people are wrong for one critical, inarguable reason. For all it's oomph, the film's script makes one appalling error - it makes the film's noble hero the object of comic relief. With one line of dialogue ("Oops, my bad") Bay's film makes Optimus Prime foolish rather than stately. That scene alone, with Prime awkwardly trying to stay inconspicuous in the backyard, should be held up to be ridiculed for as long as cinema exists.

Star Wars uses C-3P0 (and Jar Jar) to do this buffoonery, not Obi-Wan. It's not just lazy, it's counter to the entire ethos of what these projects ideally should be - unabashed adolescent fun, a modicum of mystical mumbo jumbo, a few moments of thrills and chases, and shit blowing up real good.

Let's step back even further, and remember what these films are really derived from. There were a set of toys in Japan, where Hasbro took them, rebranded them, and built a narrative about their ability to switch from disguised robots to vehicles (and weapons) of different shapes and sizes. The branding came first, the narrative very much an afterthought that should in no way interfere with the play value.

The second film, while still very very terrible, made up for this effrontery in its own small way. This time the comic relief came in the form of two obnoxious, arguably racist robots. Prime was allowed to brood and be kingly, the children in the audience got their silliness. Bumble Bee's shtick was already tired midway through the first film, but what the hell, he's still keeping Shia company, and they did blow the hell out of the pyramids. It's shit, but it's at least of a more healthy, fibrous quality, rather than the runny, clearly diseased excrement of its predecessor.

Cue the third film, and we get a visit to the Floydian Dark Side Of the Moon. Needless backstory! Cool shots in space! We get it all. To its credit, the third film results in near pornographic destruction of Chicago, an orgy of particle that fling about, while men in wingsuits whiz by and giant robots cause mayhem. 

From a technical standpoint, there's a dramatic jump from 1 through 3 in terms of Bay's craft (some, of course, may chide at that term applied to this stuff). I've often despised Bay's insistence on ridiculous shakycam and irritating framing. In both the first and second flick, there are entire battle scenes that are little more than a smear of motion blur, and pixel-on-pixel violence shot with a needless kineticism. Bay's gift is in staging these mighty conflicts, then insisting on bringing the audience right into the action, missing out on the bigger picture. 

Take Pearl Harbor - on the supplements, there's a great making-of doc, which shows some of the staging of the actual battle in Hawaii. Shot with a simple handicam, you see the real explosions flare as vintage planes lumber along in the skies. It's magnificent, a true spectacle. Intercut with the film footage, we see this same scene without that wide context, and it's all a nest of quick edits, swish pans and bloated CGI augmentation.

As the series has gone along, it seems that Bay is finally wising up to this fact, moving away from the smear and working in favour of more contextualized, more magnificent moments of spectacle. There was still too much in the form of turgid story and mawkish performances, but as popcorn-fuelled inanity the series was rising ever upwards.

Bay could always stage the stuff, he just blew it when it came to capturing it for our viewing pleasure without messing it up along the way. I believe, with Transformers: Age of Extinction, that he finally got his balance right. This, it seems, is the film Michael Bay was born to make.

Trans4mers is a bloated yet bristling bout of box-office brouhaha. In many ways, the extinction discussed in the title speaks of the evolution from the earlier film. Set four years after that Chicago blitzkrieg from last time, the film does what finer adventure and sci-fi films have done for years, toy with politics and morality under the guise of heightened story telling. Now, this is a Michael Bay film, so the metaphors are chucked around with the subtlety of a hand grenade. Yet if you succumb to the sheer hubris of it all the thing comes pretty damn close to being kind of awesome.

With the opening scenes we meet a black-ops outfit hunting down these "illegal aliens", those damn transformables that caused all that havoc in Chi-town. Oh, wait, before that we started with a Tree of Life-like opening sequence, seeing a bunch of dinosaurs run willy-nilly as a ship metalized the fleeing beasts, and then jump cut some 60 million years to "The Arctic" to find one particularly toothy creature now turned to "Transformium" ("trademark and copyright", to quote a character).

Then we meet Mark Walhberg - father, inventor, Texan - as he plunders an old movie theatre for projection parts and... a truck? Sure, why not. Wahlberg helps put the bro in Hasbro, and I'm taking nothing away from his performance - he's bringing it, guns and all, and doing so without once seeming like he's slumming or just cashing the cheque. I'd even like to believe that the fact he's in Paris, Texas is a nod to Wim Wenders.

I'm not one to crap on Shia like many, but it was always clear he felt he was too cool for the film he was in, and had a pretty obnoxious character to play to boot. Mr. Funkybunch, on the other hand, needs to hold nothing back, and this mix of doting father, action hero, nerdy inventor and baseball bat-wielding deadbeat all adds up to a whole heap of charm.

Early on the film, Bay seems practically giddy with his lensing. You get streaks of flares that would make JJ Abrams blush, steadicam shots that coax the last light of a setting sun. Once scene on the porch even hearkens to Mr. Luke Skywalker looking forlornly into those setting suns on Tatooine. This is Bay being poetic, taking his time, letting the movie breathe before another onslaught. Sure, the poem is a crudely drawn limerick on a toilet stall, but this attenuation of pace is a refreshing addition to his toolset, and adds to the effectiveness of the film.

At 165 minutes, a mere ten minutes shy of The Godfather, and almost an hour shorter than Ben Hur, this isn't for the faint of bladder. Like Ben Hur, or even the 3-hour+ Cleopatra, Bay's film is preposterously large, the forefront of big scale filmmaking. The fact that he throws in some Mallickian flourishes may be comical to purists, but they speak to the type of glorious spectacle that this is.

Broken down, the story goes in several weird directions, many of them enjoyable if you let them be. We get plenty of overt connections to America's use of drone strikes, and how US black ops are falling outside of administrative control. In two separate instances, leaders use violence to promote "freedom", showing that only by beating the shit out of their opponents can they be subdued into fealty.

There are also overt allusions to the cult of the designer, the fetishizing of the likes of Steve Jobs. Played by Stanley Tucci with a rare deliciousness, his character perfectly captures the tone in exactly the way John Tuturro's obnoxious and grating Seymour Simmons never could.

The rest of the cast is also pretty decent - Kelsey Grammer makes for a scene-chewing CIA nutter, perhaps out-grimaced by Titus Welliver as his black-ops henchman. Nicola Peltz plays Bay's latest object of cinematic attention, and Jack Reynor does his best to keep up. Li Bingbing provides some of the film's connection to China, while Sophia Myles showed up at one point late in the film and I had totally forgot she had been part of the group.

Naturally, while the stuff gets designed in the US, the heavy lifting is done in China, and we fly over to Guangdong province to see some big factories, and then suddenly we're in Hong Kong. When things go down in Hong Kong, the film makes a very explicit effort to show that the "central command" will take care of any eventualities, and that whatever happens HK will "be taken care of."

Yes, the film's got a pantload of Chinese money in it, but it's kind of surreal having such propagandistic bits thrown in there from another nation. We're just far more used to the US' point of view in their own blockbusters (again, see Pearl Harbor) that it borders on the refreshing to see the jingoism come from a different tack.

Then there are the bits where Bay is basically commenting on Michael Bay films. We get an old man in a theatre decrying all these damn sequels and comic book movies, and joking about a pair of vintage film projectors being ripe for digital and IMAX. While TF4 is very much occupying this new normal of digital cinemaspace, it does in some ways hearken back to those massive epics of yore. This is a movie that's akin to the steam ships that added extra chimneys to appear more massive, or buildings that added spires to be taller. This is bang for your buck cinema, and finally, by the fourth time, Bay's got his formula down.

While Bay's no stranger to using his lens to practically lick his female protagonists, the story goes one weirder step forward here, having Wahlberg's daughter be a 17-year-old dating a 20-something. When the father yells about potential charges of statutory rape, the bro-friend pulls out his pocket "Romeo and Juliet" law, showing daddy that, no worries, I can shtupp your daughter, because we've been hooked up since we were both minors. It's as if the script is saying, hey, we're cool, we know what we're doing, what lines we can cross. We've got a dad yelling about short shorts, while the camera almost looks right up them. We get shots of clattering high-heeled shoes chasing after an executive, only to see them scurry back inside when the direction changes. It's deliriously adolescent, a sly grin about just how far things can go and still be reined in.

In fact, if there's a central conceit, it's that one shouldn't be a "bitch", a word flung around with seemingly little in the way of gender specificity. All the actual female characters seem to be well able to handle themselves, and the notion of "wussing out" is saved for some of the guys. Again, this is bro-logic taken to the extreme, not so much misogynistic as puerile.

So, yes, this is a childish film, with childish archetypes and childishly-behaving characters.

Lest we forget - this is a film, a $165m-plus-marketing budgeted leviathan, that's based on the adventures of a set of plastic toys. Of course it's childish, it's always meant to be.

Almost as gleeful as the ribald sexualization of its human characters is the fetish for product placement. Victoria Secret buses, crashed Bud Light trucks that spew bottles only to be opened by the lead and gulped with abandon. We've got Tucci milking his Chinese milk product, toying with the straw and coming as close as anyone in the entire film to mugging for the camera. I've seen many on Twitter complaining about the product placement, as if it somehow poisons the purity of the film.

Idiocy. The entire film is about product, the very DNA of the project is the buying and selling of merchandise. This is by its very nature a gratuitous example of smashing things together for our collective amusement, projecting narrative upon otherwise disconnected plastic bits. Remember the cars that they transform into are all brand names, all products of given corporations. In some sneaky, dare I say intentional way, these other placements make one more aware of the other things going on, the other messages that are carefully planned by committee and executed by hundreds of craftspeople and technicians. This is part of the contract - we get to see stuff blow up read good, and pay for the privilege. We pay to see trailers, pay to see brand name cars turn into fighting robots, so why not also pay to see our heroes sip from a silly blue can/bottle thing?

Which leads, finally, to those robots in disguise. For much of the film, it's actually not really about the Transformers themselves, which actually kind of works. When they do show up, however, we get a bunch of great voice performances, including John Goodman channeling Walter Sobchek in his portrayal of "Hound", Ken Watanabe as a Bugatti-flavoured "Drift", and John "Bender" DiMaggio as a Chevy Stingray. The core connection to the original cartoon series (which, it must always be reminded, was a silly, convoluted, incoherent mess that still had stuff blow up good) are the voices of Peter Cullen as Optimus and (spoiler?) Frank Welker as Galvatron/Megatron.

With the scope of the film, you get moments where the giant robots aren't the entire focus, where you actually get to see the humans doing stuff (like, say, fighting a kung-fu battle near an elevator) with nary a robot in site. This allows a bit of space between the scenes of destruction.

Perhaps for the first time, Bay manages to convey the scope of the Transformers when they're around. He's toyed with radical camera angles before, but I found this is the first time they really work. I did find myself wondering about the ditches they had to dig to get quite such a low camera angle, but it does manage to give a sense of scale (not quite at the level of Jurassic Park, but closer than you'd think) that's super pleasing.

It's well into the final act when the tease of the dinosaurs comes to the fore, and the iconic imagery of a ludicrously large truckbot riding a fire-breathing T-rex as his steed has been plastered on much of the marketing material. Still, as executed by the well-heeled effects team, it does what it needs to do: Giant robot, big-ass sword, fire breathing dragon. Check, check, and check. If this one image doesn't exemplify everything right in this film, if you don't feel anything for the grandeur of that shot, literally nothing will in this film. It's a robot riding a monster, the nougat at the center of the confection, surrounded by layers upon layers of sweetness.

Sure, such a candy isn't always good for your health, and not every film should be so blissfully idiotic. Yet occasionally, and in moderation, cinema can be nothing more than product, nothing more than silly artifice with a narrative that allows some storytelling to drizzle atop this core moment. Some hate candy, some only like it if it tastes exactly like other candies they've tasted before, some only like sour things and think that's all that cinema should be. Some, weirdly, will obsess about the wrapping, forgetting the gooey bits inside.

For as a battle takes place on the outside of a Hong Kong apartment, while elsewhere interstellar bounty hunters return to reclaim a weapon-like device and a flurry of nano-bits coalesce into bad guys that are hunted by a group of humans and friendly giant robots, well, none of that in the end matters. There's a robot. On a frickin' T-rex. He's holding a sword.

The dinos don't talk, they mostly seem to grunt, and that's in someways better. We don't need a monologue from a giant toothed metal hell beast. We need it to breathe fire, whip its tail about, and convey our hero down to kick some ass.

I could go on about the implications of this McGuffin seed, how the obsession with the destructive power of its spreading could possibly be a metaphor for adolescence itself, how the narrative ejaculation of story and imagery becomes masturbatory the more ridiculous it gets. While it's a fair comment, I'd be remiss if I didn't also think that this film, if you let it, can be a hell of a lot of fun. The 3D imagery is excellent, a far cry from the blury mess of the earlier iterations. The compositions are inviting and engaging, the dialogue terse but at times actually comedic, the story dense without being convoluted.

I think of the scenes of Autobots sullying monumental rock formations in Utah. With the warm, glowy sun harkening to a John Ford western, we see these mechabeings skating down from the natural arches, thousands of years of sediment scraped away for no damn reason. It's pointless, it's gratuitous...and, above all, it's kinda cool. There's a freedom from those slides, a "fuck it" attitude that prevails throughout the film. It's as if Bay finally knows what a Michael Bay film is, what it can be, and just goes for it. The film's almost boorish lack of tact is in fact its greatest asset, its unabashedness its greatest triumph.

For the first time in this series, and perhaps for the first time in Bay's career, he gives it his all, throwing in all the tricks from his toolbox at once. This is the apotheosis of his craft, a sublime, silly cacophony of imagery and story that whips about in a scatter-shot fashion like those new Transformium-based lifeforms.

In the end, I simply raised my arms at the sheer mad spectacle of it all, and shouted "Woo!"

Woo, indeed.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

  • Michael Bay
  • Ehren Kruger
  • Mark Wahlberg
  • Stanley Tucci
  • Kelsey Grammer
  • Nicola Peltz
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Mark WahlbergMichael BaySci-FiStanley TucciTransformers Age of ExtinctionEhren KrugerKelsey GrammerNicola PeltzActionAdventure

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