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Non-Review Review: Transformers 4 – Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction is not a movie. It is a pneumatic drill. It is sustained bombardment. It is an attempt to force the audience into submission by bounding them. There isn’t a moment of the film where Michael Bay allows silence or mood. Even the establishing shots are offered through swooping camera shots – up, down, in, out. There’s no sense of place or time or character. It’s an extended music video, set to the percussion of cannon fire.

A Prime time?

A Prime time?

Bay’s approach to cinema is one that can work, under the right circumstances. Bay is not a director who works well with actors. He tends to work around actors, with performers existing either as props in his action sequences or negative space in his movie plots. Bay’s best films – like Armageddon or The Rock or even Bad Boys – acknowledge this and compensate by throwing charismatic actors into the middle of a pounding Michael Bay movie.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, even Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. These are certainly not performers immune to bad decisions or poor performances, but they come with a level of in-built personality and presence that allows them to hold their own against the murder and mayhem unfolding around them. One of the biggest problems with Michael Bay’s Transformer films is the fact that the humans at the centre of the plot are charisma black holes.

Everybody walk the dinosaur!

Everybody walk the dinosaur!

Appropriately enough for a movie about giant robots that are functional and adaptable enough to be multi-purpose, the humans at the heart of Bay’s Transformer films are nothing more than a moving part – a bit of the screen that doesn’t need CGI composited over it. Swapping out the actors is akin to changing the oil or giving a tune-up. Replace Shia LaBoeuf with Mark Wahlberg and you guarantee that the franchise engine will keep running for another trilogy at least.

The problem is that Mark Wahlberg is a functional actor rather than a charismatic one. He works well as a solid and reliable part of a larger film, a solid base to build from. He’s the dignified centre of a film like The Fighter, a movie where it seems like everybody except Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination. He works well enough ensemble pieces like Three Kings, or where a movie needs a steady presence or a straight man like The Other Guys. However, Wahlberg is never the rich creamy centre of a movie.

Chute first, ask questions later...

Chute first, ask questions later…

Replacing LaBoeuf with Wahlberg, Transformers: Age of Extinction trades up, but not far up enough. Wahlberg is just a cog in a machine, rather than a defining presence. He’s a tough street-smart father who is trying to protect his daughter from the world while struggling with the downturn of the economy. He cracks wise and takes no crap. He does exactly what you need a human character to do in a film like this, within operating parameters, never exceeding them.

Then again, that is true of most of the cast of Transformers: Age of Extinction. The characters don’t really exist. They are archetypes embodied by the actors cast in the roles. It’s hard to recall any names without resorting to the production notes or to on-line sources. None of them linger in the memory, and many are hazy. Is Titus Welliver playing Kelsey Grammer’s biological son, or merely his figurative one?

Bumbling along...

Bumbling along…

Without a strong actor to ground the film and counter balance the metallic sheen applied to it, Transformers: Age of Extinction becomes another two-and-a-bit-hour-long Michael Bay demo reel. It’s a movie connected more by image and movement than character or plot. Bay doesn’t think in terms of story or even image. Bay thinks in movement. He’s a director who keeps things moving along, as if he’s constructing a multimedia shark, a film that may die if it loses momentum.

Even when the camera isn’t moving or sweeping, the characters or objects are. Bay keeps the movie in a state of perpetual climax. Everything is epic, even when it isn’t. Shooting characters from low angles, Bay makes everything seem larger than life. Titus Welliver gets out of a car, his black trenchcoat wofting in the light Texas breeze. Nicola Peltz looks on, afraid, an American flag gently wofting in the light Texas breeze. T.J. Miller is frozen, stunned, his hair wofting in the light Texas breeze.

The films kinda drifted away from the whole "robots in disguise" thing...

The films kinda drifted away from the whole “robots in disguise” thing…

This constant climax is exhausting. The fact that Bay shoots even boring exposition as if it were the most epic thing in the world – mark Wahlberg teaches a crappy robot to paint! inspirational music soars! – can’t help but mean that the moments that should be “big” feel pointless and hollow. Indeed, the movie’s final act is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t really represent an evolution from what came before. It’s just more stuff, rather than pay-off. “What now?” Mark Wahlberg demands between battles, exhausted. We empathise.

Don’t ask questions, the movie insists. If you persist, the answer is always “because it looks cool.” Why is Mark Wahlberg carrying a sword that is also a gun? Because it looks cool. Why are that CIA team wearing heavy black outfits in what looks like a pretty scorching day in Texas? Because it looks cool. Why does Lockdown’s head transform into a gun rather than his arm or something? Because it looks cool. Why is Optimus Prime riding a dinosaur? Because it looks cool.

All outta gas...

All outta gas…

None of these elements make a lot of sense, and the script doesn’t try too hard to explain them. It just goes with it. One might wonder how Kelsey Grammer magically teleports around Beijing at the climax of the film, when our heroes have great difficulty getting as far as they do. Things happen because the plot needs them to, rather than because they make any sense. Barring a quick appearance on a laptop screen, Jack Raynor only show up once the plot needs him to.

During one early chase sequence, our heroes try to evade the government while Optimus Prime fights Lockdown. The film doesn’t seem too bothered with the brawl between Optimus Prime and Lockdown. It just sort of takes for granted that the fight is unfolding along a parallel trajectory. In fact, it just so happens that the chase route leads the characters to a place that is perfectly set up for an impressive visual stunt that would require considerable set-up. The movie doesn’t bother setting this up.

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

This is Transformers: Age of Extinction in a nutshell. It’s a film where everything exists because the action sequences demand it. There’s no real attempt at developing or expanding anything until it becomes a plot point. The script adds new characters and new ground rules because it needs another action sequence shortly. For example, Stanley Tucci’s Apple-rip-off multi-national isn’t featured until right before our characters try to infiltrate it. And then the movie is stuck with his character.

The movie’s reactionary subtext is as present as ever. Unsurprisingly, Nicola Peltz exists solely to be objectified. Shooting the male characters from low angles emphasises their power and their dynamism. Shooting Peltz from low angles emphasises her hot pants. At one point, hiding on an alien ship, a strange biological entity tries to catch her. It whips out its tongue, attaching itself around her leg in a scene that seems lifted from some trashy exploitation film – the male gaze given form.

The Prime of life...

The Prime of life…

“Let’s be clear about one thing,” Jack Raynor explains as he and Mark Wahlberg infiltrate an alien ship. “I’m not helping you to save your daughter. You’re helping me to save my girlfriend.” Because masculinity is defined by claiming a woman as your own, and belonging to no other man. “You saved me!” Peltz eagerly declares when the two handsome muscle-bound men find her. After all, it’s not as if Peltz could be allowed to save herself.

Transformers: Age of Extinction flirts with depth in a way more irritating than intriguing. Much is made of the “souls” of the Transformers. Wahlberg seems to suggest that Transformers are worth saving not because of their actions, or their self-awareness, but because “they have souls like we do.” Optimus reflects, “Look up at the stars. Pick one, and think of it as my soul.” It seems like the movie is struggling for something approaching emotional resonance, which is difficult given Bay’s percussive style.

It all blows up in his face...

It all blows up in his face…

However, it becomes a little troubling later on. These “souls” are what distinguishes the Autobots from the other robots. “You have no soul!” Optimus yells at Galvitron. “That’s why I have no fear,” Galvitron replies. However, what Galvitron lacks in “soul”, he makes up for with cold hard science. We’re told that he was created from Megatron’s “evil chromosomes.” There’s an uncomfortable reactionary subtext to Transformers: Age of Extinction, compounded by making its villain a version of Steve Jobs.

“Your science will cause the extinction of mankind!” Optimus Prime warns this stand-in, speaking with the absolute moral authority that can only be afforded to a robot riding a mechanical dinosaur. “Maybe he wants you to say that some things shouldn’t be invented,” Mark Wahlberg translates, speaking with the slightly lesser moral authority of a mechanic carrying a sword that is also a gun.  The subtext is clear. Science is bad. Souls are good.

Transformers: Age of Extinction might swap out some parts. But that doesn’t make it an upgrade.

16 Responses

  1. Just way too long. Could have been at least a refreshing piece of mindless summer action and fun, but it was almost three hours. With that taken into consideration, it becomes mind-numingly insane. Good review.

    • Yep. I can’t actually recall too much of it now. It’s a blur. I remember a few random images, but even then I wonder if my mind has already started to sort merge various aspects of the film together.

  2. Awesome review, you’re absolutely right about Bay’s obsession with keeping a film constantly moving, and in this case it was just too suffocating. Bay needs to start focusing on the characters more and realise no one can handle that much shaky cam in one long action sequence ha.

  3. Great review as always.

    One thing I found bewildering was the sheer number of characters the film through at us – it was almost ‘Love Actually’ with robots and explosions. Or at least it would be if the film was interested in exploring said characters. Did we really need three seperate villains (four if you include the one who has a change of heart)? Even Tucci has two different female satellite characters who perform exactly the same narrative function and have no difference in personality.

    Another aspect I found somewhat troubling was the open pandering to the Chinese market. The American government stooges are either fools or evil; the brief glimpse of the Chinese government is straightforwardly heroic and efficent.

    • I thought about bringing the change in portrayal of the American government up in the review, but wasn’t sure I could support it.

      It just seemed like the film was a lot more reflexively critical of the United States government than the earlier three films – which had been a lot more supportive and occasionally problematically patriotic. (“You guys! Sneaking out and dismantling Iran’s nuclear programme! We love ya!”) In contrast, the bad guys here are CIA agents, and the White House was shown to be completely disconnected and ineffective. I couldn’t help but feel like this was a change that had occurred since Obama’s re-election. It seems there’s been a very reactionary trends in Hollywood since Obama’s re-election – a lot of “Occupy the White House” films. That said, Transformers 3 was released rather late in Obama’s first term, so I’m not sure the criticism stands.

      That said, the Chinese government barely registered for me – they were less present than the American support systems in the previous three films. Although, now that I think of the film, I’ll concede that I struggle to recall that much of it. (Aside from Optimus Prime’s psychopathy. That stuck with me, and I may need to add it to the review.)

      • Fair points, though I’m not so sure about the “Occupy the White House” films (‘White House Down’ gave us an absurdly idealistic portrayal of an Obama stand in and a Republican villain after all.)

        To me what stood out was the Chinese government response scene was that it was needless, except for the purposes of showing the Chinese government in an efficent, patriotic light (“Hong Kong must be defended at all costs.”) The scenes are brief certainly but it is a contrast with the cluelessness of the White House. Even Li Bingbing’s inexplicably kick boxing factory owner was painted in a far more positive light than the morally compromised American CEO Tucci was portraying.

        I suppose my cynicism stems from reading about the likes of ‘Iron Man 3′ having an entire additional subplot for the Chinese market and ’21 and Over’ being turned into a completely different film with an ‘acceptable’ message to play for that market.

      • You’re right. Those edits are pandering. And, now that you mention it, it’s a very good point about the Chinese government. (Also, the awful “of course they know kung-fu, they’re Chinese!” sequences, which you allude to.)

  4. Great review. Watched the movie yesterday and I agree with you completely. There is absolutely no set-up for the bombastic, in-your-face CGI laden battles.

    Love this blog. Keep those posts coming. 🙂

  5. This is great movie

  6. Good review, I didn’t hate the film as much as many people. For me Transformers 4 was just more of the same, it was better than the last two, but not better than the first film. I liked Mark Wahlberg as he was the most useful and active human out of the set, everyone else was annoying, cocky, idiotic or wasted. I mean all of the humans were pretty pointless and stupid and unfunny, but it was the dialogue they were spewing out that was hurting me. It was horrible. Other than the visual presentation which was pretty much the best part of the film, the songs in the film were horrible, the Autobots were little kids fighting to be leader and there was no proper Decepticon enemy which I missed and just a number of other issues lurking around. In the end I didn’t hate it and wasn’t totally disappointed, but I won’t be watching it again.


  7. Since you covered pretty much most of the Transformers movie, will you ever look at the first one? Go back to the source and see how it started or something?

    • I hadn’t realised I’d done all but the first one. Maybe. I have been meaning to get back to doing more reviews of older films, actually. Sharpening my critical beak, so to speak.

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