Three movies later, Michael is still making the same franchise. And I've been attacking it for about a third of my life-span now. But now in 2014, specifically July 2014, there's a huge difference. Back in 2007, and 2009, and 2011, I watched movies for movies. I was there simply to judge and admire an art form. Now I'm working forty hours a week, plus ten hours of commuting time, in a miserable job which exhausts me to the point I haven't written a blog post in weeks. Now I am a member of the general viewing public of the United States. I am a miserable workaholic suffering endlessly to survive just looking for a few hours of distraction so I can forgot how much of my early twenties are disappearing down the drain for $8.50 an hour, minus taxes and union dues. Regular people don't watch movies to ponder camera work, scripting, or cultural impact. They just want to go to sleep for two hours and let the pain stop hurting. I'm one of you now. So take me away, Michael Bay. I'm ready. Your metallic symphony of testosterone and stupidity can only be better than an average day.
And here's the freaky thing, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" actually is a far better movie than the previous three. The camera work is still bad, but at least the editing is constrained enough so that you can make sense of what is going on in combat scenes. The humans still take up far too much of the movie and are incredibly boring, but at least nearly all of the annoying comic reliefs and ethnic stereotypes have disappeared. And the final climax is mindnumbing and endless, an unrelenting attack of violence, but there is one thing it isn't: going to work. So bravo, Michael Bay. Instead of making one of the worst movies I've ever seen for the fourth time, you've simply made a mediocre to bad movie. We've gone from offensive on every level to a movie that is plodding without any pacing but at least has robots, so there's something. That, my readers - if you still exist after my weeks of abandonment, is real growth.
The major switch with the Transformers movie formula - a formula Bay and his hack screenwriter, Ehren Kruger have stuck to so rigidly that they basically made the same movie three times in a row with the same plot - is the removal of previous franchise star, Shia LaBeouf. No explanation has been given for the loss of the star, and there are even less references to his existence. In his place is the older and considerably less wacky, Mark Wahlberg, playing a down on his luck Texan...
...wait a minute. What? You cannot be serious. You have to be joking. No? We are really doing this?
...playing a down on his luck Texan inventor. Yes, Mark Wahlberg plays a scientist. (It is a sentence as hard to write as it is to read.) Oh no, he's totally a smart dude, he wears glasses in one scene and everything. Forget that this is Mark Wahlberg, a man who has made a career out of being a dimwitted jock with a Boston accent - a career that began with him singing one of the worst songs of the 1990s, and if you look at him as just a man with no prior history, and you will find he is merely terribly miscast for this role, not fall on the ground and laugh your ass off miscast. Specifically he is, Cade Yeager a blue collar American scientist, living on the rolling prairie, driving a hard-edged domestically-manufactured pick-up truck with a great tan and fantastic muscle tone, who somehow also is a robotic engineer. Robot engineering totally is a career filled by very physical men who spend most of their days outside, no inconsistencies there.
|"Oh damn, I got so much science to do!"|
Unfortunately the Transformers film series cannot move on. It may have finally removed the trappings of Shia LaBeouf, thus taking away most of its pretensions of being a "comedy". (I wrote "comedy" in quotations because the idea of these last three movies with their Deep Wangs and racist Jar Jar Binks robots being funny is an outrageous insult in the idea of laughter itself.) So while there is a fairly interesting plotline with the Autobots having been betrayed by the humans so that we can use their bodies as our next great leap forward in technology, every time that plot seems to move, it has to be shut down and ignored so that we can have Marky Mark and his magazine spread sidekicks slow up the place. And truly the movie cares less about these characters than I do, there's just no energy to that entire part of the film.
Somebody in the higher studios put their foot down with Michael Bay and demanded that this movie be a straight robot adventure, but with humans as the stars. Bay listened, made the movie they wanted, but I get the sense he's sad while making this film. He has all these great ideas, calling Ehren Kruger at night: "we're filming in China, we have to have racist bad driver jokes!" But then the studio shuts him down, reminding him that the Chinese will make up at least half of their profits, so they must be respectful to their money machines. They were nice enough to let them film half their movie there for low tax discounts, thus why the Autobot-Decipticon war this time occurs in Hong Kong. Bay did manage to negotiate a moment where a random man on an elevator is a master of pencak silat** and seems to think that the 1,224 mile drive from Beijing to Hong Kong can be done overnight, but otherwise, no racism. What a shame. I get the sense he just doesn't care any more. So the humans don't really do anything. They are just there to take up space and time. But when Michael Bay is happy we get "Pain & Gain", the worst movie of 2013. An unhappy Michael Bay means finally, for the first time in this franchise, the humans can SHUT UP long enough for the robots, the whole point of Transformers, to have their movie.
|See what happens when the humans shut up? THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE WANT!!|
There are things to this plot I liked. Stanley Tucci's character winds up being surprisingly awesome for what you'd think would be a one-tone joke of a villain, he clearly should have been the star in the first place, considering the disinterest this movie shows towards Marky Mark's family. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) in this film seems more angry and desperate than he's ever been before. His back is to the wall, he's been betrayed, there's actual emotion and conflict to him now***. This character has always been a kind mentor figure for humanity, trying to protect us from Megatron's repetitive attempts to conquer the universe with yet another Transformer McGuffin that has been left on our planet, and now he's the furious leader of a band of remnants with nothing to lose. That would make a great movie. But let's ignore that, Marky Mark needs to argue about his daughter's virginity with her boyfriend. Shit.
|Optimus Prime would never be weird about his daughter dating.|
But Bay's cinematography seems bored, he's out of tricks. He resorts to constant low dutch angles to shake things up, but his camera seems lethargic. His previous movies had just constant movement, even when it made no sense to the scene. He's still spinning around like a child unable to sit quietly at the table, but it's such a standardized spinning. He's usually a very creative visual director, even when he uses that creativity terribly, but now he has exactly one trick and uses it nearly every scene. Or he just stuffs a GoPro camera on the side of the vehicle and cuts over to it. This visual tameness can only be a positive, as his usual ADD makes for unwatchable trash. Now it is semi-watchable trash.
But Michael Bay is again, so out of touch with his movie he only shoves the camera between the lead actress' legs one time, and never even bothered getting a close-up of her ass. Bay cannot quite muster up his same military fetish with the People's Liberation Army as he could with the US Army, so China stays out of the cybernetic clashes inside its major cities. There are supermodels around every corner, but is he really leering with the same perverted abandon as before? But again, Michael Bay at half his normal energy is more than enough to entertain an audience. "Transformers 4" is a better directed movie than the other Transformers films, if only because its creative designer is out to lunch and is going through the motions.
Of course, ultimately it all boils down to a huge explosive endless finale in a city that will be wrecked by gigantic robots and space ships. This is how all it ends up, every time. I have to say the "Age of Extinction" battle is probably less complex and lovingly made than the war for Chicago that ended "Transformers: Dark of the Moon", but it is at least as long. And with less complications, it makes far more sense. Some things have improved, but the finales have not been restrained. "Transformers: Age of Extinction" concludes with just about an hour of gears flying left and right and hunks of metal slamming into each other in mindless nonsense. Which for some of you, will sound fantastic. For me, it sounds exhausting. Unfortunately the editor never allows a single fight to happen without interruption. There is this insistent demand that we must cut away mid-battle to Marky Mark, as if anybody cares what he is doing at this point. Previously we would miss whole battles to visit Sam Witwicky, is visiting Cade Yeager an improvement? No. The battle goes on for too long, leaving you completely exhausted to the point that you forget which bundle of CG machinery is supposed to be heroic and which is evil. Or even what you are watching, who you are, and what any of this silliness on the screen is supposed to represent.
However, there are dinobots. That's a plus.
To conclude, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is a film made by a terribly repressed filmmaker who is being limited in every direction. He has to film in a foreign country to sell more tickets, he can't make the movie he wants, he doesn't care about the franchise any more. And it's such a marked improvement. But we're still so far from what a truly great Transformers live action film could be. The solution is simple: no humans. Just don't have them. We don't need them, we don't like them. I deal with humans every day, and there's nothing special about them. They're nasty, they're ugly, and they hate me. This is why I go to the movies. to escape humans. So embrace your inner child and make a film about Transformers. That isn't Michael Bay's fantasy, it never will be, that's why he's wrong for this franchise and always will be wrong. Get another directer, one who can show as much passion for Optimus Prime fighting Megatron as Michael Bay shows towards helicopters at sunset. We're closer now to that proper film than we're ever been, but still such a distance to go. "Age of Extinction" still sucks, but it won't be the worst movie of 2014. That's a job for the live action reboot of "Ninja Turtles".
* In case you were expected a tour de acting talent from the generic blond, don't worry, you won't get any. This young lady is Nicola Peltz, an alumni of the legendarily awful "The Last Airbender", a movie that years later still puts a smile on my face about how wonderfully bad it was.
** Incredibly, this minor role and three others were actually cast through a Chinese reality show. Four lucky contestants won their chance to be on camera in a bloated blockbuster for an average of ten seconds each. You might be wondering if maybe Paramount is perhaps trying to win favor with the Chinese public. In actuality, there is no such thing. They are absolutely, not perhaps, betting the future of this franchise on the Chinese, and will do anything they can to sell this movie to them. Thus why Li Bingbing has a larger role than Megatron.
*** Ignore for a moment that the movie version of Optimus Prime has already been a psychopath with no qualms about killing anything that got in his way. He's actually pretty terrifying, considering his cartoon hero roots. In the third movie, after having his life saved by Megatron of all people, Optimus repays his rival by ripping out Megatron's robot spinal cord, "Mortal Kombat"-style. Then when the main villain, Sentinel Prime has surrendered, Optimus BLOWS HIS CIRCUIT BRAINS OUT without mercy. The poor droid was begging for mercy! What the fuck?? I wasn't alive in the Eighties, I never saw the original cartoon, but was this typical of Saturday mornings for the hero to brutally murder robots left and right? It is bad enough these movies make for abominable filmmaking, but this is our hero, ladies and gentlemen: curbstomping the helpless and murdering foes who were attempting reconciliation.
(FINAL NOTE: Can we please bring Starscream back to life? He is the only interesting Transformer in the entire franchise and I've been constantly disappointed by his treatment in these movies. In the first film he was forgotten mid-way through the battle, in the second he was forgotten again, in the third Sam Witwicky of all people killed him. The way he died was embarrassing and stupid. I've been waiting for him to have a great moment for four movies now. So far, no cigars. Not even a cigarillo.)