Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I've always hated Michael Bay's Transformers franchise.  My very first written film review was seven years ago when I saw the original "Transformers" in high school.  I so was utterly annoyed by it - more than any other film I've seen before (and probably since) that I had to go and rant about it in a form more substantial than merely shouting at friends and family.  It was rage and disappointment that needed to be transmitted not in temporary sound, but in a physical document on my high school student paper that would last for all time.  Or well, a week because everybody threw their paper in the trash when they were done reading, but you get the idea.  "Transformers" is still one of the worst movies I have ever seen.  The camera work was hideous and jumpy, the robot designs were nasty and incomprehensible, the film was ugly and filled with hateful comic reliefs and pandering attempts at humor.  But worst of all, there weren't any robots in it.  Transformers 1" had maybe a few brief flashes of robots, but it was more interested in dogs pissing, and uncomfortable masturbation conversations, and Megan Fox's ass.

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!"
Cade lives with his daughter, some supermodel-looking actress as disposable and pointless as beautiful women in Michael Bay movies come*.  But just in case you think Bay is a sexist pig, don't worry.  The daughter's boyfriend is an equally pointless generically handsome prop with no purpose or character agency of any kind.  I was certain he was Liam Hemsworth until the end credits revealed he was in fact... some other dude.  All he really does is argue with Cade in standard Hollywood jealousy matches about the purity of daughters.    Who cares?  In fact, who cares at all about these humans?  They're dull and stink of festering flesh, let's move on.  All I want a nice idiotic guilty pleasure of a movie with robots fighting robots.

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!!
Is that movie perfect?  No.  It never will be with the Bayformers.  But, to look at things with a positive eye, "Trans4mers" does a better job than the older films.  Much of the movie becomes a battle of humans vs. Transformers, where the robots are more sympathetic than we are.  The key bad guys are Kelsey Grammar as Harold Attiger, a deep-voiced mysterious veteran spook at the CIA who leads a mission to wipe out all aliens on Earth, and Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs-esque industrialist who has mastered the technology of building his own human-brand of Transformers.  The Autobots are being hunted down by an alliance of top-secret government thugs and a Transformer bounty hunter, Lockdown, who is here on Earth to capture Optimus Prime.  Meanwhile, Megatron, who died very anti-climatically and stupidly during the course of "Transformers 3", might just be on his way to a comeback.

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.
Along the way, it is a still a Michael Bay movie, through and through, but with some of his usual energy missing.  He might be pandering to the Chinese market instead of the American, but he's still going to have a major actress, in this case Li Bingbing, chug some Chinese brand water.  The label, of course, is facing the camera, so everybody knows what bottle to buy.  (Sadly this blatant product placement is unintentionally the funniest scene of the movie.)  The sun is ever circling around the Earth at a freakish low angle, basking the world in a sweaty eternal twilight.

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.)


  1. I was sitting here thinking that you abandoned us without even putting up a Abandon Ship post.

    But yeah, this movie was WAAAAY better then the other Bayformer movies. I can honestly say that I was able to shut my brain off and enjoyed was on screen.

    1. I would never just abandon ship without warning. It has been a truly terrible few weeks since I got back from E3, work has been nonstop. I did manage to go to the movies once between now and then, and frankly, nothing in June was worth writing about. 22 Jump Street and The Fault in Our Stars just weren't interesting, I didn't care at all about either of them. Trans4mers was a mess, but a fascinating one and nearly a guilty pleasure of mine.

      I think I just have to accept that the pace of things are going to be slow for awhile. I think I can only really promise less than ten posts a month now. However, July will be better, I'm sure, as I adjust to this pace and find more free time.

      And more positively, by next week I'll be ready to review Final Fantasy Type-0, so things are coming. But I have no idea at what speed. Or how much.

      Also, I previously stated, this blog will never be fully abandoned until the new Star Wars trilogy has been released. Reviews of those movies WILL come here, even if they are the only posts written in years.

    2. Sorry, didn't mean to make it sound so rude. You told us it would be a while before you got back and I totally understand. Hope it works out for you man, and remember you have dedicated readers willing to stand by your side.

    3. Same here. Your Blog posts keep me entertained. I've been following your stuff ever since I accidentally stumbled on your walkthroughs and found tales of the Q. Can't remember how but whatever. Reading your stuff always puts a smile on my face no matter how immature you write or how depressed I am. Even if I can't comment all the time when I read your stuff, I hope you know there are people who enjoy your stuff. Thank you for all the good times. and congrats on the E3. I have a feeling your life will get better eventually.

  2. Yay Bluehighwind lives again and I thought the necromancy circle didn't work.
    I mean what necromancy circle...... (hides the offering to Neil Gaiman).

    But its nice you at least found the latest transformers film tolerable. As a huge Transfan I have found these films mixed.
    But if your interested in a good transformer series with no humans Id recommend either the old beast wars cartoon ( which actually story wise has aged well) or the new Transformers More then Meets the Eye. Basically a group of ragtag misfit characters that no one has touched in decades that have been given character development in a simultaneously funny and dark as sin series. If you get a chance from your local library id say borrow the series.
    Glad to have you back
    Sword Of Primus

  3. Ah, I'm glad to hear you've not left us entirely, Commander Space Monkey. Ever since I read your FFVII guide, I've been hooked on your writing. Keep it up, you have dedicated readers, Blue!