(dir. Michael Bay)
“You gotta have faith, Prime. Maybe not in who we are, but who we can be.”
There are things we come to expect from a Michael Bay film: the low-angle 360 degree shot, a plethora of American flags, sunsets, and infinite explosions. These films are as much style as they are brand and despite some minor repackaging, the latest adventure of the robots in disguise delivers exactly what’s been marketed. If the previous Transformers movies haven’t been to your liking then this latest installment will do nothing to sway your opinion, but fans of the franchise will be pleased as Bay delivers his most explosive film yet. Transformers: Age of Extinction is absurd, fun, and expands the mythology of the series.
Four years have passed since the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the U.S. government has turned against the Autobots that once protected them, hunting them and Decepticons alike for their own nefarious purposes. The story follows Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling inventor trying to support his 17-year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Cade purchases a beat-up truck that happens to be a damaged and battle-weary Optimus Prime. CIA Agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) leads a strike team called “Cemetery Wind” to hunt down the Yeagers and Optimus. The Yeagers and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) are forced to go on the run with Optimus and a rag-tag group of disillusioned Autobots. Unbeknownst to them, Attinger has teamed up with a bounty-hunter Transformer named Lockdown and scientist Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) in an effort to build man-made Transformers.
The human protagonists once again exist to serve as the audiences surrogates. They are clearly characters built for convenience to the plot, but Wahlberg, Peltz and Reynor are all compelling enough and hit the necessary emotional beats. Stanley Tucci is fully committed to the absurdity of his character and stands out as always. But the true stars of these films are of course the Transformers. There’s simply nothing like hearing Peter Cullen’s deep resonant voice saying lines that sound like they’re coming from one of those talking action figures where you press the button to get 10 different sound clips. The Transformers once again all have very distinct personalities and Bay and the effects team has gone even further in humanizing their features (Lockdown’s facial features are eerie in their human likeness.) The odd design choices may raise a few questions (why is Hound over-weight? What is the cloth-like metal on Crosshairs? Why does Drift look like a Japanese samurai?) but at least they are differentiated enough from their cartoon iterations to tell them apart. ILM once again does a marvelous job with the effects and the Dino-bots that emerge near the later hour of the film are imaginatively designed.
The story (by returning scribe Ehren Kruger) is enjoyable, with a few surprising plot twists. Still, the story is simply the plate on which the main course of special effects and expert choreography is served. Though the script far outshines the messy plot structure of Revenge of the Fallen, it doesn’t have the same earnest charm of the first film or the sense of an epic culmination as Dark of the Moon. Much of the sophomoric humor that ate up runtime in the previous films is gone. There are still a few points the film drags in its three hour runtime but there are so many big action set pieces that in the scheme of things the slow points matter very little. The film never forgets its roots, that it’s in part meant to sell toys (action figures to kids and cars to adults—ridiculously wealthy adults that is). The film is ultimately an entertaining ride, a sometimes messy barrage of ideas and explosive effects, and a film only Michael Bay could make.
As a bit of a side-note, there’s been much made about Bay’s critically maligned franchise. Slashfilm’s David Chen referred to it as “distillation of anti-cinema." Other detractors of both the professional and message board variety have made similar claims about the downfall of American cinema due to the commercialization of the industry and the taste of moviegoers in the advent of more and more big-budget sequels and reboots over the past few years. It speaks to a problem within film criticism—the idea that only certain types of films can be enjoyed and that a moviegoers’ tastes in film as a whole can be judged by this. We can refuse to take part in a snobbish film culture, while still recognizing a changing and sometimes problematic industry. We can enjoy and find merit in many films regardless of their trappings, just as we can dislike many types of films. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with disliking a film, even hating a film. Having strong opinions on what we watch is always a good thing, it generates conversation. But judging individuals’ intelligence by what they enjoy, crying wolf on the doomsday of the industry, and writing reviews on unseen films isn’t film criticism. It is blindness and ill-suited posturing, considering many of the sites making these claims make their revenue from bait-click articles focused on commercial films. The simple truth is sometimes people want to watch the latest Oscar-bait or critically acclaimed independent film and sometimes people want to watch alien robots with swords ride robotic dinosaurs. That’s ok. We can watch all things both silly and smart, and be smarter for it.