Monday, June 30, 2014

Michael Bay’s Latest Popcorn Blockbuster Is Everything One Expects . . . Except That It’s Not Terrible! Transformers: Age Of Extinction!

The Good: Decent new characters, Good special effects, Decent continuity and plot concept
The Bad: Formulaic plot, Ridiculous plot/character/directing conceits.
The Basics: More a predictable and unambitious continuation of the Transformers franchise, Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a mildly creative popcorn flick that undermines itself by playing to the worst conceits of the existing franchise.

Were it not for my place as a film reviewer, I never would have watched Transformers, much less all of the films in the recent cinematic empire that has made an obscene amount of cash in remarkably few years. Over the course of the past seven years, Michael Bay’s live-action, CG-effects loaded Transformers franchise has become one of the highest grossing cinematic franchises of all time and a staple of Summer Blockbuster Season. Regardless of my antipathy toward the franchise, Michael Bay’s latest endeavor into the Transformers Saga suffers more from an unimaginative script and a pathetic dependence on the more lascivious elements of the popcorn film than being actually, genuinely terrible.

In fact, outside the way Michael Bay uses the camera to virtually molest yet another female model – in this case one who is playing a minor child – and lamely recreates the familiar shots of convoys of hot, trendy cars that stick out wherever they go. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is actually the best of the franchise (so far), but the dependence on playing toward the lowest common denominator in terms of humor and style (are the only people who would appreciate a Transformers film really those who find a “whoo hoo girl” to be the ideal?!) undermine the quality elements that Transformers: Age Of Extinction possesses. And Transformers: Age Of Extinction actually has some worthwhile elements, most notably in the cast – which replaces Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, and Tyrese with higher caliber actors like Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, Titus Welliver, and Mark Wahlbrg (replacing Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley with Nicola Peltz and Sophia Myles is more an even swap-out than an upgrade of any sort) – and the overall plot concept that put it above the prior incarnations of Transformers.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction does what very few popcorn movies do: it is steeped in the consequences of the prior film(s) in a way that makes the continuation/reboot of the franchise surprisingly compelling. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a direct sequel to Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (reviewed here!) and the wholesale destruction in Chicago and the robotic carnage that happened as a result forces a complete redirection of the franchise. The first half of Transformers: Age Of Extinction is spent introducing new characters and wrestling with the problems left over from Transformers: Dark Of The Moon before the second half progresses the story with how irresponsible humans have led to an unholy alliance and a military/industrial complex that has made a bad decision which “the market” pushes into action before adequate testing. While Transformers: Age Of Extinction predictably lacks compelling character development on the front of the virtual characters, the human characters in the film are more than catch phrase-spewing tools; they have motivations that are more well-rounded and realistic than in the prior movies.

In ancient times, a massive space ship floats over Earth and releases technology that obliterates the dinosaurs. Then, five years after the attack on Chicago (which was the subject of the climax of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon), an archaeology team discovers wreckage of an ancient Dinobot (dinosaur Transformer). In Texas, Cade Yeager and his lackey employee, Lucas, go on a salvage mission where they find wreckage from a failed operation in New Mexico in the middle of a defunct movie theater they are considering purchasing (but cannot possibly afford). Yeager’s daughter, Tessa, is embarrassed by her father as the family struggles to afford her imminent college bills (not to mention the mortgage). But in the wake of a U.S. government team flushing out and destroying the Autobot medic, Ratchet, the head of the task force hunting down Transformers in the U.S., the CIA’s special task force director Attinger, steps up his hunt for Optimus Prime.

Optimus Prime, unsurprisingly, is the truck Cade has stashed at Yeager Robotics. Attinger is working with a Transformer bounty hunter who is affiliated with neither the Autobots or the (now completely eliminated) Decepticons and after a disastrous raid on Yeager Robotics, Cade and his family (and Tessa’s boyfriend) are rescued by Optimus Prime. The Yeagers work with Optimus to find what has happened to the remaining Autobots on Earth and their search takes them to KSI, where Joshua Joyce is using the metal from which the Transformers are constructed and the frame of the deceased Megatron to build a whole new race of Transformers. Joyce’s Galvatron manages to hold Optimus Prime in check long enough for Attinger’s Lockdown to enter the fray. But when Lockdown abducts Tessa along with Optimus Prime (fulfilling the deal he had with Attinger), Cade and Tessa’s boyfriend – along with the remaining Autobots – infiltrate Lockdown’s ship on a rescue mission to try to save her and stop the Autobots from ending up as slaves for their original creators.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction is truly an example of “better ingredients, better product” in a lot of ways. For sure, the prior incarnations of Transformers featured acting and vocal talents from some respectable individuals – like John Turturro, Leonard Nimoy, Jon and John Malkovich – but the way Wahlberg, Grammer and Tucci are used in Transformers: Age Of Extinction illustrates a far better use of acting talent than the prior films.

For a film that deals with consequences of the prior movies, there is a strange disconnect between reason and the reality of the Transformers universe in Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Joyce is greedy and motivated by a desire to push ahead human technology using technology scrapped from downed Transformers. Oddly, Joyce is resource poor in Transformers: Age Of Extinction, which makes no reasonable sense. Devastator’s “corpse” alone should have given Joyce enough “Transformium” to build his new Transformers without ever having to hunt Cybertronian fugitives left on Earth.

The Transformers franchise is a film franchise built on the popularity of a toy line intended for boys from the early 1980s and the movies are generally considered “guy movies.” Unlike dramas that focus on deep emotions or romantic movies geared more toward women, “guy movies” tend to trade almost solely on spectacle. The men are manly (Wahlberg certainly fits the bill in Transformers: Age Of Extinction) and the ones who are not traditionally hot are traditionally powerful, which Grammer’s Attinger and Tucci’s Joyce easily embody. But the weakness of the “guy movie” paradigm continues in Transformers: Age Of Extinction with the role of Tessa Yeager.

Tessa is a generic damsel in distress and is something of a hot, idiotic “whoo hoo girl” who fills the requisite T&A component of the Transformers film. This is somewhat creepily executed in Transformers: Age Of Extinction because she is a minor, not particularly talented or smart in any useful way and spends her time in the film with older men, one of whom is her father. Tessa’s relationship with Shane Dyson is a generic plot point: Peltz (Tessa) and Reynor (Dyson) have no on-screen chemistry and their relationship is not presented with any sort or realistic passion or plot-based basis for a relationship. Attinger and Joyce have more on-screen chemistry and character-based reasons for their relationship than the film’s supposed romantic couple.

Before Transformers: Age Of Extinction degenerates into yet another “Optimus Prime and his CG-robots must stop Megatron” film, Michael Bay’s latest entry into the Transformers mythos is intriguing enough to be entertaining and is hardly as misogynistic or slapstick as the prior three films. The result is a popcorn film that is more predictable than disappointing and is hardly as frustrating to admit one has watched than the prior movies in the franchise.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Expendables 3
Guardians Of The Galaxy
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Behaving Badly
Some Velvet Morning
Happy Christmas
22 Jump Street
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Edge Of Tomorrow
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Echo Dr.
The Double
Bad Neighbors
Making The Rules


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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