Transformers 4 looks to be on-track to be the first movie of 2014 to open with a $100 million weekend, and-thusly-had to have a Killing Time presence and coverage. I was fortunate enough that my good friend Peter, The Reasonable Critic, volunteered to do KT’s first-ever guest review, so I will get out of the way and let him tell you of the fourth outing of Cybertron’s best. ~Dave
Long ago I made a vow to only write positive reviews of movies I like, and yesterday, sure that Transformers 4 would be even worse than the first three, I decided to violate that directive as a favor to Dave. He’s taken far too many for the team this summer. It was the least I could do to watch this for him, and write up a review. But Dave is going to be sorry he asked me, because I am about to throw his blog into utter disrepute. I liked Transformers: Age of Extinction.
It’s the first Michael Bay film I have ever enjoyed, and no, that does not mean it’s a good movie. If anything, it’s even more mindless and bloated than the first three, which continue to give me a pang, especially after the transcendent LEGO Movie proved that Hollywood could take a beloved playing from our collective childhood and celebrate it.
I enjoyed this new film because Michael Bay is starting to get it. He doesn’t get it yet—he is still trying to force Transformers into something it is not—but he must understand the problems of the first three installments, because this time around the ride is actually fun. The first three films made so much money that there was no reason for him to deviate from business as usual. As such, I have to believe that Bay is trying—hard—to find his inner Transformer muse.
People say he’s an incompetent director, but he’s never been that. He knows how to grapple with the complicated modern technology of summer tentpoles, and therefore knows a thousandfold more about the art of film than this humble critic ever will. But in all his work, and especially his three Transformer movies of the past, Bay doesn’t just give you lots of bang for your buck—he slams you into submission. When you watch one of those movies, way too much action, noise, and debris is hurled at you, and that is precisely the point. Bad movies, in the traditional sense, are made by accident, but Bay seems to aim for the exact peculiar brand of sensory overload he never fails to achieve. His filmmaking style can be summed up by the way his characters are always either exchanging wisecracks in life-or-death situations, or moving in slow motion to the sound of melodramatic music—in life-or-death situations. The films leapfrog between tongue-in-cheek chaos and moments that are supposed to be filled with gravitas, but are not. There is literally nothing in-between. It’s joyless and it’s numbing, and it leaves you in a fog.And so it was that I embarked upon Age of Extinction with a heavy heart. And during the first half-hour or so, I anticipated the longest two hours and forty-five minutes of my life. We are quickly introduced to Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a frustrated, eccentric, blue-collar,Texas inventor (apparently those exist) and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Tessa. The family drama is leaden, and the lines feel like they’re simply being recited. Yeager discovers an old, broken-down truck, which of course turns out to be Optimus Prime.When Prime reawakens, the voice of the great Peter Cullen provides a welcome respite from the rest of the film. After the events of the last Transformers outing, the Decepticons are seemingly vanquished and the Autobots are being hunted by a psychopathic CIA director, played by Kelsey Grammer. He is bent on eradicating all Transformers, be they Autobots or Decepticons, in order to protect our planet for “God and country.” Oddly, Grammer gives a committed and malevolent performance, and provides another respite.
When the Yeager home is invaded by government goons, and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane—who has not even been mentioned up until that point—suddenly arrives on the scene to save the day, the film descends into a very bad place. A goofy, comic-relief character dies, and Bay’s camera lingers on the charred corpse. Nothing good, I said to myself, can come of this. But as Optimus Prime regroups with his loyal surviving followers, and Yeager helps them infiltrate the headquarters of a government contractor bent on creating man-made Transformers, something strange starts to happen. At least, it happened to me. I realized I was enjoying myself more and more. I ceased trying to overlook the ridiculousness, and started going with it. It was the brief reference to The Big Lebowski that tipped the balance.The plot of Transformers 4 moves between two villainous schemes. In one, a Transformer bounty hunter works with the CIA to defeat the Autobots and capture Optimus Prime. In the other, a race of man-made Transformers goes awry, led by a resurrected Megatron (called Galvatron in a nod to the 1986 animated feature). Yet the two conflicts are connected at many points along the way and the plot is almost coherent, a franchise milestone.
I was never bored. Transformers 4 is playful and fun, and that makes it entirely different from the first three, even if so much is the same. This much chaos and destruction has never been packed into a single movie before, but the movie plugs along with maniacal joy and miraculously doesn’t overstay its welcome, even though it’s close to three hours long.
To what can we credit this change in tone? It doesn’t hurt that the Transformers themselves feel a lot more central. They still aren’t nearly central enough, but the shift matters. If anyone cares to remember, Transformers 2 contains an infamous scene in which the mother of Shia LeBeouf’s character accidentally ingests pot brownies and embarrasses him on his first day of collage. This tangential sequence lasts for five long minutes. It should never have been ina Transformers movie at all, but the movie focuses on LeBeouf’s character, so it is. The problem is not LeBeouf per se. The problem is that any human is going to seem boring when there are also Transformers in the movie. The Transformers are right there next to Shia LeBeouf, but Bay is sticking to the story of Shia LeBeouf. Instead of focusing on Optimus Prime, the Aslan of Hasbro, the films ask you to care about the formulaic problems of some boring guy.
What the audience wants is to see Transformers, Transformers, Transformers. And not just any Transformers. When we were kids we wouldn’t have loved these robots if we hadn’t known exactly who they were. We all looked up to Optimus Prime like he was a sensei, but my personal favorite character was a villain, the traitorous Starscream, the one who was always trying to wrest power away from Megatron. I also found Shockwave fascinating, and it occurs to me that both Megatron and Shockwave turned into guns. Plastic ones, but still, what a different age. When the animated Transformers movie came out in 1986, I thought it was the best movie ever made. It was dark and violent and coooooool, and we loved it because of the characters. The way that Starscream finally got what was coming to him, for example. Orson Welles was the voice of Unicron, the planet-eating robot, and those of us who were kids back then are the only ones who will always consider it a fitting end to his career. But what really made an impression was the death of Optimus Prime. Optimus Prime, the badass, the ultimate father figure, gone forever. Our collective minds were blown. Our parents all hated Transformers: The Movie with a passion, but I have yet to encounter a male from my generation who doesn’t continue to hold it in high esteem.The focus in Age of Extinction is still on the human beings, but the Transformers register as characters a whole lot more. Not nearly enough, but enough to change the game. The special effects are the one thing I love about the first three films, and this time more than ever we get a sense of alien machinery as a form of life. The faces of the Transformers are highly expressive, and the characters flow from one form to another like elegant, three-dimensional puzzles.
Bay’s Transformer robots are trippy and weird. A lot of people say they look ugly and over-designed, and I don’t get it. To me, the insane detail is fascinating. The trippiest creation in Age of Extinction is Hound, a fat green Transformer voiced by John Goodman, sporting a beard of coiled wires and perpetually chomping a cigar between his teeth. Most important is Optimus Prime, who finally looms as large as he deserves. He remains more a figure than a character, but he exudes pathos and nobility, and avenges his fallen comrades. When he’s captured towards the middle of the film, we spend a long time on a prison spaceship, a dark forest of machinery pulsing with life. This break from an earthly environment gives the film a shot in the arm, but we care because Optimus Prime is in danger. Tessa (that would be Mark Wahlberg’s daughter) is in danger, too, and more time is spent on rescuing her. This is why I say that Bay still doesn’t get it. But damned if he isn’t closer.And what of those Dinobots from the advertisements? They only come into play in the final half-hour, and to be honest they aren’t actual characters. They’re only there to look cool and breathe some fire, but they look really cool. At the end of the movie we’re left with a sense that the alien creators of the Transformers will be at the center of the next installment, and while the glimpse we’re given doesn’t make them look like Quintessons, hope springs eternal.
I should take a moment to address the subject of the humans. What are their hackneyed personal problems even doing in this movie? I don’t know, but I will say that John Turtorro’s bizarre performance from the original Transformer trilogy has no analogue. A different esteemed character actor, Stanley Tucci, is slumming this time around, but he’s really fun to watch, even when his character, a supercilious defense contractor, devolves into a stock buffoon.So. This is hardly the Transformer movie that children of the 80’s want. This is the loudest, most pointless, most mayhem-filled movie I have ever seen. It’s almost three hours long, and feels like a kid telling a story, who keeps saying, “And then… and then… and then…” But, thankfully, it captures the enthusiasm of that same kid. I think that Bay finally gets that these toys are part of the province of the shared imagination of millions. He still doesn’t quite know what to do with that information. But if this had been the first Transformer movie instead of the fourth, I would have been filled with a measure of hope for the future. At this point, I can only take solace in the fact that I was finally entertained by one.
I left the theater in a terrific mood, and it’s possible you will too, if you enter with the right mindset. And if you find this review misguided, blame me, not Dave.