Transformers: Age of Extinction (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

ageofextinction sqI knew I would probably hate this movie, but would I get the perverse joy I got from hating the first three?

 

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I have a long, troubled history with the Transformers franchise. That doesn’t include the toys, which I never played with, or the cartoon, which I never watched. My experience starts with the first Michael Bay movie, released in the great year of 2007. I saw it with my friends because at that point we pretty much saw everything that came out. They loved it. I hated it. I can see where they were coming from. I actually like Shia LaBeouf, and that first film has a sense of discovery in the scenes where the Transformers are introduced. It’s the only one where you can just barely feel the light touch of Steven Spielberg. Of course, whatever promise there is in that film is demolished by the sheer stupidity of the plot (humans want to keep Megatron frozen, so they take him to the desert?) the overstuffed cast of family members, soldiers, hackers, and secret service guys, not to mention the robots, and, most damning of all, the incredibly juvenile humor.

After that first film, I was committed to not seeing the second one, which means, of course, that I was there opening day. I was with my same friends who loved the first one. In fact, there’s a picture of us standing in front of the theater marquee, the two of them embracing with huge smiles on their faces while I stand to the side, arms crossed looking grumpy. That was taken as we were going in. Coming out, they were the ones looking grumpy, and I was the one smiling, albeit with the smug satisfaction of someone who had just been proven right. Now, there is no arguing that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a vile, repellent film. In most ways, it is easily the worst one. But I will argue a counterpoint. Defenders of this franchise will often fall back to the defense that they just like to see robots fighting, and I will argue that Revenge of the Fallen has the best robot fighting of the series. Specifically, the fight in the forest which ends in Optimus Prime’s death may be the best action scene of Bay’s career, aside from the first car chase in Bad Boys II. Besides, there’s something inherently fascinating about seeing a movie so offensive and clearly terrible get embraced by audiences in the way that film was. And so, the contradictions continued, making it impossible for me to write off this series of soul-destroying movies.

By the time the third film came out, I was resigned to the fact that my friends and I would be seeing it. The trailers and the early word of mouth actually had me mildly intrigued. Bay had come out and “apologized” for the last one, and it seemed that they were setting aside the comedy and racism for a more straightforward, streamlined action movie. And then it ended up being exactly the same. Endless scenes of Shia trying desperately to get a job, even though he has literally saved the world twice and gotten an award from the president. A huge cast of great actors engaging in goofy slapstick. More blatant objectification of a woman who is supposed to be smart and interesting. And again, some impressive action sequences to fool people into thinking they are having a good time. But the bright light at the end of the tunnel was that this was the last one. Bay had come out and said he was done, and so it gave my viewing a sense of closure, knowing I would never again see another Michael Bay-directed Transformers movie.

Cut to present day, and there is a new Michael Bay Transformers movie being released. I no longer live in the same city as the friends who pressured me into seeing the first three, and yet, I chose to continue this abusive relationship. I had no illusions going into this one. I never considered the possibility that Pain and Gain would be to Michael Bay what The Prestige was to Christopher Nolan, a small passion project that offered a break from his major franchise so that he could come back reinvigorated with new ideas. I never let the trailers fool me with their tantalizing glimpses of Dinobots. I knew I would probably hate this movie, but would I get the perverse joy I got from hating the first three?

I’ll say right off the bat that there are problems that are fixed in Transformers: Age of Extinction. The cast is smaller—whereas the original film had four separate groups of protagonists, this film is really focused on Mark Wahlberg and his core family unit. There are references to the Chicago battle from the last film (a la every post-Avengers Marvel movie) but none of the human characters from those films return. There are also fewer robots, and they are more distinct, which makes it ever-so-slightly easier to tell them apart in the action scenes.

This film also underplays the comedy. It’s still there, and it’s still lame, but it’s much less in your face. The whole movie is less aggressively stupid than the first three. It’s also less racist and sleazy, although the camera does have an inappropriate relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl, and there is a scene which implies all Asians are martial arts experts. The problems are still there, but they are much subtler, and in that way, this is the least bad of all of them.

The problem is, it’s also the most boring. It seems every blockbuster, including the ones I like, could stand to lose twenty minutes or so. It’s a clichéd complaint, but one that has to be made. You’d think the smaller cast and less complicated story would lead to a more streamlined movie. You’d be wrong. All of Bay’s films step well over the two-hour mark, but this one clocks in at 165 minutes. That’s ten minutes longer than the theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now. And there is no structure to it at all. It’s just a series of episodic scenes that just barely lead into each other. At one point, I was sure we were approaching the climax and looked at my watch to discover that it hadn’t even been an hour and a half.

Even worse, the action in this film is completely uninspired. Each of the earlier Transformers films had one or two genuinely impressive moments, which I guess were enough for the general public to overlook the remaining 98% of the films. But here, the action all feels like reworking of bits we’ve seen before. And there’s a lot of it. For all those people who hated the lack of monster fights in Godzilla, here you go. It’s non-stop in this film, and none of it has any impact. Those Dinobots that were the marketing campaign’s only selling point end up leaving no impression. During the interminable climax, I had no sense of what anyone was trying to accomplish, and I have no idea what caused the battle to end. The movie just stops, as if someone behind the scenes said “hold on, guys, we’re in danger of making this movie too long.”

I didn’t hate this movie, but in some ways that just makes me hate it more. I’ll take moral outrage over indifference any day of the week, and just because they made it less bad doesn’t mean they made it good. There were cheesy moments that had the audience laughing, but nothing could match the sheer hysteria of Shia LaBeouf dying and going to Transformer heaven. It’s fits the contradictory vibe of the others, in that in some ways it’s the best, and in some ways it’s the worst. It feels like no one gave a shit. Michael Bay is clearly tired of this, and while critics will never fully embrace him, I’ve admitted to getting some guilty pleasure out of a few of his other works. He needs to leave this franchise behind, and I frankly don’t care if someone else picks up the mantle or not. I have no desire to ever see another Transformers movie, but they’re making one, so I’m sure I’ll be there. | Sean Lass

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