Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Transformers: Age of Extinction is bad. Really fucking bad. And to be honest, I knew it was gonna be bad. The first two Transformers films were tolerable, if uninspired, action films, but by the third film, Dark of the Moon, I had completely lost patience with the series. So why did I go and see the fourth film? To be honest, it was because I hoped it would be bad. Bad movies may be a pain to sit through, but they are so much fun to vent about, which you can't really do with a film that's just okay. However, going to see a bad movie in theaters means paying money to see it, which means supporting the people who made it and rewarding them for their lack of effort. I was itching to see this movie, go home, and then write a big fuckin' rant about how much it fuckin' sucked, but at the same time, I don't want there to be a Transformers 5. So I dug up the tactics of a teenager trying to sneak into an R-rated movie and reapplied them to keep my money from going to supporting douchebag cinema -- I bought a ticket to How to Train Your Dragon 2, which was on at the same time as this, and then I went and saw this piece of shit instead.

Now, again, writing this review and just letting loose was fun. But as I was driving home, the only thing I could ask myself was whether it was all worth it. Transformers: Age of Extinction is nothing but a cacophony of noise with no rhyme or reason to it, a film that couldn't even stir my sleeping inner child enough to get me to enjoy it as a silly popcorn blockbuster.

Let's start with plot, because this film sure as hell didn't. A Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown has come to Earth to capture Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, because... reasons, I suppose. (The film says he's wanted in the galaxy, but we're never told precisely what he did.) The US government is eager to assist Lockdown, as they're already working to hunt down the remaining Transformers, both Autobots and Decepticons, after the last movie left Chicago in ruins (even though it seems to be just fine a mere five years later, with only a handwave about how it was rebuilt) and the government lost its faith in the Autobots. Meanwhile, a corporation called KSI is trying to reverse-engineer the Transformers' technology using destroyed specimens as test subjects, with the intent of creating their own Transformers for military use that will be under full human control, a plan that of course goes horribly wrong and winds up resurrecting Megatron, the big bad evil Decepticon. Oh, and in the middle of it all is Cade Yeager, a struggling inventor in Texas with a gorgeous teenage daughter, a dead wife, and a failing business, and he's our main human character because Mark Wahlberg is giving an oh-so-earnest performance. Oh, and apparently the Transformers caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, which means we get dino-Transformers that aren't nearly as cool as they sound, and show up only for ten minutes at the end to sell some toys. Oh, and we get some of the most shameless product placement I've seen in a long time, with this film going out of its way to shill GM cars, Bud Light, Victoria's Secret, and... uh, the People's Republic of China. (More on that last one later.)

None of it makes any sense, with characterizations and motivations on the part of everyone changing at the drop of a hat and the plot containing holes big enough to send that giant-ass spaceship from the trailers sailing straight through. Moments that were meant to be dramatic and serious!!! had me laughing due to the fact that I couldn't care a rat's ass about the people involved in them. While the robot voice actors (including Ken Watanabe and longtime Optimus voice Frank Cullen) were good, Wahlberg was the only person in the human cast who seemed to be trying, and to his credit, he was a welcome replacement for Shia LaBeouf. Most of the supporting cast, meanwhile, was phoning it in. Wahlberg's onscreen daughter Nicola Peltz was the worst of the bunch, giving a languid performance that made Megan Fox in the first two films look like Jennifer Lawrence, and playing an annoying damsel whose only purpose was to a) look sexy in Daisy Dukes, and b) wind up in scary situations from which she either runs screaming or cowers in fear.

But you knew all this already. It's a damn Transformers movie. Good writing, solid plots, and interesting human characters have never been these films' strong suits. You go to see a Michael Bay movie for some good old-fashioned Bay-splosions. So how does it fare on that front? Not so well, I'm afraid. As someone who believes that Michael Bay can make legitimately great movies, largely because he's seen Michael Bay make legitimately great movies (see: Pain & Gain, Bad Boys II), it's always been clear to me that the Transformers films are very much not passion projects for him. His usual flair and stylistic touches are rarely on full display, and I'd be hard-pressed to name a single memorable action scene from any of the three films that came before if not for the sheer ridiculous of some of them. While shooting in 3D (note: I saw this in 2D) has pretty much forced him not to slack off like he did with the first two films, shooting the action with at least a semblance of coherence, it doesn't stop the fact that this Bay was clearly on autopilot here, with none of the action scenes standing out and all of them being just noise for the sake of noise. Not only did the lack of real stakes in any of them (see: plot, characters) keep me from caring, but the action itself was just bland. Bay is clearly just throwing crap at the wall -- giant robots, giant spaceships, even mecha-dinosaurs that really should've been a lot more awesome than they are -- and seeing what sticks, and since he doesn't take the time to really build upon any of it, it all sticks about as well as a lump of wet sand. There are occasional flashes where this film's action and effects could've been great, such as the interior of Lockdown's spaceship or the new designs of the Transformers, and on a purely technical level, they are a gorgeous showcase for the CGI wizards at Industrial Light & Magic. But that's all they do, look pretty without packing any substance even when it comes to great, memorable action scenes.

Lastly, we come to the elephant in the room. The big, red, Chinese elephant. But first, some background. The last three Transformers films weren't just advertisements for Hasbro toys, but also for the United States armed forces, who worked closely with Michael Bay throughout the production of each film and were featured heavily in the action scenes, often fighting alongside the Autobots in their war against the Decepticons and showing off high-tech DARPA projects like naval railguns. As a result, the films had a very gung-ho, pro-military, "America fuck yeah!" feel to them, often to the point of becoming a major focus of criticism and mockery but also winning the films a huge fanbase among red-blooded Middle Americans. I often thought the films' tone could get ridiculous, but it never stood in the way of my enjoyment, especially when the films had so many other, bigger problems. With the fourth film, however, the US military is no longer involved with production... and the Chinese government is. The producers of this film clearly wanted this film to be a hit in China, a huge and rapidly-growing market for American films, and so they cast Chinese actress Bingbing Li as the head of a KSI factory in Guangzhou, filmed several scenes in China, and set the climatic battle in Hong Kong.

Watching it all, I got the impression that my reaction to it was probably what it must have felt like to be an Brit or a German watching the last three films, because this film is as unrelenting in its pro-China message as those films were in their rah-rah, pro-America flag-waving. When the fighting reaches Hong Kong, we cut immediately to Beijing, where a government bureaucrat is keen to tell us that the central government is there to help. A rather... interestingly-timed message, given the fact that Hong Kong right now would agree to disagree. And while the American CIA and military-industrial complex characters are all either villains or otherwise make the problem worse, their Chinese counterparts are all hyper-competent, intelligent, and badass on top of it. It honestly made me reconsider my dismissal of the first three films' messages as harmless, as now, I've seen what happens when the same messages are tweaked to glamorize an authoritarian state like the People's Republic of China.

Score: 1 out of 5

The story sucks, the characters suck, the action is forgettable, and as the cherry on top, it all comes replete with questionable propaganda. I wish I could call it so bad it's good, but it doesn't even rise to that level. I actually miss the Michael Bay who made cheesy fun times like Armageddon instead of... this.

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