More Than Meets the…BANG, ZAP, POW!
Put away the pitchforks, extinguish the torches, call off the rabid dogs. Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t the death knell of cinema my fellow critics are claiming it is. Like John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Michael Bay’s opus of noise, clanging metal and eye scorching visual effects is an easy target. Always has been, always will be. But after my first experience with a franchise pulled straight from my childhood, I ask the above question. It may be loud, crass, poorly written and full of brain bending nonsense but let’s be honest. What did anybody reasonably expect? Perhaps a result of dismally low expectations, Age of Extinction stinks pretty bad but it’s not the rancid pile of dog meat the world has made it out to be. Barely.
The story is a muddled mess but here goes. Inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), while scrounging around in an abandoned movie theater, discovers and salvages a dilapidated truck (don’t ask). Wahlberg, after doing some amateur mechanical work, fixes and discovers it’s none other than Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots from the Battle of Chicago. Meanwhile, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs style media mogul, has perfected the manipulation of “transformium”, the material our Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots are made of. With the help of CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and the evil mercenary Lockdown, the remaining Transformers become hunted for their raw material. But when a mysterious device known as The Seed becomes the target, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.
Off the bat, let’s make one thing clear. Transformers isn’t a movie. It’s a product, a cinematic pop song designed to be digested quickly and forgotten about moments later. It’s a commercial for Budweiser and Beats Audio, complete with horrible product placement and a Twitter feed of constant sensory distractions. We’re not supposed to enjoy the movie. We’re supposed to absorb it and everything it’s selling. Let it jack up our blood sugar and take us on a mind numbing ride and in that sense, it succeeds. Like a great Superbowl advert or a Katy Perry concert, Age of Extinction only cares about distracting you enough to pull in your dollar and provoke you to spend more. It’s a movie screen car salesman.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be this confusing and convoluted. The story of Transformers is a pot luck of pieces that never jells into anything tasty. Without going into a film school discussion on the concept of tone, the movie has no idea of what it wants to be. One minute it’s a family drama, the next it’s a buddy cop car chase flick and further on, it becomes science fiction, complete with spaceships and aliens. If movies are car trips, Transformers is like riding in the back seat of a crazed NYC cabbie dipping in and out of downtown traffic. Simply put, it doesn’t need to be this twisty turny or attempt to appeal to everybody at once.
All of the above is held together by mind numbing action. About half of Transformer’s massive three hour run time involves car chases, fighting robots and crumbling buildings and for the most part, the effects look great. In particular, the practical effects, a hallmark of old school Michael Bay, are very effective and add some realism to the CGI madness. There’s just too much of them. The final thirty minutes is a constant drone of bullets and fiery explosions that normal brains simply can’t handle. Thanks to a terrible script and non-existent character development, it’s impossible to care about the carnage, turning the wonderfully created computer whiz-bangs into nothing more than shiny distractions. The film is literally exhausting to sit through.
All that said, this isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen all year thanks to a surprisingly solid cast. With the exception of Nicola Peltz, who has little to do but scream and wear short shorts as Wahlberg’s daughter, they make the best out of a bad situation. Mark Wahlberg is completely serviceable (if unbelievable) as the broke inventor, Stanley Tucci is over the top but entertaining and Jack Reynor surprises as Shane, the love interest of doctor Cage’s daughter. The cast is let down by cliché ridden script, but at least none of them mail it in. There are also a few well constructed and paced action set pieces, including a great bit where cars, trucks and tanker ships fall from the heavens to crush our “who cares” heroes.
The saddest bit, however, are the robots themselves. Born from the nostalgic ridden 80’s cartoon, these CGI’ed monsters are caricatures of better, more interesting characters. While much of the problem lies in the stale archetypes, the filmmakers tried to make them too human. With faces made of metal, the Transformers have a thousand flexing plates to express emotion but without the elasticity of skin, they look creepy and strange. I’d site specific examples, but I have no idea who was named what or what their role was in the story. Not even a Wikipedia search helped. Giant, hulking and generic, the characters you’re supposed to root for and care about are as distinctive as a highway McDonalds. It saddens my inner child to see the once awesome Optimus Prime reduced to a “rally the troops” ball of corn.
But, in the end, what did anybody really expect? A hulking monstrosity of a movie franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t about being subtle, engaging or even entertaining. It’s about throwing gallons of spine melting action in your face, tying it together with a threadbare story and hoping you walk away tired and thirsty for a cold Bud Light. Thanks to a cast that cared and some very impressive visual hootenanny, it’s not the worst movie of the year but given the spread of above average action flicks released this summer, it’s easily worth avoiding at all costs. Unless you enjoy screaming through Manhattan traffic in a beat up cab while the back seat TV plays a commercial for Subway sandwiches. If that’s your bag, then feel free to give this a spin.
Score: 4 out of 10