In tribute to Michael Bay, this review is bloated, overlong and hopelessly self-indulgent, taking far too long to get to the point which is to review “Transformers: Age Of Extinction”. But let’s get one thing straight: I don’t love to hate the Michael Bay “Transformers” films. I hate to hate them. Seriously: I want to love these films so much that every time they release a new one, they manage to tempt me back in thinking: this time it’ll be different; this time they’ll get “Transformers” and do it right. So far, every time I’ve been left with the hollowed-out crushed childhood feeling that only genre fans can really relate to.
The thing is, I’m not even a hard-core “Transformers” fanboy. I didn’t keep up to date with all the later versions, such as “Beast Wars” etc. but I am committed to a very specific iteration of our Cybertronian heroes: the (rightly) revered Generation 1. The cartoon series ran as part of the TV morning show Wacaday (and was the main reason I watched that show) and it was amazing. I was ten and in no way aware of it being a fairly cheaply animated toy commercial. The characters were burned into my consciousness as cultural touchstones that are still with me today. Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Jazz, Ratchet, Bumblebee, Hound, Cliffjumper, Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, Ravage, Laserbeak, Rumble, Jetfire to name but a few. God, how awesome did I think Jetfire was?
Despite its limited animation, the character design and voice casting were superb, so much so that I can still hear their voices today and the Michael Bay movies used many of the same actors. In 1987, the Marvel “Transformers” comic launched here in the UK and for 13 year old me, lamenting the ending of “Return Of The Jedi” weekly (the supporting, non-“Star Wars” strip was “Power Pack” – now there’s a comic property that needs to be made into a movie) it was a perfect moment. “Transformers: The Movie” had just been in cinemas and I was hungry for more Transformer adventures. It remains one of my favourite comic strips of all time. The storylines leading up to issues 7 & 8 were amazing and when the last few Autobots defeated the Decepticons only to be blown away by the sudden appearance of Shockwave it blew my mind, only to keep going by introducing the freaking Dinobots!
I had the toys too. I had an Optimus Prime that I bought with my own saved up money for the hefty price tag of £15.00! I also had one of the most stupid Transformers ever: Astrotrain. Advantage: He could change into two vehicles and a robot. Disadvantage: he could change into a train and a space shuttle. You know, for when you…um…needed to move freight and passengers seamlessly from pre-fixed steel rails to outer space. Or being a vehicle confined to a defined and observable route was maybe useful in combat somehow? Anyway, I had Sludge the Dinobot too. Ah, good times.
Such good times, in fact, that in gearing up to watch and review “Age Of Extinction”, as I sat watching the previous three “Transformers” movies, I started to wonder whether or not I was hopelessly crippled by nostalgia and would never be able to appreciate the newer take on the Transformers mythos. After all, to date the franchise has grossed over $2.6billion so it must be doing something right.
Before we get to that, there’s plenty that they do wrong. From the start, the character designs for the Transformers themselves have been horrible. Spindly, sharp, pointy and overly complex they bore little relation to the Transformers of old and lacked any real differentiation so the fight scenes ended up looking like a handful of shrapnel being thrown into a blender. Some of the casting decisions have been horrible (less so than the commitment to keep bringing extraneous characters back long after their usefulness has ended) and the balance between robot action and human drama and comedy has been awkward at best.
The characterisation of the Transformers has always been a little weird too. Optimus Prime, throughout virtually every other version of Transformers has been a wise, patient, man of peace and yes, a fearsome if reluctant warrior when the need arose but in the movies, he’s far too often portrayed as a temperamental, bloodthirsty douchebag, prone to sulking and bouts of rage or depression. And as for the actual fight scenes: they’re horrific. If you actually watch the way the robots fight, it’s brutal, ferocious and sickeningly graphic. Replace the Autobots and Decepticons for a moment with imaginary human beings and you have dismemberment, disembowelling, decapitation, all usually done by barehanded. I get that it’s just CGI robots smashing each other to bits, but it’s needlessly violent and brutal for what is, after all, a kids’ film and the glee some of the Transformers take in killing and butchering their opponents – especially Optimus Prime – is really unpleasant. It’s all juxtaposed jarringly against the general bumbling, bickering, comedy nature of the Autobots when they’re not in combat mode. Tonally, these films are all over the place.
Which brings us to the man himself: Michael Bay. There’s no denying he’s a master of large scale vehicular carnage with a keen eye for spectacle. His commitment to physical stunt work and effects wherever possible is laudable too, but when you balance them off against his meandering storytelling style, lamentable lack of discipline and a distasteful streak of misogyny and racism, you end up with an unpredictable and frustrating experience where, no matter how much you’re enjoying one particular sequence, you know there’s another right around the corner that’ll make you want to hold your head in your hands.
Before we get on to “Age Of Extinction”, let’s take a quick spin through the first three movies:
You know, this film isn’t too bad. If you can get past the horrible, horrible design of the Autobots and Decepticons and Bay’s desperately creepy over-sexualisation of poor Megan Fox. The plot’s pretty straightforward and there are a few nods to history being influenced by giant robots wandering around the planet. The cast are okay, with none of the hyped-up flailing around and although there’s a bunch of sophomoric humour, it’s not as overpowering as it would become. Even Shia Labeouf’s Sam Witwicky is okay in this, and John Voight pops in to class up the joint a little. Sure, it’s loud, brash and dumb but at this point, it wasn’t drunk on its own success and it had the right intentions, even if the execution was a little trashy. 4/10
“Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen”
Who knew the Decepticons secretly served some Tutankhamen-looking spider robot who was hiding up in space or something? Lifting some bits and pieces from previous “Transformers” stories (although not to the shameless levels writers Orci and Kurtzman did for JJ Abram’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”) we get some guff about ancient Cybertronian visits to Earth, and the (temporary) death of Optimus Prime. The writers also find a reason to keep Shia Labeouf’s Sam Witwicky around, although his girlfriend and especially his parents’ returns strain both credibility and patience. Weirdly convoluted and lumbered with tedious, unending scenes of fighting and hiding throughout the Egyptian desert in a finale which feels anything but final. I’ve always had a soft spot for the character of Jetfire and I quite like the way he’s incorporated into the story here but generally it’s a step down in quality from the already pretty low bar of the first movie. Also, if Decepticons can now disguise themselves as completely convincing human beings, why bother with all the scuttling spy robots at all? 3/10
“Transformers: Dark Of The Moon”
Emboldened and empowered by the success of the first two films, there’s nobody involved in this production now who’s willing or able to restrain Michael Bay so the film is an exercise in lavish, indulgent excess. Aside from the grammatically irritating title, this is properly the film where the franchise jumped the sharkticon. It’s lumbered with so much unnecessary baggage that rather than find a clever way around it, the script just has the characters talk about it, as if that will make everything somehow magically cohesive and plausible. The first problem the film has is there is no reason – none at all – for Sam Witwicky to be involved in the adventure. He has no relevance to the plot whatsoever and is there because devoid of better ideas, sole returning writer Ehren Kruger believes that more of what was done before is better. So we get more of Labeouf’s hyperactive angst and fast-talking neurotic ‘comedy’ schtick; more of his increasingly inappropriate and embarrassing parents; more of the painfully unfunny slapstick, pratfalls and big-name cameos. He frequently bemoans his lack of relevance and his inability to get a decent job and more than one character expresses entirely understandable scepticism over his ability to score not one, but two smokin’ hot girlfriends. It also takes one of my favourite Decepticon characters (Shockwave) and robs him of any significant impact. They do give him a gigantic mechanical Arrakis Sandworm though, so that’s pretty cool I guess. The tie-in the moon landings is actually pretty clever (and Buzz Aldrin’s cameo is a delightful touch) but the premise is wasted and once the big reveal takes place about halfway through, the ending is as predictable as it is long-winded and repetitive. Yes, the battle of Chicago is visually impressive, for the first twenty minutes or so then it just becomes an unending cacophony of crumbling buildings and viciously dismembered robots. All the flash and noise in the world can’t disguise how empty the tank is and how forced the human characters from the previous film’s involvement is. Time for a rethink? Time for a [partial] reboot! 3/10
For a while, it looked like Michael Bay was going to relinquish the Director’s chair and hand the franchise over to someone else. It kind of made sense: the cast was being wholly refreshed, and the character designs were also getting a major makeover. In the end though, after courting a series of potential new directors, Bay signed back on to direct the fourth film after all. So, how did he do?
Well, to coin a phrase: he’s losing his touch, but he’s still got the power. “Age Of Extinction” is, again, Bay unrestrained: it’s far too long and the middle act is flabby and repetitive, adding nothing to the movie apart from an interminable sequence of capture/ escape/ chase/ repeat. Overall, you could (and they probably should) edit out 40-50 minutes of footage without harming the finished product. All of the usual Bay hallmarks are here but the trouble is they feel tired and cliché. The explosions are bigger (and still with that annoying firework effect following the main fireball), the noise louder and the canvas bigger but there’s nothing new on show here. Bay’s got nothing left in his toolkit that we haven’t seen before. You can’t help but feel that a stronger producer is needed to push Bay outside his incendiary comfort zone and try something new.
The product placement is even more blatant and brazen as before, with the cast conspicuously moving their fingers at the last minute to ensure you can see the logo of the drink they’re incongruously sipping, and the script is once again crammed to the rafters with truly terrible dialogue: “My face is my warrant”. The locations on the other hand are spectacular and well shot with even the market-driven decision to base the finale in China feeling organic and driven by the story rather than solely the desire to sell more tickets in crucial foreign markets.
As far as the Transformers themselves are concerned, the redesigns are a huge leap forward. Optimus Prime, at the beginning of the movie, is disguised as a beaten up old truck (hidden in a derelict movie theatre for some reason) actually looks like G1 Optimus Prime. Not only that, but he transforms like G1 Optimus Prime. He pretty soon gives himself a slick facelift but all the robots look better this time round and are, finally, easily distinguishable from each other, even with Bay’s frequent use of shakycam making the action hard to follow. The characterisation is still way off – Optimus Prime spends most of the time hating on humans and vowing to kill them in revenge or anger but some of the new Transformers are spectacular: Lockdown is especially good.
Mark Wahlberg is a breath of fresh air as Cade Yeager, a would-be inventor and engineer, bringing a more grounded and less frenetic feel to the human element of the film. In fact, freed from the increasingly toxic presence of Shia Labeouf, the whole film is a more enjoyable prospect. Kelsey Grammar is great as the amoral and determined leader of the Black Ops CIA division hunting down Transformers and Stanley Tucci is similarly superb as the billionaire technology mogul who’s been working with the government to reverse engineer Cybertronian tech. Of the excellent supporting cast of Sophia Myles, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Li BingBing, T J Miller, Malenia Specht, Victoria Summer, James Bachman plus a cameo from Han Geng only Titus Welliver is treated unfairly and only because he’s given a one-note nasty character and the lion’s share of the worst of the dialogue to chew on. If you’re thinking of taking the kids, as long as you’re not squeamish about robot disembowelment and torture or a surprisingly high (but bloodless) human body count, you should probably be aware there’s a smattering of swearing and one f-bomb in the mix too.
The plot’s slightly overstuffed, probably reflecting the dual role this film had to fulfil: it had to tell an action packed story while also set up a bunch of loose threads for future Transformers sequels and barring a bit of bloating it’s largely successful. The two main plots are the bounty hunter Lockdown searching for Optimus Prime as the request of the mysterious ‘Creators’ and the human’s attempt to create their own Transformers which is sabotaged by a familiar Decepticon presence. There are even fleeting signs of a sense of meta self-awareness as there are quips about the terrible quality of movies in general and sequels in particular and, in an unexpectedly gruesome masterstroke, a depressingly familiar comic relief character is introduced early on only to meet a very unpleasant end shortly thereafter. It feels cathartic, like it was somehow vicariously Shia Labeouf’s Sam Witwicky being silenced forever. Even some of Bay’s worse tendencies are toned down here – the camera is less lecherous than in previous installments and while there’s a certain low level jingoistic stereotyping, it’s nowhere near as distasteful as some of the shenanigans in “Revenge Of The Fallen”.
Before I wrap up, I can’t talk about “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” without mentioning the Dinobots, or should that be giant robot dinosaur Transformers? None of them are name checked within the film and there’s no origin story so for those who are unhappy with the designs or the way they are used, you can just decide they might be some dinosaur robots, but they’re not The Dinobots. Besides, despite the heavy promotion and marketing, they don’t turn up until the last half hour of this nearly three hour movie.
If you hate the Bayformers, it might still be worth giving this one a shot. Maybe because I’d recently re-watched the first three movies, I went into this one with an open mind but rock-bottom expectations and actually had a pretty good time. The partial reboot has given the whole franchise a shot in the arm and although it’s still not the Transformers I’d love to see done in live action, it was much closer than it’s been before. There’s a tiny glimmer of hope that they’ll get even better but it needs to be handed over to a new writer and director to fully refresh it and restore the purity of its spark. It’s easily my favourite of the films so far and the only one I wouldn’t mind watching again sometime. Decent, undemanding summer blockbuster entertainment, but still not a patch on my rose-tinted half-imagined nostalgic Transformers memories. Autobots, roll out. Michael Bay, jog on.