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Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)


Engineering Decree

Michael Bay is a really good director. It's easy to confuse his films' often ridiculous characters, plots, and performances with the considerable skills he brings to mass-market entertainment. But we lovers of cinema must avoid writing off movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction, lest we miss some truly worthwhile gems shining through all the bombastic CGI garbage.

Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of trash in the franchise's fourth outing, and at two hours and forty-five minutes, the movie often exceeds its weight limit. But one can't say that Age of Extinctionis just like its predecessors. Chock it up to Bay's apparent need to remain creatively engaged after closing out his "original trilogy" in 2011, the fact remains that there are several key differences here that suggest he set out to make something resembling a legitimate film--rather than just another big-screen toy commercial.

The movie picks up a few years after an assault on Chicago that nearly leveled the city. The virtuous Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), defeated Megatron and his evil Decepticons (seemingly) once and for all. Sometime later, a new threat emerged in the form of a government Black Ops squad called Cemetery Wind; ostensibly formed to rid the planet of Decepticons, this elite group has targeted all transformers, sending even the once-revered Autobots into hiding.

The least interesting part of Age of Extinction involves its main cast. Mark Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a broke Texas inventor who's on the verge of losing both his farm to the bank, and his comely teenage daughter, Tessa (Bratz Doll/Tara Reid hybrid Nicola Peltz), to a minor-league racecar driver named Shane (Jack Reynor). Cade accidentally buys Optimus Prime for scrap and winds up a Cemetery Wind target. Chases, speeches, and set pieces ensue, with the family running from both a nasty henchman named Savoy (Titus Welliver) and a new breed of transformer who roams the galaxy seeking to return Optimus Prime to the mysterious race that created him.

If you just caught a bit of Prometheus deja vu, you're not crazy. Bizarrely, Age of Extinction parrots Ridley Scott's 2012 summer not-buster in both the opening and final scenes, complete with aliens seeding a prehistoric planet, and a vengeful warrior jetting off into deep space in search of answers. It's one of several dozen weird choices by Bay and screenwriter Ehren Krueger--and the subject, I might imagine, of a future lawsuit.

To sum up, we now have three robot species; a secret government agency being aided by interstellar bounty hunters; and good ol' fashioned family melodrama to ground all the sci-fi shenanigans.

And we've barely scratched the surface.

Throw in TJ Miller as the series' requisite comic-relief cypher; Stanley Tucci as Steve Jobs stand-in Joshua Joyce, whose company has not only discovered the cosmic element that comprises Transformers but also patented it (as "transformium", natch); Kelsey Grammer as the retired CIA operative pulling nine thousand strings and, we learn, cooperating with Joyce; Joyce's ex flame and scientist, Darcy (Sophia Myles), whose main role is acting as corporate conscience while also kind of competing for Joyce's affection with a Chinese business partner named Su Yueming (Bingbing Li); and an exhausting forty-five minute third act that takes place in Hong Kong--half of which doesn't feature a single robot, and all of which plays like a cynical ploy to put international asses in seats.

And did I mention that Megatron has been reincarnated as Galvatron (Frank Welker),* and granted a new army of seemingly invincible nanotech Decepticons?

Oh, and there are now cyber-dinosaurs, one of which Optimus Prime rides into battle while wielding a molten sword.

I know, it's not cool to summarize everything in a movie review. But in Age of Extinction's case, you're far better off knowing what's coming. Accepting the fact that only two of the ten or so plot threads presented here are even interesting (and that none of them will be paid off in the way they might have been in a legit, story-centric feature) is the first step in appreciating the artistry and spectacle Michael Bay brings to the table.

In the future, I imagine we'll be able to buy 3D IMAX tickets for alternate cuts of movies like these, in which the superfluous dialogue and myriad meandering moments are edited out in favor of the truly amazing computer-generated images and stadium-shaking sound. The only way to really appreciate Age of Extinction is on a massive screen, with a high-grade sound system; otherwise, I imagine the movie coming off as incoherent audio/visual noise.

In the right environment, the intricacies of the Transformers themselves are things of beauty. The filmmakers seem to have not only improved upon the technology in the years since Bay's 2007 film, they've taken to heart fan complaints about character design and legibility of action. This is the smoothest, most exciting film of the series, in terms of the ticket-selling robot rampages. As silly as they are in concept, in context they're lots of fun and very convincing. The sound design team also deserves as much credit here, if not more, for bringing the audience into the carnage instead of merely letting us observe.

Given my recent trashing of Godzilla and constant complaining about soul-dead destruction porn, you may wonder how the hell can I recommend the third freaking Transformers sequel. Easily, and with qualifications. First, there is more "Godzilla" in Age of Extinction's last twenty minutes than in the whole of Gareth Edwards' pathetic sham of a monster movie. Second, Bay and his team don't hide their action in the merciful shadows of nighttime rain. This film showcases a stunning blend of crisp, intelligible, daytime CGI and practical stunts. Whether you care about anything that's happening in the frame is a matter of taste; from a purely technical and artistic standpoint, the movie's flawless.

Which brings me back to Bay as a director. It wasn't until this film that I truly appreciated how much goes into staging these magnificent set pieces. Sure, there are bouts of dodgy green screen (as in a truly comical but occasionally dizzying wire-walk between a space ship and Willis Tower), but there are plenty more scenes whose sheer logistics are as much fun to consider as the way in which they do or don't advance the story.

In a perfect world, the end result would be an hour shorter and focus primarily on Tucci and Grammer's characters; unlike bona fide thespians who've popped up in other Transformers films (namely John Malkovich and John Turturro), these guys imbue their roles with the same gravitas as their day-job projects. Such a picture might also delve more into an aspect of Optimus we haven't seen until now: a profound and nearly pathological disappointment in the human race. There's some really interesting stuff happening here, regarding patriotism, corporate responsibility, and the fear of foreign cultures that, sadly, gets swept away by the Wahlberg tide.

However, this is the movie we've been dealt and, thanks to Bay, it's not entirely bad.** I'm not ashamed to admit that I'll buy Age of Extinction on home video and show up for the inevitable Part Five. But I'll never watch it again from start to finish. This indefensible (possibly hypocritical) point of view makes zero sense on paper--but that's Transformers for you.

*I'm endlessly fascinated by the Transformers live action series' constant cribbing from the 1986 animated feature film. From themes to specific plot points, Bay and company keep mining that eighty-minute cartoon for their two-plus-hour extravaganzas, when they could just have easily have re-made it with half the controversy and three times the critical acclaim (maybe).

**At the very least, his trademark sexism, racism, and all-around American machismo has been dialed back to "Pledge" level from "Douche-y Frat President".

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