TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
JULY 6, 2014
Michael Bay gets me. He understands that I was once an eight-year-old boy who had a huge collection of Hot Wheels cars that were often commanded by Optimus Prime. In my imagination, these non-transforming cars were still Autobots, fighting alongside their leader, attempting to stop the Decepticons from destroying the Lego towns that lay in their wake. Music would blare from my father’s old stereo system, as the cars flew around corners and the handful of actual Transformers were painstakingly transformed into their robot personas. This was the world that I immersed myself in at that young age, but once I grew up, playing with toys was no longer socially acceptable. The part of growing up that parents rarely warn you about is the fact that you will have to leave your favorite toys behind someday. Step in Michael Bay to save the day.
Criticize the man all you want, but Michael Bay has a grand vision and executes it on an even grander scale. Bay is making blockbusters for all ages, ranging from that eight-year-old kid that I used to be to the young adults just packing away the last of their childhood memories into plastic Rubbermaid containers to be stored in their attic or basement. Bay brings these childhood fantasies to life in the most colorful and epic ways possible. From the first time you see Optimus Prime transform from car to a robot to the first car chase set to one of the most original soundtracks ever put together for a film, Bay is making childhood imaginations tangible. Still, for some reason, a large majority of people give him grief, with reasons including that he is ruining their childhood memories or that he is not giving the Hasbro toys a proper big screen delivery, but as a lifelong fan of Transformers and an aficionado of films, I will step against the grain and say that I believe Michael Bay to be an exquisite director with such a strong and powerful vision that he can give life to these machines in a way that I never thought possible.
“Transformers: Age Of Extinction” is the fourth installment in the franchise and thanks to a $100 million opening weekend, this will likely not be the last. Sam Witwicky has left the building but that opens the door for the new human lead in Cade Yeager, pairing Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg (“Pain & Gain”) once again. Yeager is a small-time robotics inventor who travels to old buildings buying up what looks like junk to his daughter, Tessa (“Bates Motel” star Nicola Peltz) in which he turns into semi-functional guard dogs and beer retrievers. When we meet Yeager, he has discovered an old beat-up semi-truck which he believes he can sell for parts. But when he hooks it up to a battery, the voice of Optimus Prime can be heard. “I think we just found a Transformers” was the mantra coming from the trailers this time around and I feel like this is such a cool way to open the film.
To embrace one of the major criticisms of the film, “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” is more action over substance, but that is mainly the point. The action sequences are built so perfectly and deliver so much emotion at the same time, that I have gotten chills on multiple viewings, constructed with the perfect balance of music and pacing. And it does not matter if it is Optimus Prime fighting the Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) creation in Galvatron (Megatron reincarnate), Cade Yeager fighting Cemetery Wind black ops leader James Savoy (Titus Welliver) on the side of a Chinese apartment building, or even Yeager and Bumblebee teaming up to take on the bounty hunter robot Lockdown, the sequences are so masterfully paced that you anticipate the next battle, with the weak dialogue meaning very little in the grand scheme of things. I am well aware that the film has poor writing, but if you are going to an action film to be swept away by the amazing screenplay, you should reevaluate what you are going to the movies for. The argument I continuously hear is that “The Dark Knight” accomplished an action film with amazing writing, but Christopher Nolan is a prodigy and now general audiences are jaded. Action films are meant to be enjoyed as their entity, not compared to Academy Award-nominated films.
For having a weak dialogue, however, the screenplay does successfully weave together a massive story involving multiple villains, humans, and robots, which is more than most of the Marvel films can say. With Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammar, and Titus Welliver filling the human villain roles, while Lockdown, Galvatron, and Stinger take on the robot ones, there is always another hill to climb for our heroes. As opposed to many negative critiques, “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” offers a unique experience in that the Autobots are being hunted and have given up trying to protect the humans. Optimus Prime once kept a vow that he would never harm a human, but that has all been forgotten as Prime announces several times that they will finish this mission and then they are done with the humans. Seeing a jaded Prime sets this film apart from the previous trilogy and offers a unique dynamic between the humans and the robots. Yes, the basic story-line borrows from the original, in that once again they are keeping an alien element, this time called the Seed, away from Galvatron, much like the AllSpark in the first film. But with new characters and the new set of China, it never feels recycled. Building moments and set pieces are Bay’s specialty in this film, creating little pockets of the story that help the almost three-hour run-time never feel hefty. From Yeager’s Texas farmhouse to Joyce’s alien experimentation KSI building in Chicago, to Lockdown’s alien prison ship, to the hillsides of Hong Kong, this film is epic in every way, never treading the same path and always moving forward.
Michael Bay has not forgone his habits, to which he gets most of his hate. There are still tons of low angle shots, looking up at the characters, which I love. Some of the most beautifully framed shots are low angles in the film, creating such a new visual experience. Lenses flares are abundant, as are sweeping shots to which Bay has trademarked. There is still cheesy comic relief, this time mostly from the comedically adept T.J. Miller who plays Yeager’s business partner, Lucas Flannery, but also from the Autobot Hound (voiced by John Goodman) who often has choice words for his human counterparts. We also see Nicola Peltz in short shorts most of the film and calling her seventeen years old (she is nineteen) adds a level of creepy to those ogling her, but it serves the plot, as she is secretly dating a street racer named Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) who is twenty to which Yeager disapproves. And Bay still offers slight forms of racism in his robot characters, this time including a yellow-gold faced Asian character named Drift (voiced by Ken Watanabe), but again, this successfully ties the film to its Hong Kong finale and the foreign audience that comes attached to that.
The pivotal element that sets this film apart from all the others, and it’s saying something that I have not mentioned it until this far into my review, are the Dinobots, to which the marketing leaned heavily on as the main separator for this new incarnation. Take this as a spoiler if you will, but Grimlock and his cohorts do not even arrive in the plot until the third act, as they become the last resort for Prime when all other plans have failed. And boy do these Dinobots wreck havoc. Introduced earlier in the film without actually knowing it, these robots are not revealed until the absolute perfect moment and surprising even to me, I could not have been happier with the way they were used. The Seed is the other element that changes the course of things in the film, as it allowed the Creators to terraform planets, especially Earth during the dinosaur extinction, to produce the metal that all the robots are made of. Not only does this give reasoning to why there are Dinobots and also to who sent the bounty hunter, but also introduces the future of the franchise, in the mysterious Creators, perhaps too close to fellow science fiction film “Prometheus”, in that Optimus Prime now wants to find them.
Now, do not get me wrong, before “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” came out, I questioned whether it was possible for me to love this new film as much as I had loved the previous installments, all of which I have now given five-out-of-five stars. Michael Bay is not a director like Wes Anderson or Steven Spielberg, where I will indiscriminately love their work regardless of what it is. But his foray into “Transformers” has kept me pleased for the better part of a decade and continues to provide everything I am looking for in this series. As long as I continue to live my childhood dream of seeing life-sized Autobots transform from cars to robots and back again, and as long as Peter Cullen (voice of Optimus Prime for over thirty years) continues to reprise his voice acting role, I will never grow tired of this series. And with so many story-lines left to choose from, the lore of “Transformers” on the big screen feels infinite. And despite the backlash towards these films, which often worries me, the franchise continuously proves to be critic-proof, remaining one of the top earners of the year. All I have to say to those who hate “Transformers” is that you can have your James Cameron and your “Avatar” franchise. I will be perfectly content in the Michael Bay camp.
June 24, 2014
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo)
Lorenzo di Bonaventura