Thursday, July 3, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Well, we're back in Transformers land with Michael Bay, and I have to say that this may have been my least anticipated major release of the year. None of the trailers excited me and I had no idea what they could even put on screen to justify this film's existence. However, it may have been a blessing-in-disguise to be asked by the studio representatives to write a promotional piece about the film, as it forced me to approach Transformers: Age of Extinction with as much optimism as possible. In doing so, I realized that this film only had to do one thing to make me like it - give me a fun ride with some awesome Dinobot scenes. Still, I was very trepidatious going into the screening, and I almost gritted my teeth as the robotic sound effects announced the beginning of the movie.

Millions of years ago, enormous alien spaceships descended upon the Cretaceous-age creatures inhabiting the earth, using a terrible weapon to scorch the entire planet. This created an almost metallic shell on everything and apparently led to the ice age. Flash-forward to present-day Earth where Autobots and Decepticons alike are being hunted by the government as intergalactic fugitives for their destruction of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. However, a fierce robotic creature named Lockdown comes in at the last second of their attacks on Autobots to interrogate them on Optimus Prime's whereabouts, killing them himself once he's finished. With the world-wide banishment of Cybertronians in force, struggling inventor and single father Cade Yeager finds a curious diesel truck in an abandoned movie theatre and brings it home in an attempt to strip it for parts... What he discovers, however, is that the old, dusty vehicle may actually be more than meets the eye...

To the surprise of myself and probably anybody who knows me, I actually was somewhat happy with the first Transformers movie. Sure, it had a lot of stupid humor and the plot was mostly incoherent, but the special effects were so original and the character arc of Sam Witwicky so straight-forward that I actually found it kind of entertaining. However, if you've read my reviews of the two sequels to that movie, you'll know that they really botched up what was kind of a fun premise. With the taint of those films still fairly fresh in my mind, I actually found the intro to Age of Extinction kind of interesting.

There is no opening narration from Optimus Prime as the spaceships eliminate the dinosaurs, and I found this surprisingly intriguing. Given the subtitle of this film, I could see some interesting jumping-off points for a story introducing the Dinobots (which, let's face it, is the reason most people returned to the series). But even as the story goes into a small-town with Mark Wahlberg's character, I found myself getting slightly involved in his economic hardship and parental struggles. Wahlberg is a really good actor, and his character is pretty sympathetic here. The problem is that the movie doesn't really want to tell a story of a dad and his daughter coming to understand and respect each other. Perhaps it's all Michael Bay can do to give us as much character development as he does in this film, because the remainder of the movie is much more what you would expect coming into a Transformers story.

It's almost like Bay was restraining himself from falling back into his stereotypical mode of dumb jokes and senseless, mind-numbing action, and he could only make it about thirty minutes before he broke. The good (and I use that term very lightly) part of this opening is forgotten and more or less undermined by the ensuing two hours of contrived excuses for on-screen explosions. The human characters are essentially forgotten and every scene of this film is elongated to an intolerable level. None of the action is terrible, per se, it's just stretched out to the point that I had to fight off the urge to look at the more entertaining empty seat in the row in front of me.

For all the minor improvements of this movie, Bay still reverts back to his cliched character designs and motivations that made the previous two films so deplorable. He doesn't seem capable of creating a compelling character, so he has to resort to broad strokes and crude stereotypes so we can at least fill in the gaps ourselves. It's ridiculous to me that the film even tries to make some pathetic attempt at a slavery allegory when the Autobots are hardly progressive in their senseless portrayal of ethnic diversity. Case in point: there's a character who's Japanese for some reason, and therefore must be wearing samurai armor and constantly speak in haiku. Don't even get me started on the ebonics-speaking Brain proclaiming to be "free at last!" when he's released from the clutches of an evil lab.

I'll get into my biggest complaints, and one of them is a major deal-breaker: where are the freaking Dinobots?! They've sold us in the advertising with the promise of getting Grimlock, the robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, breathing fire and helping Optimus fight in a battle, even going with the extinction theme (if one can say that) in the title and introductory scene. Well, get ready to be disappointed, because the heavily-promoted prehistoric Cybertronians are only featured in the final twenty minutes of the film and are given the weakest backstory imaginable. In a film that is over two and a half hours of slow-motion explosions and ridiculous, tangential scenes of "comedy", it's really not asking a lot for the selling-point of the film to get a proper explanation and/or screen time. The title of this film ends up being far more arbitrary than the marketing would have you believe.

The other major complaint of this movie is its excessive running length. Not much in this film is good, but it becomes absolutely unbearable when each and every scene completely overstays its welcome. There's a subplot about a technological corporation using Megatron's head to create the supposedly human-subservient "Galvatron", which doesn't really go anywhere in this movie other than giving the Autobots someone to fight for twenty or so minutes. There's also another half-hour or so where the movie unabashedly panders to the Chinese demographic in order to get their government to support the movie (and therefore take advantage of billions of potential movie-goers). It's almost sickening to see such a blatant money-making move dictate what happens at the climax of a movie, though none of this is that surprising for a Michael Bay film. Suffice it to say, that rarely has a suspicious relocation been so poorly explained or justified (a character just says, "let's take this to my facility in Hong Kong"... well, that's convenient...).

None of the performances are even that great, and some are downright awful. I'm usually a fairly big fan of Stanley Tucci's supporting roles (The Hunger Games, Easy A, etc.), but there are times when he can sink to the depths of the movie he's in rather than lifting up a low quality production (Jack the Giant Slayer). Consider this to be in the latter category. He's so over-the-top and annoying in this film that it makes it hard to remember that he's actually an Academy Award nominated actor. John Goodman even does a voice in this film, and while he's not necessarily bad in this movie, his lines are universally terrible. Other than that, the rest of the cast is forgettable... literally, you won't remember a thing that they say or do. They're all just insignificant devices to push the "plot" forward. It still amazes me that Michael Bay can get this many legitimate actors into his movies considering what he gives them to work with.

Anyway, I think there's no point in stretching this out any longer than necessary like the movie does. Despite my half-hearted optimism going in, this is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. Transformers: Age of Extinction is hardly the worst in the franchise, but it's not really a step up either. Add the unforgivable running length and the misleading marketing of the Dinobots, and I strongly recommend you don't spend your money to see this in a theatre. Whatever you do, don't go see this in 3D. The CGI isn't quite up to the par with the previous films, but it looks so much worse in 3D as basically all films do. People who liked the other films in the series might end up liking this too, but I urge you not to encourage them to keep making films of this quality (which they're most likely going to do). Save your money or go see X-Men: Days of Future Past again. This is one of the worst films I've seen this year and I give it a generous two stars.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo

**What did you think of Transformers: Age of Extinction? Is it the best in the series, or another blatant cash-grab?**