Transformers: Age of ExtinctionReviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 07/07/14 00:06:56
After exiting my screening of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” it felt like summer. I don’t mean the sun was beating down, birds were singing and beer adopted the appearance of chilled nectar. No, I’m talking about the nostalgic, seasonal vibes associated with mainstream cinema. Over the past few years a cavalcade of bleaker film-makers and properties have rooted themselves in the calendar’s most bankable quarter, including recent earthy rebirths of Godzilla and the X-Men. These movies play with our expectations of blockbusterdom in often intrepid ways, but they don’t ignite the playful escapism one associates with balmy July evenings at the cinema. Since Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and Nolan’s celebrated Batman cycle, studios have been happy to engage with the bitter realities of our fragmented world, but what’s more audiences have been stomping up to digest this grittier breed of tent-pole releasing. Very black is the new black it seems. Michael Bay’s “Transformers” saga has never adhered to this tonal shift in popular entertainment, adhering to the same silly, sub-Spielbergian mantra that launched the franchise to north of $700 million with its amicable opening chapter in 2007. The subsequent entries have depreciated vastly in terms of quality, but the box-office receipts keep ringing and the go big or go home school of film-making has remained front and centre. Don’t get me wrong, most of these movies are bad (2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” was thoroughly deplorable), but there’s a certain charm in watching Bay spend $165 million like a 12-year old with a particularly heightened penchant for onscreen ruination. By the finale of “Age of Extinction”, it becomes utterly exhausting, but heck, there are no qualms about what time of year it is.Set five years after “Dark of the Moon”, “Age of Extinction” picks up in a world where the government are hunting Transformers and Shia LaBeouf is an unmentionable spectre of the past. Instead we get struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), clashing over financial troubles and Tessa’s burgeoning adulthood. Basically, she really needs to put on some less short shorts. Whilst excavating an old movie theatre (Can you say Meta?) for useful parts, Cade comes across a truck. Said truck transpires to be leader of the Autobots Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who has no non-“Transformers” credits on his résumé since 2009), which promptly catches the attention of scheming bureaucrats including Harold Attinger (a threatening Kelsey Grammer). So begins a wild goose chase across the globe, in which Cade and Optimus attempt to assert their innocence and nobility, whilst the American politicians act like dopey cocks. Throw in a pinch of inappropriate sexual comedy, racially questionable characters, some mechanical dinosaurs and a host of spectacular explosions. Voila, you have a Michael Bay joint.
With Sam Witicky presumably off shoving his cranium into a paper bag, it’s up to Mark Wahlberg’s fantastically named Cade Yeager to fill the void. If “Age of Extinction” does one thing right (and in fairness it does a few) it’s in the assemblage of a genuinely amusing cast. Bay has Wahlberg play to his strengths, breaking out the endearing comic blankness and biceps synonymous with his non-dramatic repertoire. The actor has a humility and charisma far above LaBeouf’s, and it does the opening salvo of “Age of Extinction” tremendous good to have him on such cartoonish and livewire form. It certainly helps that what tumbles out of Wahlberg’s mouth seems inherently funny, as opposed to the plethora of duff sight gags Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger stack up. Stanley Tucci is the other substantial acquisition, his physical comedy and line readings the only oasis amidst Bay’s stampede of noise in the third act. He even sort of makes his caricature business mogul likable, tough going in a screenplay that asks him to do little more than endure pratfalls and sneer. In fact, leaving aside the vacuous Peltz, most of the casting here is good fun. John Goodman gets to voice a cigar chomping Autobot, TJ Miller is a rare goofy presence that works and talented Irish actor Jack Reynor doesn’t disgrace himself on his big Hollywood debut. Kruger’s screenplay puts the most stock in humans since the 2007 original, at least until the halfway point. There’s an openness to introduce non-CGI characters in “Age of Extinction”, a facet missing from either of the other sequels. I’m not saying it amounts to an odyssey of disciplined introspective cavorting, but for chunks of the story you almost know enough about the fleshy incumbents to care about their eventual fate.
If “Age of Extinction” was 50 minutes shorter, I’d like it a lot more. The movie reaches a point at which one character becomes trapped on an Alien spacecraft, the sequence feeling like an effective and appropriate transition into a slick third act. This occurs about 70 minutes into the near three hour slog. Up to this point Kruger’s screenplay has done just enough human work to keep some stakes functional, and even if Peltz’s open-mouthed nothingness sparks little sympathy, Wahlberg does enough heavy-lifting to maintain some substance in their father/daughter dynamic. The problem is the movie doesn't know when to quit. With each progressive sequence “Age of Extinction” dares itself to become stupider and less coherent, abandoning characters in favour of digital creations and the carnage technology allows them to wreck. Bay’s ability to compose an action frame for maximum firework lustre is still one in a million, but he loses a grip on the story as a consequence. The final 40 minutes are akin to a montage of explosions, replete with desperate fan teasing touches like Robot dinosaurs. They’re a vapid addition to the tale, well designed and spectacular to behold, but divorced from the particulars of good screenwriting. True, the movie touches on prehistory in its first few minutes, but it abandons the theme completely, until Bay addles his audience so much that their inclusion just becomes another unexplainable source of masturbatory dork-jerking. It’s the ending in a nutshell.
The sound design is impeccable, Bay rallying a volley of succinctly integrated blasts into his orgy of teenage wish fulfilment. Technically the “Transformers” movies are remarkable feats, the digital creations melting naturally into the material sets. I’ve never particularly cared about the Transformers as characters, but they do look phenomenal contorting and combatting in big-screen 3D. The scope Bay weaves into “Age of Extinction” plays a large part in its summery disposition; this is a feature with scale. I’m not sure if it’s me aging or the movies getting smaller, but each summer’s releases tend to leave me increasingly aware of their limitations within a screening room; even with 3D they can only consume me so far. With Bay’s work, I’ve never had that problem. Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em larger.
Some of the seedier sexual stuff is dialed down with “Age of Extinction”, although the inclusion of a subplot revolving around statutory rape is a baffling misstep. Bay has hardly established himself an auteur enslaved by moral taste, but even for him the “Romeo + Juliet” gags spark concern. Of course broad racism also penetrates the picture, including a collection of daft Asian stereotypes (they’re all Kung-Fu literate don’t ya know) and Irish slurs so juvenile they don’t even approach offensive. I’m sure more discerning viewers will have little issue disregarding such baloney, but it pays to remember this is a series marketed at children. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with young kids being taught about other nationalities and age of consent loopholes by Michael Bay. I’m happy to let them embrace his ability to detonate Decepticons (nobody does it better), but let’s leave the other stuff to our many professionally vetted schools.I didn’t really like “Age of Extinction”. It’s pretty much over-produced nonsense with a side-order of thespians I’m inclined toward. So why does it get me feeling a little giddy, a little misty-eyed about summers past? To be honest I’m still not entirely sure. My best bet is probably the feature’s earnestness; it’s honesty about what it is. It’s a flick photographed like a car commercial, filled with beautiful faces, dazzling set-pieces and a constant twinge of Americana. Bay shoots his home nation drenched in the picturesque sweat of the magic hour; the only beverage available is Budweiser, heroes might as well be called Stretch Armstrong and characters love to go patriotic when the situation demands it. I’m not sure why all this screams summer to me, and I’m even less sure why it triggers affection. I guess “Age of Extinction” is exactly the sort of party only a kid can fully appreciate, its clumsiness locking much of the adult viewership away under the pretence that it’s a sucky movie, which to my eyes it largely is. Still, part of me likes the idea of an old-school blockbuster so vast, fantastical and foolish that only the most indiscriminate, imaginative and youthful of viewers can truly tap into its potential. Man, I miss that. [C-]
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