“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out” – Voltaire
When I was a child, no more than six or seven, I remember having a conversation with a classmate about an action movie that was in cinemas. I don’t remember the film or the friend. I hadn’t seen the film, but, not wanting to sound like some kind of loser, told him I had. “What was your favourite part?” he asked. “The part where the bridge blew up,” I said, in an unbelievable manoeuvre I’m still proud of to this very day. Remarkably, he agreed, accepting the bridge explosion as the defining moment of the film. One of two things happened here. Either I had guessed one of the film’s major set-pieces, or we were both caught in each others lies, neither of us having seen the film; a staggering web of bluffs from which we would never be able to extricate ourselves.
Transformers: Age of Extinction reminds me of this conversation. It’s a lumbering film of grotesque size in which nothing of major interest happens. As a wayward child, I would have easily been able to lie my way through any conversation about it. Like its predecessor, Age of Extinction is a toxic cocktail of thumping noises, car crash pornography and off-the-scale bro dialogue. It’s ballet for morons; a two-and-a-half hour monstrosity which lives up to Michael Bay’s previous three attempts to bury the world’s culture under a trash heap of celluloid offal. God bless you, Mike. You’ve done it. You’ve finally done it.
Where are we? Shia LaBeouf is gone, having lost his mind before the film was produced. Instead we have Mark Wahlberg, whose babyface occupies most of the movie’s screentime. He plays Cade Yeager, a wannabe inventor living in Texas who purchases a huge old truck from a cinema proprietor – huh? – which turns out to be Optimus Prime, stoic capitalism-bot and galactic liberator. Having watched the other three films in quick succession, seeing old Optimus crank and wheeze his way through another outing was kind of like seeing an old friend who you no longer like and kind of wish were dead. Joining Cade is his teenaged daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) who takes the role of the film’s purposeless eye candy – an archetype Michael Bay would rather die than see unfilled. It’s kind of weird having the seventeen year old daughter of the film’s protagonist be the sex symbol figure. There’s something pathological here which Bay should keep an eye on.
Since the third film, in which all of Chicago was violently destroyed and yet only one thousand people apparently died, the government has turned on the Transformers, and wants to see them all killed – even the friendly ones. Leading this inquisition is Kelsey Grammar, who perpetuates Michael Bay’s hatred of the federal government by being cartoonishly and flatly evil. He’s assisted by Titus Welliver, who plays a violent CIA henchman who wears a trenchcoat for no reason and spits out some of the film’s most horrendous lines (“My face is my warrant!”). Situated in the background of it all is the extraordinarily talented Stanley Tucci as a Steve Jobs-styled industrialist who wants to harness the power of a material named ‘Transformium’ to build his own race of Transformers for the military. Meanwhile, some new, evil Transformers float around, blowing shit up and generally causing a lot of drama.
The jerky, schizoid camera movements of the previous films are gone, thankfully. The new cinematographer is Iranian wunderkind Amir Mokri, who was the same fella who made the visuals in Man of Steel the only worthy thing about that production. The action sequences are fluid and kinetic, and laden with Zack Snyder-style slo-mo and long, panning shots. It’s all pretty impressive, and I was genuinely interested in some of the choreography and shot choices, but it’s still boring as shit. I found my eyes glazing over as these gargantuan scenes went on, unable to firmly track my gaze onto anything. It’s lame. It’s also incredibly obvious that Bay has become sick of making movies about giant children’s toys; so this film has the most on-foot, human-on-human action sequences of the entires series. At one point, Wahlberg’s character finds a sword which is also a gun, and he shoots this sword-gun repeatedly for several hours. I’m not making it up, but I wish I were.
The actual Transformers have undergone a strange redesign. They now have much more human-like faces, which kind of made me feel nauseous. The roster of heroes has been severely cut, and replaced with a new bizarro threesome. John Goodman plays a fat robot with a metal beard and a shotgun who yells a lot about wanting to kill things. John DiMaggio plays a steampunk robot with a trenchcoat. Ken Watanabe plays a samurai robot with a katana who speaks in broken English. Who designed these and why? My general mode throughout the film was confusion. The Dinobots, which feature prominently in the advertising for the film, don’t appear until the last half hour and do nothing of interest.
Like many blockbuster films of late, the film features prominent scenes set in China – primarily Beijing and Hong Kong. This is obviously to appeal to the ever-growing Chinese market. Nonetheless, it’s a silly-stupid Westernised ideal of China. There’s lots of shots of cramped apartments, whimsical mopeds and serene Asian women. At one point, Stanley Tucci’s character meets a man in an elevator who, remarkably, knows martial arts. As more and more interesting Chinese films become available in Western markets and over the internet, this weird, somewhat offensive posturing will become less and less relevant.
I feel sorry for Michael Bay. Almost half of the films he’s made have been Transformers films. Though I struggled endlessly to watch all four of them, he had to make them. His brain constantly in overdrive, thinking up new juvenile visual gags and vastly stupid action sequences. Many artists have conceptualised the human mind as a series of intricate cogs and gears working in unison. For Bay, I imagine a gigantic, singular gear, which slowly lurches forward until coming down with a tremendous thud. Every time that happens, a new Transformers film is made.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for the second trilogy. My soul has transcended my body, and I now live among the stars.
You can read James’ roundup of the first three films in the Transformers franchise here.