For some cinephiles, Michael Bay is their bête noire, the embodiment of all that is wrong with movies today and a consistent source of over-edited, lowest-common-denominator garbage. I’m not quite one of them. Yes, Bay has made some awful films, but don’t forget that two of his films are in the Criterion Collection–The Rock and Armageddon. And the first Transformers movie was, all things considered, a pretty fun film. The second was much shakier (the story was messy, the humor was stupid when not offensive); I never bothered with the third, although it was less critically shredded than the second or fourth films. But, admittedly looking for a likely bad film to round out what has been a mostly good year, I took advantage of a discounted ticket and soldiered forth (ha ha); 165 minutes later, I emerged, sadder and wiser. Though not the worst film I’ve seen this year (Winter’s Tale is a bigger trainwreck), it comes close, an ugly, often boring film with ugly, off-putting characters.
It moves me to ask: how much robot fighting do you really want? Isn’t this just a little tedious by now? But first, let’s review the movie.
I hardly want to bother with a synopsis. After Chicago was apparently heavily damaged by the climax of the third film, the Autobots have become personae non grata on Earth, and the American government (or at least the CIA, which in this film also operates on American soil–I guess the FBI is cool with that) has been pursuing them in tandem with–and I had to go to Wikipedia to even determine who this asshole was–Lockdown, who’s apparently a “bounty hunter” for the Transformer race. He’s a dick who helps the CIA kill other Transformers, what more do you need to know? Anyway, a CIA official, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), has been working with Lockdown, helping him capture and eliminate the Autobots whilst taking the remains and sending to KSI, a tech firm headed by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) which has isolated “transformium”, the substance Transformers are made of, which can be manipulated by the user into, conceivably, any desired form.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is an inventor, heavily in debt, who buys an old tractor trailer cab in order to salvage its parts. He’s in conflict with nearly everyone around him, not least of all his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), whom he forbids from dating until she graduates from high school. She’s been seeing race-car driver Shane (Jack Reynor) behind his back, however. Anyway, Cade realizes that the cab is really a Transformer, and it soon assumes its true form: that of Optimus Prime. Prime reveals that he and his comrades have been in hiding since the government began cracking down on them. Cade’s friend/assistant Lucas (T.J. Miller) calls the authorities, who have offered $100,000 to those who turn in live Autobots. James Savoy (Titus Welliver), Attinger’s right-hand man, arrives at Cade’s farm and demands to know where Prime is, threatening Tessa in the process; Prime breaks out of hiding and leads Savoy and his men away, long enough for Cade, Lucas, and Tessa to escape–thanks to Shane, who pulls up in the nick of time.
A chase ensues, in which most of Savoy’s men are killed or incapacitated, but Lucas is also killed. Cade, Tessa, and Shane go on the run in Prime, and using a CIA mini-drone–engineered by KSI–they eventually discover that Joyce has been creating a Transformer of his own, called Galvatron. With the help of several other Autobots, Prime and the Yeagers try to defeat Lockdown and his henchmen, Galvatron, and Attinger. Oh, and “the Seed”, an object used in eons past to mecha-terraform the Earth, is the object of much interest. And some ancient Dinobots–literally mechanized dinosaur skeletons–factor into the mix as well.
I feel a little bad relegating over half of the film’s story to one fragmented paragraph, but not only am I trying to cut back on my endless summaries, but the plot of Age of Extinction is convoluted enough that a full summary would take as long to write and nearly as long to read as just watching the damned film. And if you’re set on doing that, more power to you. You’ll need it to stay awake.
I’m not joking, either. In the last half-hour, I well and truly began to feel drowsy, and I doubt it was just my lunch digesting, since I made it through two hours of the film without descending into a torpor. It’s a hard fact, but let’s face it: this film is boring. Not as boring as, say, Ishtar (still the only film I and my most prolific filmgoing companion abandoned out of sheer numbing boredom), but there’s only so much I can take. The sight of Autobots and Decepticons and what-have-you battling each other is exciting for a while, but the battles have so little resonance–what are they even fighting for at this point?–that they can’t help but become wearisome.
As I said initially, I don’t hate Michael Bay. I think he’s a skilled director in his own niche, and his best work demonstrates that. Hell, I’d even argue that his work here at times shows a mellowing from his trademark hyperactivity; I realized that shots were being held for more than a few seconds, that I could for the most part understand what was going on, and–shock of shocks–the camera actually stood still once in a while. He’s still a long way from Tarkovsky, but Bay seems to have toned things down a little here.
He once famously answered his critics: “I make movie for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.” But that’s not the issue. The hyperactivity, the simplified storytelling, the emphasis on high-octane action above all else–that’s not the issue. Is it tiresome? Sure. But that’s not what really taints Bay’s films for me.
For me, what damages his work is the willingness to indulge stereotypes and to pander to…to who, exactly? To homophobes, xenophobes, and misogynists? It’s a bold claim, but the evidence is pretty damning.
Early in the film, Cade is examining a run-down old movie palace with an eye towards salvaging its projectors. Cade and Lucas meet the grandson (Patrick Bristow) of the theater’s owner outside, and Lucas goes to shake his hand; the grandson responds with literal limp-wristedness. And why? Why feature such a blatant stereotype? The character could be totally omitted from the film without issue (the first thing we see could’ve been Cade bringing the truck home and we would’ve lost nothing of note), and there was no reason for the character to be so stereotypical–so why? Is there something I’m missing? Am I reading too much into it? Bristow is an openly gay performer–why did he take the role? Did he not see the issue? Was he in need of work? (I shouldn’t think so; he seems to be pretty busy.) His resumé shows that he was in Pain & Gain (another film which had troublingly homophobic content); I am truly curious as to what his rationale is.
But this character soon leaves the film, and shortly thereafter a realtor (Cleo King) shows up with a couple of prospective buyers to see Cade’s farm, which is on the verge of foreclosure (since he’s spent all of his money on inventions which have earned bupkis). Cade chases them off with a baseball bat, threatening to murder the buyers and telling the realtor (who’s a black female) that he’ll send her brother (whom she threatens to send to remove Cade from the premises) a “pe-can pie”, whilst mocking his apparent obesity. Racial stereotypes and fat jokes (and actionable threats) in one helping. Real nice.
And it doesn’t get much better. Shane is apparently Irish (which you might forget, since Reynor can’t maintain an accent to save his life), and Cade taunts him, saying he sounds “like a leprechaun”:
Shane: In Ireland, you’d get your ass kicked for saying that.
Cade: But you’re not in Ireland, Lucky Charm, you’re in Texas.¹
I mean…what the fuck? Did they make Shane Irish just so this could happen? How is any of this okay? Did Wahlberg, a Bostonian, think he was making a cute dig at anti-Irish sentiment? Because it just comes off as arrogant xenophobia. Of course by the film’s end, Cade and Shane are friends, and “Lucky Charm” is used as a term of endearment, but I’m not having it. If Cade’s attitudes illuminated his character in some way, if there was any sense of awareness that our protagonist is an asshole, then maybe I could understand. But as it is, this material is utterly gratuitous. There’s more–poor Ken Watanabe voices a samurai-esque Transformer named Drift, who endures a little obnoxious ribbing from Hound (voiced by John Goodman)–but I think I’ve made my point.
And my question still stands–why does any of this need to be in the film? Can they not help themselves? Do they think this is what people want? Are they perversely seeing if they can get away with it? Am I a schmuck for dwelling on this? Because the thing is–this nastiness taints the fun for me. A big, dumb action movie is just fine–but when you go out of your way to be offensive, I can’t enjoy myself. That’s my problem, I know. But I have to be honest here. And honestly, I didn’t like it.
What really wounds the film, though, is how unlikable Cade is. Seriously, the guy is a fucking prick. His daughter points out his irresponsibility–irresponsibility which has driven him to the edge of bankruptcy and foreclosure, the latter of which he meets with threats of murder–and he guards her virginity to a rather disturbing degree, butting heads with Shane repeatedly over their even holding each other. And when he threatens Shane with statutory rape charges, Shane cites Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” law, which allows for relationships with under a three-year differential–and he has a card with this statue printed on it in his wallet, which is just creepy as shit.
(Note: after this point, I stepped away for several days, disgusted by the thought of writing about the film further. I will attempt to resume, though my memories of the film have faded somewhat.)
The rest of the characters are, by and large, either unpleasant in conception or execution. Stanley Tucci probably comes off best; Joyce has a fairly predictable arc–the arms tycoon in bed with the Feds who gets a conscience and helps save the day–but Tucci has a little waspish fun with the arrogant character. Kelsey Grammer, as the arrogant Attinger, is quite arrogant; I wonder if this ugly portrait of the intelligence community was some kind of commentary on Grammer’s part, or if he was just picking up a paycheck. Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor are a pair of one-dimensional young lovers at the mercy of Cade’s puritanism; sympathetic though their plight may be, who cares? T.J. Miller is not the most annoying “annoying sidekick” I’ve encountered; that’s all the praise you’ll get out of me. Titus Welliver is a cold bastard who looks a lot like Anthony Bourdain. I wish they’d cast him instead.
The voice acting is, I suppose, not too bad in its way; Peter Cullen has been voicing Optimus Prime for decades, and while I can’t say his guttural tones fill me with awe, I won’t fault him. Obnoxious though his character can be, John Goodman is always good to hear. Ken Watanabe is wasted, but Mark Ryan’s Lockdown at least has a little weight as a villain.
Do I need to talk about Ehren Kruger’s script? Haven’t I been through enough? (The answer is no, but whatever.)
Technically, the film is hard to fault, at least allowing for Bay’s stylistic choices. As noted, the direction is actually relatively coherent, and Amir Mokri’s cinematography, while far from outstanding, at least looks the way it should. The special effects are for the most part quite strong (the mouths of the various Transformers seem a bit off, though), and the soundscape–mixing and editing–is properly overwhelming. Steve Jablonsky’s score has faded totally from my mind, but I suppose it does the job.
I think I’ve said enough. Because, really, you know if you’re going to see this. It does deliver where robot-on-robot action is concerned, but it’s full of so much ugliness that it’s hard to enjoy. I won’t deny it its virtues, but it’s still one of the worst films I’ve seen all year. It doesn’t come near the hateful depths of something like Grown Ups 2, but in a year with Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there’s no reason to bother.
¹Not the exact words, but I couldn’t find the exact quote.