TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION: Honor to the End

Transformers Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Directed by Michael Bay – Starring Peter Cullen, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, T.J. Miller, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Reno Wilson, Mark Ryan, and Frank Welker.

I have a saying that I like to use when a movie connects with something inside of me: “I feel like this movie was made just for me.”

Judging by the extreme negative reaction to TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, this might be the one time that saying is actually true.

Unabashedly and non-ironically, I love AGE OF EXTINCTION. This is the TRANSFORMERS movie I’ve been waiting for since the first one, a big, loud, thunderous movie that puts the Transformers (well, Optimus Prime, at least) out front and makes them the entire point of the movie, instead of rendering them as sidekicks in their own film. Yes, Mark Wahlberg is here as Cade Yeager to say awesome things like, “I think we just found a Transformer” (after said Transformer says, “Calling all Autobots”) and “We got a rule about messing with people from Texas” (in a Massachusetts accent) and “Thanks for looking after my daughter, Lucky Charms” (because his daughter’s secret boyfriend is Irish), but this is Optimus Prime’s film as much as it is Wahlburg’s. It’s Optimus (Peter Cullen) who calls his own ideals and purpose into question, even as he continues to do what he always does and put his own life on the line for others, and it’s Optimus who has the biggest and most dramatic character arc.

This is the best of all four TRANSFORMER movies, and there’s two primary reasons for this: making Optimus Prime the film’s main protagonist and replacing Sam Witwicky’s whining entitlement with Cade Yeager’s earnest apple pie. I do miss the presence of Josh Duhamel’s William Lennox, and given how the relationship between the Autobots and the United States government has changed between movies, there’s room for his character to have played a prominent role in EXTINCTION, but the film uses Yeager to play Optimus’ bro, too, and in this we can see Cade as co-opting both Sam and Lennox’s position in the film. If losing Lennox and Duhamel’s professionalism is the price we have to pay for losing Sam and Shia’s melodrama, it’s an exchange I’ll take.

There are other, subtle changes, too. While no one is going to confuse Michael Bay for Spike Jonze, AGE OF EXTINCTION does provide a dose of social commentary on our relationship with technology. Yeager finds Prime in a decrepit old movie house and the theater’s owner (Richard Riehle) is bemoaning the state of the modern film industry, complaining that these days it’s all about sequels and remakes and declaring them “junk” and “a bunch of crap.” The narrative about Michael Bay (as I discussed nearly a week ago) is that he makes stupid movies, so of course he can’t have anything smart or insightful to say, right?

(I’m reminded of an interview with Joe Elliot of Def Leppard. After Slang came out and was slagged by critics, he made the point that when REM makes an album that sounds different, they’re praised for it, but when Def Leppard does it, they’re mocked. Some people are allowed to change the narrative, and some aren’t.)

I like Alex Pappademas’ take on the role of the theater AGE OF EXTINCTION over at Grantland, where he posits that “it’s a seeming non sequitur that actually decodes the movie we’re about to see, explicitly framing what follows as a worried meditation on the state of cinema in the digital age.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say EXTINCTION is a “worried mediation” of the digital age, but it is, at least, self aware. More than the presence of the old, faded movie poster for El Dorado, I think the most telling part of this scene is the theater owner’s declaration that movies were better when they had “dancing girls, with big cha-chas.” The same guy who decries sequels is the same guy who wants movies with big-titted dancing girls, a clear signal, I think, that every generation has their own version of the male teenage fantasy transported onto the screen.

In my Defense of Michael Bay Movies post, I made the point that Bay’s are throwbacks movies to a time when movie theaters sold spectacle in the form of a viewing experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. Maybe Michael Bay movies don’t offer the same kind of narrative depth of Lawrence of Arabia or Cleopatra or Spartacus, but he’s still making movies that attempt to give you an experience that puts you in the seat of a movie theater. There’s also a nod to why people go to the movies, when Cade’s partner, Lucas (T.J. Miller), asks him how many girls he brought to this theater in high school. This is Bay’s audience – people looking to escape into the dark and see a good movie, sure, but also people who see movies as a background part of their lives, as something to be consumed alongside dinner, popcorn, and gropes in the dark.

Another reason for EXTINCTION’s success is that it also largely (though not completely) eschews Bay’s simplistic use of African-American stereotypes that plagued REVENGE OF THE FALLEN and dumps the childish genitalia-driven humor. (No Autobots pee on anyone this time around.) For the most part, it’s the humans who deliver the laughs this time around, because that’s what some humans do to help cope with a high pressure situation, as the film never forgets that the Autobots are involved in a fairly serious subplot of being hunted to extinction by the same government they’ve been helping.

There is still plenty of what Michael Bay normally delivers, however. There’s a leering camera, explosions, simplistic characters having repetitive arguments, car chases, guns, a circling camera, and destruction on a massive scale. But there’s also a total embracing of the concept of the Transformers for the first time in the series. Much has been made about Bay needing to be talked into directing this movies by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, and there’s always been a slight discomfort in how Bay has handled the Transformers. In my review of DARK OF THE MOON, I said I wouldn’t mind seeing a new director’s take on the franchise because it was time for the Transformers to take the lead in their own series. Bay returned but he also put Optimus Prime out front; while it would be wrong to call this a buddy movie between Prime and Yeager, they share equal prominence in the film’s various plots, and some of the best scenes involve the two men talking.

I saw AGE OF EXTINCTION in IMAX 3D, and there has never been a film more ready-made for the spectacle of this experience than this one.

It’s been about five years since the end of DARK OF THE MOON, and the Autobots have been forced to go into hiding. The government they once worked with is now hunting them down and executing them with the help of a new Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (Michael Ryan). The feds are not only keeping this from the American public but the President, as well, who we know through the admission of his Chief of Staff (Thomas Lennon) would like a photo op with Prime. CIA bigwig Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has entered into two shifty deals: one with Lockdown to eliminate the Autobots in exchange for a Transformer “seed” and one with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), the head of KSI, a company that is building it’s own Transformers. The seed is a bomb that, once let off, will allow Joyce to collect the metal that the Transformers are made from, which allows his company to make their upgraded robots in disguise.

Cade Yeager (Wahlburg) is a small-time robotics inventor with more bills than dollars. He and Lucas hit up a falling-into-disrepair movie theater to purchase some scraps for their business and find an old truck tucked away in the back. They buy the truck, which turns out to be Optimus Prime, who has gone into hiding after being ambushed pre-movie in Mexico. Prime is in bad shape, but Yeager manages to get him active again, much to the consternation of both Lucas and his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz).

Attinger has fed the population a story about needing to turn in any of the aliens they see, and when Lucas calls that they have Optimus, the government’s black ops team, Cemetery Wind (which sounds like the worst Axe body spray ever), is sent in to retrieve him. James Savoy (Titus Welliver) slaps the Yeagers around a bit, threatening to shoot Tessa in the head if Cade doesn’t tell him where Prime is located, but Prime reveals himself. Despite his damaged condition, he comes out firing, creating the first of many fights to unfold over the film’s nearly three hours of running time. The Yeagers and Lucas escape thanks to Shane (Jack Reynor), Tessa’s on-the-sly boyfriend and professional rally driver, who maneuvers them through a cornfield and industrial park, escaping government agent and Transformer, alike.

Optimus Prime Extinction

Bay manages to pack a lot of information and fun in these early scenes; he rightly decides it’s more important to develop the father/daughter relationship than the girlfriend/boyfriend one. Neither Cade nor Tessa are deep characters, but they are real ones; Cade is the dreamer and Tessa is the pragmatist, and the daughter manages to raise the father just as much as the dad cares for his daughter. There is typical familial tension here, but it’s not overdone. Cade has a “no dating” rule which seems a bit harsh, but he’s able to gurgle out a set of facts he probably read in a woman’s magazine in a dentist’s office about ages 12-17 being the danger years. Cade has taken that factoid seriously, and because his wife passed away, it’s up to him to raise Tessa on his own. Tessa can’t date, but that rule only applies until she graduates from high school, so while it’s not a practical rule, it isn’t draconian, either. Cade’s also basing this off the fact that when he was in high school, he got his girlfriend pregnant with a child that turned into Tessa, and he walks a fine, but ardent, line between not wanting her to repeat his mistake, while also never letting Tessa feel like anything except his cherished miracle.

I’ve talked in the past about how Wahlburg does not have a huge range as an actor, but if you throw him a weak fastball down the middle he can crush it, and that’s what he does in AGE OF EXTINCTION. He has such an easy presence about him that he fits perfectly into a movie about giant robots from outer space that turn into cars and planes. Bay’s film have often had an overt jingoistic quality (he makes military porn better than anyone ever), but in EXTINCTION he tones this down, putting the emphasis on the alien robots and not U.S. military hardware. In fact, it’s operatives of the United States government that serve as the bad guys, though Bay is clear to draw a tight circle around Attinger and Cemetery Wind and leave the rest of the military and government out of it. In EXTINCTION, it’s not the military who serves as the American Ideal, but Cade, the upbeat single dad who believes in himself even in his darkest financial hours.

Bay has gone working class hero before, of course, in films like Armageddon (also about a father/daughter/boyfriend triangle), and he seems to be searching for a deeper truth to the American dream here than just flashing signs of wealth around.

The Autobots, for instance, are largely working class vehicles: Optimus is a semi, Hound (John Goodman) is a military tactical vehicle, and while Bumblebee (still talking in audio clips) and Crosshairs are shiny sports cars (a Chevy Camaro and Corvette, respectively), these are working class sports cars. The one exception to this rule is Drift (Ken Watanabe), who takes the form of a Bugatti Veyron, but he is a former Decepticon. It’s the bad guys who get to have the fanciest alternate identities: Lockdown is a Lamborghini Aventador, Galvatron is a fancier semi than Prime, and Stinger is a Pagani Huayra.

It’s not just their vehicles, however. Like large sections of contemporary America, the Autobots have fallen on hard times. They’re being hunted and turned into scrap for KSI, who can then turn their “Transformium” metal into new, man-made Transformers. The film gets decent mileage out of this idea of the “Age of the Transformers” being over, though the man who declares that era over is also the man building new Transformers, which makes me wonder if everytime a new iteration of the iPhone comes out, someone at Apple stands up and declares the end of the Age of the iPhone out of one corner of his mouth, and ushers in the new dawn with the other side.

When these new Transformers transform, they don’t it in the ka-thunk, chunk, whirring manner of the traditional Autobots and Decepticons, but by disassembling and reassembling at the molecular level. Switching from car to robot looks like a swarm of bees buzzing out of one formation and into another. For the first time in the franchise, Bay is tapping into nostalgia with the Transformers. Guys and girls like me who would come home after school and plop down on the couch to catch the latest episode of the original cartoon series or read the latest comic or who played with or collected the toys are now firmly entrenched in middle age and while Hasbro and its various creative partners have introduced different versions of the classic line-up and created new characters, the biggest love is usually reserved for the characters that originally hooked you in. Bay has positioned the Autobots here at the edge of being replaced by newer, shinier toys; when Cade and Shane sneak into the KSI facility with Bumblebee, they are angrily told to get that old car off the premises, that the only vehicles KSI wants to scan are new, flashy cars. Stinger, we’re told, is based on Bumblebee but vastly improved – Bee is just a Chevy, after all, and Stinger is a Pagani.

This infuriates Bumblebee and he childishly (but in character) knocks the display of Stinger over, and later gets his revenge by taking Stinger out in battle and feeding his head to a Dinobot.

The bulk of the man-made Transformers, it needs to be noted, aren’t exotic cars but Chevy Traxes (a subcompact SUV), yet they don’t get the same place of prominence in the film or with the company.

There’s a good bit of commentary about how we’ve let technology control us; KSI is using Megatron’s head to build Galvatron (Frank Welker), and while they think Megatron is is totally dead and deactivated, the leader of the Decepticons is still active and playing the company to get transferred into a new body. Once all the pieces are in play, Megatron takes control of Galvatron and brings all of KSI’s robots under his control.

EXTINCTION has an effective three-front strategy, with the Autobots being hunted, the Decepticons being unknowingly re-stocked by humans, and the alien bounty hunter, Lockdown, who says he’s on a mission from the Creator of the Transformers to bring Optimus Prime back to them for punishment. Toss in human counterparts for each side, and there’s a lot going on in this movie.

Despite this, Bay manages to keep everything relatively grounded. Characters have clear motivations and conflicts (both internal and external) and Bay offers up plenty of CGI carnage and laughs (T.J. Miller is hilarious early in the film, and Stanley Tucci in the latter half) to keep things moving. At nearly three hours in length, EXTINCTION is long, but only feels long if you’re not having a good time.

Which I was.

The relationship between Optimus and Cade makes the movie work. When Prime starts feeling down, questioning himself and wanting to take his Autobots to safety, Cade is right there with a pep talk for Prime and for humanity. And when Cade is struggling with being the parent of a rapidly growing teenager, Optimus is there to assure him that he went through the same thing with Bumblebee.

The Transformers have never been this human, and though only Optimus gets a true narrative arc, every Autobot that is used gets their own personality and adds something to the film’s story.

Bay has even figured out the CGI – for the first time, it’s always clear who each robot is when they’re fighting (well, except for the purposely generic horde of Traxes), and instead of speeding things up so you can’t see the CGI, here Bay quite often slows it down to make sure you can follow along with who is fighting who.

I can’t go without mentioning the Dinobots, who are fashioned here as mythical, primal legends that Optimus needs to break before they offer their assistance to the cause. After freeing them from Lockdown’s prison ship, Optimus and Grimlock (not named in the movie) fight and the giant robot is tamed. The Dinobots (who don’t talk) feel a bit like the Titans of Greek mythology here, old and powerful but replaced by the next generation. I love how they’re used and after they help Optimus win the day, he grants them their freedom.

At the end of the film, Optimus heads into space alone to search for their Creator, which is a bit of an odd move since he knows Megatron has been remade as Galvatron, but the awesomeness of Prime heading out alone to take the battle to an unknown enemy is pretty fantastic.

AGE OF EXTINCTION is my favorite movie of the summer, so far. Objectively, it isn’t as well made as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I have no interest in being objective or trying to convince you to see or not see a movie. You have your own brain for that. I’m here to tell you why I like and dislike things, and TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is the best time I had at the theater this summer.

Bring on TRANSFORMERS 5.

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