Part 3: Transformers: Age of Extinction
I do most things by myself, or at least the things I enjoy. I watch TV by myself, I go to the movies by myself, and I occasionally even go to nice restaurants by myself. I’m not lonely per se, just solitary. Granted, I’m not averse to including others, but few friends of mine want to spend ALL DAY at the movies on a major holiday. Solitude is nice because when I want to leave I can leave, and when I want to go see a third or a fourth movie just because it makes no sense to leave yet, I can. Nobody to say, “R.F., you’re wasting your money,” or “I can’t stay out until 2:00 A.M, I have work in the morning!”
Fourth of July is the kind of day that was made for the movies. There is usually at least one major blockbuster that opens up that weekend and most of the major June releases are still meandering around those screens tucked away in the corner of the theater. This past Fourth I needed to catch up on The Fault In Our Stars before it left the nice theater in town, so I went to an early screening, around 11:3oish. Apparently they don’t clean the theaters well enough because some dust got in my eye and my eyes started watering and it was a whole thing, so when I got out of that showing (at about 1:30) I figured I’d give my eyes a rest and I headed back to the box office.
Now understand my thought process – there wasn’t a lot playing that day that I hadn’t already seen. And in less than thirty minutes there was a 3-D showing of Transformers: Age of Extinction in the IMAX screen, an IMAX screen that was the largest in the world when it was built! (I assume they don’t bother making new ones that aren’t the biggest in the world anymore.) What else could I do? I’d seen a few trailers for it already and I remembered Optimus Prime riding atop a robotic T-Rex whilst wielding a sword and an action scene that took place on a farm and had a lot of slo-mo canted shots. So basically par for the course when it comes to Transformer movies.
Or so I assumed, because I hadn’t actually seen one at that point. Now I imagine the Venn diagram of “People who saw Trans4mers” and “People who haven’t seen Trans1-3ers” doesn’t have much of an intersection. For all I know it’s just me, and apparently my boss and her 7 year old daughter. But what better way to celebrate America? Michael Bay’s lowest rated movie ever? Bring it on. As I reasoned, if I’m going to start somewhere, why not start with the worst?
As the movie begins, we learn that since the events of the last film, the Autobots have fallen out of favor with the U.S. government, probably in no small part due to the destruction of a major city. A CIA task force, led by a villainous Kelsey Grammar, hunts down all transformers, Autobots and Decepticons alike, deactivates them, and sells them as scrap to Stanley Tucci, who runs a cross between Apple and that company from Small Soldiers. Tucci is studying the robo-corpses and attempting to build transformers of his own design, including a not-so-much-friendly-as-fiendly-lookin’ leader he calls Galvatron. The biggest laugh of the film comes when Tucci gets angry that his creation looks less like the heroic Optimus and more like the dastardly Megatron and he bangs his fist on a holo-screen while yelling “Algorithms! Math!” I have no idea if that was meant to be a joke along the lines of Channing Tatum saying “Words!” in 22 Jump Street, or if the screenwriters just couldn’t be bothered to come up with any pseudo-believable science-babble, or if they were trying to comment on the idea of Steve Jobs-esque spiritual CEO who really doesn’t do all that much. Perhaps I’m putting too much thought into a line that was probably given none.
Oh, and Tucci has also discovered an element that he calls “transformium,” which appears to be the stuff that robo-dreams are made of. In a prologue, we see ships shooting that crap all over the place in what appears to be a prehistoric valley, and then we see a woman who appears to have found a big frozen skeleton of the mercurial substance on the south pole. And I’m not entirely sure who that woman is. She doesn’t show up again until almost half way through the movie. Tucci is using this robo-goo to build… oh wait, did I already mention that? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if it’s the dead robots or the frozen goo that he’s using. Maybe both. From what some legit Transformers fans have told me, that metallic goo, which resembles the T-1000, is either a substance that turns organic life into robotic life, or kills everything. The movie doesn’t make it entirely clear.
And then there’s this transformer, neither Autobot nor Decepticon, named Lockdown, who works with the CIA guys in exchange for… I’m not sure. They seem to be helping him hunt down Optimus Prime so that he can… I’m not sure. This guy is supposed to be mysterious and suggest some larger threat, but who that threat is isn’t made clear. Talk of the “creators” comes up, and with the help of Wikipedia I discovered that the transformers were created by two beings, Unicron and Primus, who represent Order and Chaos, but the film doesn’t go into any of that. Perhaps they are setting it up for future installments – Bay has suggested that this is merely the first part of a second trilogy and the only way I can really think of upping the stakes at this point would be to introduce planet sized robots who eat actual planets. There’s actually a pretty complicated and interesting mythology to the Transformers universe, involving multiversal singularities and Matrices of Leadership. And you may recall Unicron from Transformers: The Movie, in which he was voiced by the very late Orson Welles. The introduction, and subsequent escape, of Galvatron might be an indicator that this is the direction they are going. We’ll see I guess.
There’s also a story involving Marky Mark and his “sheltered” daughter Nicola Peltz eking out a living with Marky’s inventions. Marky purchases a beat-up old semi-truck and starts… “inventing,” I guess. I’m not sure what he’s doing beyond beating at it and twisting things with a wrench, but all that beating and twisting activates some sort of distress beacon and awakens… Optimus Prime! After Marky convinces Optimus that he’s one of the good humans, the CIA comes a knocking and we get a gloriously canted shoot out that involves, in no particular order, Optimus rolling out of a barn, a CIA heavy aiming a gun directly at Peltz, Peltz’s secret boyfriend ramping a car through the air at just the right angle so that the tires smacks one of the CIA guys in the face, and general carnage. And did I mention the general cantedness?! It’s as if Bay is trying to outdo all of Film Noir, the original Batman TV series, and all his other films in this one scene.
Thankfully, there aren’t any more plot-threads beyond those. Several critics (read: all critics) have noted that these three strands never converge all that meaningfully and they’re not wrong. But it’s also beside the point – Bay is obviously not interested in “coherence” or “storytelling.” He’s in this primarily for the visuals. And while I’ll admit that Bay’s visual sense, which starts at 11 and just keeps going higher, is not for everyone, it is for me. He’s like a poor man’s Tony Scott, but that’s something. You can’t really watch this movie, or most of his movies, with any consideration for “the whole.” The first two Bay movies I watched had good to great scripts, and Bay’s approach to them made them fun but didn’t undermine the intelligence. There is no intelligence in this script, so Bay the entertainer, the commercial filmmaker, the music video director, gives us a collection of scenes that do what they need to do and usually with a heavy dose of style.
Consider the aforementioned Farm Shootout. There’s what feels like fifteen people in the scene and I feel like I knew just about what each of them was doing. It’s chaotic – you definitely have to give up on discerning what each shot means in context to the shots surrounding it and look at it as it functions to the twenty or so shots on either side. It’s a less sophisticated version of Eisenstein’s great montages, but based on the same principles. There’s a palpable tension, a sense that someone might shoot someone at any moment, and if you give yourself over to it for the length of that one scene, it’s absorbing.
And that’s really the approach you have to take to every scene. It’s like running a marathon, at times almost literally. You start each scene thinking, “Alright, just ten more minutes, I can make it through ten more minutes,” and then ten minutes later you tell yourself, “Okay, just another ten minutes,” and after a while you realize you’ve made it through the whole thing. A healthy dose of short term memory loss helps as well. This isn’t a style of filmmaking, blockbuster or otherwise, that gets a lot of respect because it isn’t demanding of the audience (it’s basically the cinematic equivalent of Cici’s Pizza) or the filmmakers (the hard work of making each scene serve some larger whole is basically thrown out the window). But it’s a style nonetheless and it’s not without its merits. There are movies that I unquestionably love that are little more than a bunch of awesome/crazy/weird/exciting scenes thrown together. I would describe a lot of Kung Fu movies that way, as well as a good deal of Miike’s best movies. Bay has spent most of his career in this mode, for better or for worse.
There are times where the film threatens to cohere into a single story, like the final melee in Hong Kong, but it’s less of a case of the stories tying together than all the characters happen to be in the same place at the same time. Oh, and did I mention that aside from Lockdown, Galvatron is about as controllable as you would expect from anything resembling Megatron and he goes on a rampage of his own. And apparently in Hong Kong, or near Hong Kong, the dinobots are in some kind of hibernation that Optimus awakens them from, then rides back to town to finish off the bad guys (there’s so many I can’t even remember which ones he’s fighting at this point). And while this is one of the most criticized parts of the series, I actually find the parts of the action involving the humans running around dodging debris kind of charming in a classic Godzilla kind of way.
And that gets to something that makes Transformers: AOE work for me – I find a lot of its faults and lunacy and mayhem charming. There is a serious lack of insanity in today’s blockbusters. Some may see that as a good thing, and I’m glad that not every summer movie is like this one, but every now and then I need to see a movie like this – a mess. An exciting, sprawling, brawling, transforming mess. I like seeing robo-warriors hold some sort of council in what appears to be monument valley. I love that a mythology involving some sort of ancient creators and a quasi-Arthurian mythology involving robot dinosaurs is just casually dashed in there without much explanation. And I love the fact that, like the Showa series of Godzilla films, the human characters actually get SOMETHING to do, even if it’s mostly to marvel at the giant metal men. Why do I like these things? I don’t know.
All conventional wisdom says that I should have hated this movie, but I didn’t. What does that mean? Does that mean I’m a bad movie watcher? Are my critical faculties slipping? Am I a cretin, a philistine? I hope not, and I don’t think that’s the case anyway. I think what it means isn’t that profound – it means I liked Trans4mers. That’s all. It means that I saw a movie other people didn’t like, en masse I might add, and found something there for me. I really don’t think there’s anything else to be made of it.
Next time: Getting back to Bay’s robo-roots.