How do you judge what a good, or at least halfway-decent, Transformers movie looks like? Certainly not by its script, considering Ehren Kruger’s last two contributions to the series were disasters of a grand proportion. This time around, it’s not nearly as poorly put together as Revenge and Dark was. The film essentially revolves around a father-daughter duo (Mark Wahlberg and Nicola Peltz) and said daughter’s boyfriend (Jack Reynor). Nobody will be surprised to know that they end up getting dragged into the world of the autobots after finding a trashed one, who unsurprisingly is Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Not only do they have the government chasing them down, but once they team up with a gaggle of other misfit autobots, they’ll have to face down an alien prison ship. They’ll also deal with Stanley Tucci’s snarky Steve Jobs type, who steals the film from the moment he’s introduced as a man trying to utilize “transformium” (the best name for any new element ever) to create new, super-awesome autobots. You won’t hear any trash talk against Tucci here.
There’s a lot of familiarity to the way that Kruger actually attempts to work with what Bay’s traditionally used to presenting; these seemingly average folks that fit into this narrative we’ve seen before, but work to deliver the intended messages. Just think back to the relationship between overprotective father, daughter, and daughter’s boyfriend (Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, and Ben Affleck) in Armageddon. We have the same dynamic here between Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, and Jack Reynor, and while it sometimes paves the way for embarrassing dialogue and drawn-out scenes that add to the film’s bloated length, it actually adds a human quality to a film that heavily features non-human entities. Folks have heaped praise on films like Godzilla this year (with their “humans are there for scale” or “human drama is what propels the film” praises for it) only to trash Transformers for doing exactly the same.
It’s strange for me to jump into this sort-of defense of Bay’s work because I still have a mountain of issues with him, and Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t exactly a masterpiece of action filmmaking. To a certain extent, it feels like someone trying to stay in line with the ever-changing form of the big-budget blockbuster. A lot of it is erratic and frustrating to watch (and 3D has seen much better uses lately), but those massive Bay set pieces are always amazing. Some might complain that some of the more ridiculous camerawork (someone falling from a building in the most over the top fashion for example) or the weird fluidity and ever-changing nature of the special effects for the transformium (still the best word ever) that the new autobots are made of (Galvatron especially) is distracting. There’s an argument to be made against those, but it’s rather interesting to watch the way it works against some of the more traditional Transformer effects. Nothing, however, is as damn fascinating as the massive spaceship that mostly makes up the film’s center. Long story short, Peltz’s character accidentally gets kidnapped along with Optimus Prime into a giant space prison and the boys and bots try to go save both her and Prime.
What we’re treated to is an almost-James Cameron aesthetic that instantly called to mind films like Aliens, Terminator, and even The Abyss in that tech-heavy, claustrophobic environment that makes for the perfect human v non-human clash. But as massive a search-and-rescue mission as the one that takes place in this moment is, Bay keeps the momentum flowing steadily. You’ll want to check your watch occasionally, as the unfortunate damsel-in-distress situations and everyone’s generally mopey attitude (except for Marky Mark who is an always-upbeat and optimistic inventor) start getting to you even when the action’s happening, but who can really complain when that final act includes the coolest thing: dinobots. If you tell me you’re not interested in a movie where Optimus Prime rides a giant dinobot and swings a sword around, I’d probably be disappointed in you.
“Look at these fucking dinosaur robots,” the film seems to yell at one point, and, honestly, that’s not a bad thing. As derided as he is for being loud and boisterous, Bay often knows how to utilize a barely-there narrative to his advantage by allowing his themes to come across unmistakably. One can’t expect a Michael Bay film to utilize subtlety to drill its gung-ho all-American sentiments into us, and it’s actually something I appreciate about him sometimes. It’s not just the flags loitering at every corner, but the way everything that happened in Chicago throughout the past films have been established as the fictional universe’s September 11th of sorts. You’ve got billboards saying “REMEMBER CHICAGO” all over the place while Kevin Spacey talks of autobots being terrorists who don’t belong. The way the government persecutes the autobots, even those that are innocent, under the guise of “homeland security” is never written in the subtext, but just up on screen for everyone to see, as are the jabs at certain forms of product marketing.
There are plenty of think pieces about how that dark moment in American history is drawn upon for massive disasters in modern blockbuster cinema, including some that discuss how former Transformers films have called those images of burning buildings to mind. This time around, as much city-wide damage as there is, Bay and Kruger take a much different approach to recalling that narrative, and it actually kind of works. Whether or not people think it’s half-assed, a lot of the film is commenting on the way people will go to any lengths for independence; whether that’s the dark truth that one can turn a national disaster into an excuse to target average people as “terrorists” or simply a young woman wanting to escape the overbearing father who’s holding her down.
Unfortunately, that kind of lack of subtlety also results in some things I don’t appreciate. I get that he’s making films for the “average American male” but there are things about that kind of perspective that are shameful. There’s no shortage of casual racism, sexism, and homophobia throughout both Bay and Kruger’s careers, and while toned down, Age of Extinction is no exception. While there aren’t any gay jokes around, the machismo of the whole dang thing is ever-present (with a joke made about it by the criminally misused T.J. Miller). When it comes to the women, we’re treated to the typical barrage of male gaze photography (which sometimes results in some admittedly great shots) and a protagonist who essentially serves to be the damsel in distress time after time. On another level, I can’t make the claim that giving the Ken Watanabe voiced autobot, Drift, a samurai make-over all while being the only autobot with a distinctly yellow face is racist, but it left me (and others I know) pretty uncomfortable. It’s also pretty convenient that everyone in China apparently knows martial arts, but hey, at least it provides a cool action scene, I guess.
For most audiences, things like this don’t particularly matter, but they drag down an already not-that-great movie to a sort-of middle ground that I can’t entirely endorse. As problematic as the films and filmmakers in the series can sometimes be, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be. By no means is it deserving of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (nor its 16% which marks it as the worst in the series), but when you’ve got engaging action set pieces spread decently enough throughout the film, it’s enough to please. Audiences (including most of mine) will adore it, and when it all boils down to it, it was entertaining enough in a flurry of bloated blockbuster features.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is currently available for pre-order on Blu-ray/DVD.
Directed by Michael Bay; written by Ehren Kruger; starring Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Titus Welliver, T.J. Miller, and Thomas Lennon; 165 minutes.