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“Transformers: Age of Extinction”

Transformers Age of Extinction Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

David Ives - published on 06/27/14

Michael Bay's movies are the epitome of fast-food filmmaking.

As Michael Bay tells the story, his directorial career began at the age of thirteen when he attached firecrackers to a model train set and filmed the subsequent destruction with his mother’s 8mm camera. There are plenty of folks out there who would say Bay’s talents as a filmmaker haven’t really progressed all that much since that day.

Of course, that’s not to say the man doesn’t have his defenders as well. The venerable Criterion Collection has placed not one, but two Michael Bay films on its list of “important classic and contemporary films” deserving of preservation and critical study. That means that sitting on Criterion’s shelves next to films from the likes of Kubrick, Cocteau, and Fellini, you can now find copies of The Rock and Armageddon.

Madness? Maybe. But from a certain viewpoint, it’s not that hard to understand why Criterion has included Bay in their pantheon. His film style is instantly recognizable and highly influential. In fact, if you were make a list of things which have irritated most film critics over the past two decades, the majority of them can be traced back to Bay. Quick cut, barely coherent action sequences. Endless litanies of gunshots and explosions. Paper thin characters spouting generic slogan-filled dialog while standing in front of ridiculously dramatic lighting. Women young and old filmed in such a way as to appeal to the sensibilities of a thirteen-year-old boy just hitting puberty.

On paper the formula sounds awful. On the big screen, well, it’s still kind of awful, but there’s no denying it’s also successful. According to The-Numbers.com, Bay is the fourth highest grossing director of all time, with his films having pulled in almost $4.7 billion worldwide. And that’s a figure that’s only going to balloon even more once Transformers: Age of Extinction hits theaters.

The fourth film in the inexplicably popular Transformers franchise, Age of Extinction picks up approximately five years after the end of the previous film. It appears things have not gone well for the Transformers since the Battle of Chicago. Not overly pleased with the idea of giant alien robots destroying large populated areas of the planet, CIA bigwig Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has commissioned a special robot killing task force designed to eradicate Autobots and Decepticons alike. In addition, he has struck a secret alliance with the bounty hunter Lockdown, a rogue Decepticon who is willing to help massacre the Transformers in exchange for help in capturing Optimus Prime.

If that initial setup makes the movie sound a little on the dark, it is, at first. One of the earliest scenes in the film has Ratchet, an Autobot from the previous movie, being mercilessly blown limb from limb as he pitifully begs for his life. He finally dies a horrid, painful death as his metal heart is ripped from his chest. Yeah, I’d say the film might be a bit on the rough side for younger kids. Come to think of it, with the constant stream of profanities, maybe the little ones should just stay at home and watch the Transformer cartoons instead.

Anyway, while all this is going on, down-on-his-luck inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles across a shot-up big rig and tows it home in hopes of selling it for spare parts. With the introduction of this new main protagonist, two things need to be said. One is that no mention at all is made of Shia LaBeouf’s character from the first three Transformer movies or what happened to him. That’s probably because Bay realizes nobody cares. The second is that, sadly, Mark Wahlberg never belts out “You Got The Touch,” the heavy-metal power ballad from the Transformer’s 1986 animated feature film, which he so infamously interpreted for the movie Boogie Nights. That alone would have earned the movie my undying respect, but alas, it was not meant to be.


But I digress. As you might have guessed, the broken down truck Yeager fixes up turns out to be an injured Optimus Prime, who is none too happy with the betrayal he and his fellow bots have suffered at the hands of humans. Despite his feelings, however, the ever-noble Optimus comes to the aid of the inventor and his daughter when the CIA and Lockdown appear and start blowing everything up. Narrowly escaping, Optimus and the humans head into the desert to meet up with the last few remaining Autobots, a rag tag group that includes the inevitable Bumblebee, as well as two new characters voiced by John Goodman and Ken Watanabe. No actor is above a paycheck.

Now, if this were a non-Michael Bay film, this rallying of forces would signify that the final battle was about to begin and the end of the film was drawing nigh. But as this is another overly bloated, nearly three-hours long installment in the Transformers series, there’s a long way to go yet. The second act introduces another important character and yet another villain. It turns out Attinger is in cahoots with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs like entrepreneur who is back-engineering technology from the dead Transformers in order to create supposedly controllable versions of the robots for the government. His most powerful creation is Galvatron, an uber-Transformer that mysteriously keeps turning out to look like the supposedly dead Megatron no matter how many times Joyce tries to alter its appearance. You see exactly where this is going, I’m sure. Bay doesn’t really do mysteries.

Tucci is a breath of fresh air, actually, and one of the main reasons this outing for the Transformers isn’t as interminably bad as the last two. He seems to be the only actor in the film to realize he’s in a cartoon and his appropriately hammy performance livens up every scene he’s in. The movie is also helped out by the fact that Bay’s camera-work doesn’t appear as viciously spastic as it normally is. Whether that’s due to the limitations of the massive IMAX 3-D cameras he used during filming, or the fact that he’s finally starting to slow down with age, the fact is it helps the movie tremendously as most of the time you can actually tell what’s going on.

There’s also a really nice visual sequence at the start of the movie in which we learn the real reason the dinosaurs became extinct. It’s majestic in a way the rest of the film isn’t, and shows that Bay really does have a good eye as a director. Unfortunately, it’s quickly forgotten until the last half hour of the movie when the Dinobots show up, but it’s an impressive set-piece all the same.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Transformers: Age of Extinction is a good movie. It’s still just mostly two hours and forty-five minutes of cacophonous destruction occasionally interrupted by barely scripted scenes involving stock characters from Bay’s previous movies. Seriously, the entire subplot involving the over-protective Yeager, his strong-willed teenage daughter, and her secret rally-car driving boyfriend is lifted directly from Armageddon. I would be willing to bet you could cut out the majority of scenes involving Wahlberg’s family dilemma and replace them with shots of Bruce Willis arguing with Liv Tyler and most audiences wouldn’t even notice the difference. In fact, I’m looking forward to someone doing this very thing on YouTube someday.

It’s a shame the family drama in the film is so generic because there’s a lot to like about the Yeager family in Age of Extinction. Oddly enough, Bay is one of the few directors out there who routinely makes films featuring fathers who are heroic, competent, and loving. In a cinematic universe populated by men who are little more than bumbling sperm donors, Bay can usually be counted on to deliver fathers who willingly embody the traditional Judeo-Christian role of provider, protector, and teacher. Sure, in Yeager’s instance he might err on the over-protective side, but even that comes from the desire to honor a promise made to his dying wife. Bay’s fathers are almost always decent, honorable men. They’re just badly written.

Look, it’s a Michael Bay Transformers movie. If you don’t know what you’re getting by now, then you’ve mercifully managed to miss the first three installments. If you did see them, then it’s more of the same, only filmed in a way to be slightly less irritating to film critics. Like so many of Bay’s other films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a mostly innocuous film. With the possible exception of some leering camerawork (did we really need a shot of Yeager framed by his teenaged daughter’s legs and barely covered backside?), the movie goes out of its way to not insult anyone’s religion, politics, or deeply held beliefs of any kind.

It’s the epitome of fast-food filmmaking. Tasty enough to eat if that’s all there is, but quickly forgotten once it’s been digested.

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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