Transformers: Age of Extinction

The artistic freedom offered by zero expectations
Michael Bay
Mark Whalberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammar, Jack Reynor
The Setup: 
Giant robots, you know the drill.

I felt a weird mixture of excitement and self-loathing going into this movie, like: why did I want to see it? I knew exactly what it was going to be, it's super long and bound to get boring, and what was I hoping for? I was also chagrinned because actually, I had a DREAM about this movie about two weeks before it came out! In the dream, I was standing by as the Transformers passed by me on a road, all headed into battle and--WHAT is that about? Has my mind been completely colonized by the corporate blockbuster regime? Anyway, regardless of whether my mind is permanently lost, I came way thinking that while this film may be the latest in a series of heralds portending the coming collapse of civilization, at least it is heralding it with style.

Okay, so what do we know about this movie? The first thing we know is that Michael Bay did not want to make it. He told Paramount so, and apparently got a deal that he would get funding for Pain & Gain if he agreed to make this. Then I read an interview with screenwriter Ehren Kruger that emphasized Bay's primary interest is just to come up with action sequences to top the last one, and put amazing visuals onscreen.

So knowing those two things, and having seen the movie, I think the best way to look at it is: Since people come to these movies to see giant robots battle each other, with zero expectations as to sense-making or character, this gives them complete freedom to fill the rest of the movie with whatever they want. Which is kind of an amazing artistic situation to be in, especially if you're a director tired of this series and wanting to move on, knowing that even if you WANTED to put in interesting characters and clever developments, no one would care. So what they chose to do is fill almost every moment with comedy. Sometimes crass, often cretinous, sometimes racist, sometimes right-wing, but most often just goofy, pretty much everything that happens between action sequences here is pure comedy. Even the "serious" scenes play as pop-culture parodies.

The other notable things to point out are that, since we're watching robots, you can have them be as violent as you want, ripping out mechanical hearts and chopping others in two. Things so violent that, if they happened to a human, the film could never get so much as an R rating can happen to robots--and then it's safe for kids! Also, since we're talking about robots, you can engage in as many racial sterotypes as you want, because hey, we're talking about giant robots, not real people. So let's start looking at the film!

The first thing to say about the film is that it does not make one lick of sense. And I don't mean, like, if you think about it--No, I mean it is IMPOSSIBLE TO THINK ABOUT. It makes no sense. Whatsoever. It verges on surreal. There are long sections where you will only understand the most immediate thing--they have to climb the cable to get to the skyscraper, Dad has to get his daughter off the alien ship, or whatever--but an overall sense of what is happening in the story is completely obscure. So this review can't cover the story as a whole, we'll just follow particular threads through the movie, the only way to organize it. Overall, the plot is that there's a badass bad robot bounty hunter killing all of the good robots, and he is helped by corrupt politicians and businessmen, and the good robots have to fight him. And we have new foregrounding characters in Mark Whalberg, his daughter, and her boyfriend.

Whalberg is a man named Cade Yeager, and he lives in a huge gorgeous farmhouse on the rolling plains of Texas, and he is unemployed and almost on the verge of losing his house, a good ol' boy Texan who wears trucker caps and T shirts and is often sweaty and grimy, but is ALSO a brilliant robotics expert! He's also a great guy, earning a meager living by repairing neighbors broken electronics, telling them to just "pay what you think it's worth." All of this combined were what first made me think: Maybe this is all a joke. Cade Yeager? Texas mechanic/robotics expert? Maybe Bay and Screenwriter Kruger know what they've got here and they're just filling it with fuck-all comedy, because no one will care anyway? And honestly, I think that's the case.

Bay is still a filthy man, who seems to view women primarily as a great place to put a cock, and he reaches a new level here, as the object of lust has now slipped below legal age. She is Tessa, Cade's 17-year-old daughter, blonde, nubile young lass with blue eyes and peach lip gloss, who is in ludicrously detailed glamour makeup in every scene, and quite literally resembles a Barbie doll. She is first seen being dropped off by a car full of her equally-glammed friends, saying it's the end of school and that she wants to "get wasted." What follows is a lot of protective dad drama with more than a dollop of repressed incest. For example, Dad wants to be Tessa's date to the prom. When informed [by the disposable comic-relief friend] that dads don't take their daughters to the prom, Dad says it's not the issue and Tessa responds "It should be the issue," and I agree: IT SHOULD BE THE ISSUE. Later, Dad says they have a "Non-dating household" in which he does not date, and she does not date, which, by extension, leaves the two of them together, without other romantic partners.

But we're not done! Soon bad government agents come, causing Tessa to continue making one of her two expressions, blank, open-eyed [and open-mouthed!] shock. One of the agents grabs Tessa in shots that emphasize his size and leering face as he towers over and subdues her. Immediately after shots of Tessa looking hot n' helpless, another bad agent says to Cade "Nice spread you got here... too bad she's for sale." Oh, but he's talking about the HOUSE, see! When Cade won't reveal where a transformer is, this agent orders the one holding Tessa to "Use the girl," and he puts her down on the ground as we're shooting upward, seeing his crotch tower over her, and soon his gun is at her head. There is a LOT of this kind of stuff surrounding poor Tessa here, stuff that is just a throwaway line here, or a shot composition there, but if you take it all together and pay attention to it, it all adds up to a quite sleazy picture.

Sorry, we're not done with Tessa quite yet. Turns out that she has a boyfriend, Shane, who is a professional driver, who shows up out of the blue, allowing for the comedy of Dad discovering that the daughter he has spent all this time "protecting" is not exactly a virgin. At one point, they need to make a difficult jump, for which Shane needs Tessa to "grab my dick" to accomplish. When Dad threatens 20-year-old Shane with legal action, Shane recites, to the letter, an obscure Texas law that allows underage teens to, you know, fuck, so long as they've been dating a few years. Shane's precise recital, and carrying a printed copy of the law, cause us to wonder if he actually found the law before dating Tessa. The point is; Dad, who wanted to be his daughter's date to the prom, and who wants to keep her all to himself in a "dateless household," and thinks he is preserving her virginity, finds out that she is secretly an underage slut who is grabbing her boyfriend's dick in the car.

And all of this, apparently, is the kind of story that appeals to Michael Bay.

So as I said, between the giant robot attacks, there's room for pretty much anything to be thrown in there, including a scene in which an obese black female realtor shows up to sell Cade's house [which is about to be foreclosed], and immediately switches into a Jerry Springer-esque foul-mouthed sterotype speaking ebonics and threatening to have her brother come over to beat Cade, only Cade laughs, because her brother is so obsese he'd be no threat. Soon after, a small transformer who is characterized as a shambling old black man complaining about how hard he has worked is sadistically given an electric shock by a white scientist. The transformers are given many different races and personalities, from a Japanese warrior to John Goodman as a bearded, cigar-chomping biker type [who gets to shout "I'm a wicked warrior robot!"], although come to think of it, in any of these movies, I don't think I've ever seen a female transformer. Also--has Bumblebee always been coded black? He is now voiced in the manner of a sassy, attitude-filled black youth.

That said, if one of Bay's intentions is to put amazing visuals onscreen, well, you have to admit he does. The opening scene has these alien ships visiting prehistoric earth and killing a bunch of dinosaurs, which did not add in any way to my understanding of the human condition, but did look pretty cool. Later, there's a shot in Texas with our characters in front of a beautifully rusting... you know, one of those big farm things for grain or whatever, and it just looks gorgeous. When Cade and friends are climbing on cables far above the city of Chicago, it looks amazing in 3D. There's a funny shot of an alien spaceship over Chicago reflected in the Bean, a good, shiny piece of public art here. The guy has an eye, and has a great talent for creating incredible visuals, even if his personal politics may compare unfavorably to Ted Nugent's. Since Pain & Gain revealed that point of view and creating a shapely story really are not in his repetoire, one wonders what would happen if he could apply his visual talents to a script by a talented writer, developed without his influence on story or character.

Now just random additional thoughts: Stanley Tucci is in a part that seem to allow him to just go crazy and be funny, and he is a hoot, especially a scene in an elevator where he has a mild freak-out. The product placements are every bit as outrageous and in-your-face as you've heard, although I'm starting to put them in the context of his fuck-all attitude of not even trying to hide or integrate them anymore. And we DO realize that this entire movie is a commercial, right? The dinosaur transformers add nothing. The new transformers are boring [when they can become anything, even the questionable thrill of watching them turn into cars is lost], and the "subtext" of ancient technology versus futuristic technology... yeah, really fascinating. Rich. It's a bit weird that the only returning characters are the robots, and that the greatest emotional attachment here are to CGI creations. And that's about it.

Worth seeing? Not really, it's exactly like the other ones, the elements just switched around, but maybe it's a bit more enjoyable for being suffused with an attitude of taking the freedom to have as much fun as possible with the story and characters, since absolutely no one cares about those parts anyway.

Should you watch it: 

If you do, you'll know what you're getting into.