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Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

It hardly feels like seven years since Michael Bay's version of the classic 1980's cartoon Transformers made its way onto the big screen.  The first film, while definitely filled with flaws, was an overall entertaining blockbuster that proved a big hit with movie goers.  So much so, it spawned two horrible sequels, each terrible for completely different reasons.  Three years after the overly long and boring Dark of the Moon, we now have the latest giant robot punch-em-up from Michael Bay: Transformers: Age of Extinction.  With a brand new set of actors and (mostly) new robots, is it too late for this franchise to be saved?

Taking place five years after the previous film, Age of Extinction features a changed world after the Autobots and Decepticons battled in Chicago.  Transformers are being hunted down by the CIA for their metal and they are using a Transformer named Lockdown as a bounty hunter. Caught in the middle of the CIA, Autobots, and a greedy inventor (Stanley Tucci); tinkerer Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter (Nicola Peltz) find themselves brought into a resurgent war that will once again determine the fate of humanity.

So, let's start things off with the story...or what semblance of a story there is amongst all the noise and boring family drama.  Some of the ideas in writer Ehren Kruger's script are not inherently bad.  Stanley Tucci's Joshua Joyce seeks to use a new metal (given the incredibly stupid name "Transformium") to build his own Transformers, including the fan-favorite character Galvatron.  This central idea of man using Transformers to further our own technology has been present since the first film, but it is examined on a much deeper level this time around.  When Age of Extinction takes the time to contemplate these questions, it becomes an intriguing story that actually feels like a clever play on the Transformers mythos.  The use of the CIA to hunt Autobots is also an interesting diversion from the norm.  Unfortunately, so many of these sometimes great story moments are drowned out by the action set pieces, making the film something akin to a roided out body builder who occasionally ponders the meaning of his phone during workouts at the gym.

What has been one of the biggest weaknesses of this franchise continues to be so with the fourth outing: the human element.  Michael Bay attempts to give the franchise a new breath of life by casting well-liked actors such as Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, and Kelsey Grammer.  Unfortunately, none of these actors is able to deliver even a watchable performance.  Walhberg expects us to believe he is a native Texan with his traditional New England accent while also attempting to give heart to a lifeless family man part.  Grammer tries to be menacing, but comes off as anything but.  Tucci is the most disappointing as he spends much of the movie screaming or acting completely over the top.  Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg's on screen daughter does better than Megan Fox, but only by a slim margin.  T.J. Miller plays a bit role of comic relief in the first act that is annoying and then utterly forgettable.

One of the biggest problems with this human element is that there is no depth to these characters whatsoever.  Any moments which could have been an opportunity to give a character depth are squandered.  We are told Wahlberg is an inept father who has not really been there for his daughter, but we have to be told this instead of being shown it, something which could have easily been fixed.  Kruger's writing of these characters mostly seems to be for the purposes of getting us to the next action scene, only every now and then remembering to tell a worthwhile story.  It is probably unrealistic to expect Oscar-worthy character writing in a summer tentpole, but characters with more emotion and depth than a saltine cracker would be nice. 

Then there are this movie's robots, the main attraction.  Optimus Prime receives the primary focus here, which seems a wise move.  For most of the movie, Optimus is easily the most interesting character, so it's a good thing Bumblebee has been cast aside as the lead Autobot.  Optimus also has the most depth as we get some examining of the machine's waning trust in humanity.  Peter Cullen still gives chills with that classic voice, but even Optimus is not spared from the bad writing.  One of the key moments of the third act all rests in knowing something about Optimus' past that we are barely told about.  Apparently the robot is a knight of some kind that can control robot dinosaurs?  This is something Kruger and Bay make pivotal to their story, but do not make a single effort to explain.  John Goodman and Ken Watanabe are some of the actors to lend their voices to the forgettable line-up of Autobots.  Given that we barely hear their names, these Autobots are presumably fat robot (Goodman), Asian stereotype robot that is also a samurai for some reason (Watanabe), and vaguely European robot.  It doesn't really matter that we never get to know these robots aside from Prime, as their only purpose in this movie is to shoot things when they aren't looking like a Chevy Super Bowl ad.

Where does Age of Extinction actually succeed, though?  Unsurprisingly, this movie is only really good at one thing: action.  Well...at first.  The first two acts of this film are anchored by diverse action set pieces that feel incredibly thrilling, even if most of the elements involved are CGI.  All of the Transformers still look fantastically rendered by that CGI, though, blending mostly well with the practical effects.  Michael Bay has staked his career on grandiose action scenes, and Age of Extinction definitely delivers the goods.  Up into the third act, the action is enough to keep one from falling asleep, providing just the type of popcorn entertainment audiences look for this time of year.  About halfway through the third act, however, it seems Bay sent Kruger home and decided he could just write the movie himself as there is very little of the act that is not some big fight scene or explosion.  This makes for a final third of this film that feels far too long, making one wonder when the loud cars and robots and guns and explosions will just stop for five seconds.

Then there are the elements that are present in every Michael Bay movie that really need to get more scrutiny than they often receive.  Let's call them Bay-isms.  The absolute worst thing this film does is that it is incredibly racist.  Ken Watanabe's Autobot, as mentioned, is inexplicably a samurai, making him the first Transformer in this series to have something to mark his distinct culture.  Asian racism abounds in this movie with stereotypes including the smart Asian woman who is secretly really good at martial arts.  Scratch that...even a nameless Chinese man in an elevator in this movie is secretly a martial arts master.  Michael Bay could also seriously use someone to come in and punch up the comedic moments of this film.  Sorry, Bay, but Mark Wahlberg discussing Texas rape laws with his daughter's secret boyfriend is not hilarious...it's awkward.

With so many changes made to the formula of the first three films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is actually more of the same.  It is a sour blend of some of the great things about this franchise, but mostly all of the bad.  This is a film that is racist, bland in characterization, and features action scenes that start out wildly exciting and inventive, but eventually devolve into a noisy mesh.  At fifteen minutes shy of THREE HOURS, this is also a film that could have used some extra time in the editing room. Children and adult Transformers fans with the emotional depth of a child should be thrilled, but the rest of us will definitely walk out with a sigh.  There are glimmers of hope in this film, but it would seem nothing is saving this train wreck of a franchise.  The saddest part of all?  Age of Extinction is actually the best of these four polished turds.

I give it a C-

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