That’s always the counter-argument to criticism about these kinds of movies, isn’t it? “Well, what did you expect it to be?” In the case of Transformers: Age of Extinction, I expected it to be exactly what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
Well, maybe a little more; I’m an eternal optimist, always hoping that maybe there’ll be some positive tweaks to his formula, but really, there’s no need for Michael Bay to change a damn thing when his methods make so many kazillions of dollars. For better or worse (depending, among other things, on whether you’re a stockholder of Hasbro and/or Paramount), Michael Bay is as close to an auteur as is working within the blockbuster idiom right now, and Transformers: Age of Extinction is more of the same from him.
If you liked the previous Transformers movies, which I did not, then Age of Extinction will deliver for you, and now with 100% more robot dinosaurs. (Though it lacks robot dinosaurs, the best action movie opening this weekend is Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans. Check it out.) I will say Age of Extinction was a bit more tolerable than the first three films – heaven help me, I find Mark Wahlberg a more interesting actor than Shia LaBeouf – and it’s a vast improvement over Bay’s only non-Transformers movie since 2005, last year’s Pain & Gain. (I really, really hated Pain & Gain.)
In other words, Michael Bay is as Michael Bay does. Let’s look at some of the things he does in the Transformers: Age of Extinction. Also, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
…did I mention there would be SPOILERS? There sure will be!
To provide a bit of a buffer betwixt you the spoilage, I’ll tell you about how I’ve been dealing with this movie for the past few months. I’m a film critic for SF Weekly, and in mid-June we did an all-comics issue; the editor’s mandate when he first told us about the project back in March was that we do a comic in which my colleague Jonathan and I discuss summer blockbusters. The editor hooked us up with comic artist Ben Costa, and I wrote the outline and script. The final product begins how I’d always pictured it: with me and Jonathan leaving a theater showing Transformers: Age of Extinction, me ruminating on how summer blockbusters got to this point. I do this kind of thing in real life, too. (I’m lots of fun to be around!)
And hey, speaking of movie theaters…
1. Old Things, and Old People, Are Silly and in the Way.
Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor who collects broken things to turn into new things, unknowingly comes across a dormant Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in an abandoned movie theater. It’s a nice one, too, an old-school movie palace of the sort which hasn’t been built in years and probably never will again. The theater’s elderly owner speaks longingly of how movie projection used to be, before digital and IMAX, and a younger relative of his makes a light-hearted comment about how he’s this close to poisoning the old man.
An old-fashioned riverboat also gets destroyed, and during a chase, a car crashes into a VFA building full of retirees. It’s almost enough to make you come nowhere close to forgetting the scene in which the homes of hundreds of impoverished people get destroyed in Bad Boys II.
2. Sexy Co-Eds!
The female lead is introduced as she must be in a Bay film, in the most sexualized-plastic way possible. Tessa (Nicola Peltz), Cade’s 17 year-old daughter, is dropped off at their isolated farmhouse by a carful of giggling, aggressively sexy Bay-dream girls who disappear just as quickly. (Sorry, screencaps are not an option.) Peltz was 18 at the time of filming, but we’re told several times in dialog that she’s 17, as so to ensure her entry into the key demographic’s collective spank-bank. Also, there’s a conversation about loopholes in the statutory rape laws, so that’s nice. Maybe it’s a remnant of the first draft of the script, when it was called Transformers: Age of Consent.
Though the majority of the released images from the film show in her jeans, much is made of her tendency to wear Daisy Dukes, as she does for much of the first act. She’s also in high-heeled boots and wears breast-enhancing, frequently see-through tops. Again, none of this is any surprise whatsoever. Bay’s been doing this kind of thing for years, and he’s been rewarded handsomely for it, and I’m too numb at this point to register anything more than, “Ugh.” I might as well go scream at the ocean for all the difference it would make.
And there’s no question that Michael Bay has a type. Megan Fox was a brunette, it’s true, but Bay tends to lean towards blondes (how original!), and it’s occasionally distracting how much Nicola Peltz looks like Dark of the Moon’s Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
3. Seriously, Nicola Peltz Looks a Lot Like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and It Weirds Me Out.
Granted, it’s not just the women. When Titus Welliver’s character first appeared onscreen, I was all, “Yay! Stanley Tucci! He’s good in everything.” Then Stanley Tucci appeared f’reals, and I was all, “Yay! Stanley Tucci is in a dual role! He’ll be doubly good.” I fully admit I was grasping at straws by this point.
4. T. J. Miller.
Most recently seen as the second-most problematic element of Silicon Valley, T.J. Miller is Cade’s business partner and a general lazy lecher, frequently saying utterly inappropriate things about the sexiness of Cade’s daughter, who is 17 years old. (Did I mention yet that she’s 17? Because she’s 17.) His performance in Age of Extinction goes to show how important Mike Judge’s steadying hand is on Silicon Valley, because here Miller is playing to the rafters, and those rafters are pretty damn high in an IMAX theater.
He still doesn’t deserve the kind of death he gets in the movie. It’s implied that it’s karmic retribution because he snitched on Cade and Optimus, but his character dies horribly, and Bay lingers waaaaaaaaaaaay too long on his horrifying remains. It doesn’t have any of the the emotional resonance of the charred corpses of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, either. Maybe it was because Bay knew he could get away with it within the confines of a PG-13 rating?
5. Bloodless Mayhem.
Obviously, a Transformers film (based on Hasbro’s TransformersTM Action Figures, DEAL WITH IT) can’t accurately depict the consequences of the violence it depicts, and certainly vast quantities of blood are a no-no. Early on we’re told that the events of the previous film left 1300 people dead in Chicago, and while that seems like a low number, at least it was some kind of acknowledgement of the mass death that would have to occur when battling robots lay waste to a city.
And then we get this guy essentially getting run over by a jumping car, and it has the same effects as Tony Shaloub getting tased in Pain & Gain.
In Age of Extinction, liquid comes spurting out of his mouth, rather than, say, his whole damn face coming off like in Death Proof. I can’t believe I’m using Death Proof as a positive example, and I’m not really a gorehound, but this moment actually damaged my suspension of disbelief. And this is in a movie with robot dinosaurs.
Granted, it didn’t make me actively angry at the movie like a scene a few minutes before.
6. The Slow-Motion Tear.
Evil government agents lead by not-Stanley-Tucci have invaded Cade’s farm looking for Optimus Prime, who has gone into hiding. Commanding them from afar, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) orders them to shoot Tessa on the count of ten if Cade – who doesn’t actually know where Optimus is at that moment – doesn’t tell them where Optimus is. To say the actors playing the government goons are manhandling Nicola Peltz is an understatement, and toward the end of the elongated countdown as her head is pressed to the ground, a CGI tear falls from her eye in slow-motion.
That is Michael Bay’s idea of drama.
The character of Tessa is just poorly written across the board. (Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, but it’s a Michael Bay film through and through.) In addition to the film both leering at her all sexy-like and simultaneously shaming her for it, she’s written as weak and helpless, panicking at all the wrong times (there’s one moment where she looks skyward and yells “Help me!” that is just the most painfully awkward scene since I don’t know when), a burden on the competitively macho male characters, and the closest thing to a character arc is her father deciding to maybe not be quite so protective of her.
Also, a non-robotic alien who never shows up before or after (maybe it’s canonical from the cartoon, I have no idea) briefly puts its tentacle around her leg.
The ultimate problem is that the script gives Tessa all the emotional maturity of a not-especially-mature 12 year-old, but is made to be a 17 year-old, because she can’t not be an object of desire, and not even Michael Bay is going to want the men in the audience to get the hots for a 12 year-old. (He’s not Luc Besson.)
Again, Michael Bay is as Michael Bay does, this is what he does, and I’m under no illusions that my criticisms are original and/or that anything is going to change.
And now I need to cleanse my palate with something that doesn’t make me want to hurt myself.
7. Hey, It’s Rainbow Dash!
Using a substance called “Transformium” (you can work out the etymology of that one yourself), a beardo scientist with a penchant for donuts briefly creates a rather large model of fellow Hasbro property Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. It’s only onscreen for a few seconds, but, hey, corporate synergy at its finest! I think I was the only person in the IMAX theater to react to it, but it made me happy, and that’s a rare emotion to feel while watching Transformers: Age of Extinction. I would have preferred Twilight Sparkle or Rarity, but the tech (and Michael Bay, though he’d never admit it) seems more like a Rainbow Dash kinda guy.
I tell ya, I couldn’t have been more relieved when the 157-minute Age of Extinction finally got China, because it meant that we must have been approaching the third and final act. (Speaking of endings, the beginning and end of the film strongly parallel the beginning and end of Prometheus. It’s kinda weird.)
And while we do get a quick shot of a sexy girl in an elevator dressed just like she’s in a Michael Bay movie, the main Chinese character is Su Yueming (Bingbing Li). She’s a strong, determined character with agency that can more than hold her own in a fight. It’s a terrific refutation of the stereotype of submissive Chinese women, and while an argument could be made that her character is a blatant pander to the country that is funding so much of this and other blockbuster movies, my question is this: why only the Chinese women?
Why can’t Michael Bay also pander to the U.S. in the same way, by making American women strong characters, too? And I am not equating “American” with “white,” either. Hell, he could split the difference and have the lead female role in the inevitable fifth Transformers film be a strong Chinese-American woman. For that matter, Michelle Rodriguez going up against Megatron would be just about the most badass thing ever. I would actually pay to see that, something I’m proud to say I’ve avoided doing for a Transformers film thus far. (Last time I bought a ticket to a Bay film at all was Armageddon in 1998.)
I sincerely doubt such a thing would happen – Michael Bay is as Michael Bay does – but it’s nice to imagine. (We’re also under orders to imagine dragons, so get to work on that.) In the meantime, there’s only one thing you can be sure of in a Transformers picture…
10. And Robot Dinosaurs, At Least This Time Around.
Robot dinosaurs being rode by other, sword-wielding robots, in fact. I mean, there you go. That sells the movie, and the appearance of Grimlock ‘n pals certainly got the longest sustained applause from the audience. But no ovation for Rainbow Dash! I don’t understand this world. (Then again, I suspect I was the only person in the audience who thought Veep has been the best show on HBO on Sunday nights in recent years.)
You know exactly what to expect from Transformers: Age of Extinction – you knew it before you read this article, you sly dog you – so all I can say is to maybe also give Snowpiercer a shot. If they’re in the same theater, buy a ticket for Snowpiercer, then sneak into Age of Extinction afterward. Also, check out Transformers: The Premake before you see Extinction. It summarizes everything you need to know about modern blockbuster production and publicity.
Or after you see Extinction. Or step out into the lobby halfway through the movie when your brain starts to hurt, and watch Transformers: The Premake on your phone. With the possible exception of the Rainbow Dash cameo, you won’t miss anything important in Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Michael Bay is as Michael Bay Does.
Previously by Sherilyn Connelly: