[27 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Michael Bay doesn’t make movies. If there was a Department of Propaganda in the US, he’d be the nation’s number one visual jingoist. His imagery is all sun-dappled backdrops, waving fields of grain, and stark red, white, and blues against unholy inhuman mayhem.
His heroes are goofy and wholesome, his villains similarly styled but teeming with untold evil. He paints his single digit IQ plotlines in strokes so broad that newborn babies seem to understand them while simultaneously pushing his F/X wizards to the brink of individual madness with his desire for a photorealistic apocalypse.
For Bay, film is a dying, destined for digital medium made specifically for his over the top intentions. Guns don’t just fire, they explode in a volley of semi-automatic sonic booms. Bombs don’t detonate, they instead lay waste to untold millions in personal property in magnificent godhead fireballs that fill the air with their sweet, cleansing chaos.
Call him the King of Excess, a raving lunatic as mad moviemaking genius, a true byproduct of our current cultural clime, of just a cheap cinematic hack, but there’s no denying the fact that, with the Transformers, Bay has finally found a niche that he can exploit like undocumented workers in a sweatshop. Thanks to technology, and its ability to bring almost anything to vivid life, he’s Dr. Frankenstein with overblown demands his pieced-together reanimated corpse. One can hear him snarling through grinning, almost insane happiness “It’s ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!!!” the minute one of his many steroid-induced action sequences start to take shape in the editing room.
No other filmmaker plays by his rules and that’s because Bay wouldn’t know that defining professional term if it managed to jump off the page and introduce itself to him. Instead, he’s a creator of moving pictures that resonate with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s the Hudsucker Proxy of popcorn entertainment (you know, for kids).
By now you must have guessed that his latest entry in Hasbro’s billion dollar box office bonanza, Transformers: Age of Extinction, is not very good. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just not a movie. Instead, it’s the idea for a film forced into the position of having to pitch itself to its audience over and over again until they’re convinced.
Bay believes, and the cash receipts prove him correct, that viewers aren’t interested in character or plot complications. They don’t want the restraint, they demand diabetes-inducing dishes of hot fudge covered eye candy. He knows they want to be spoon-fed storylines and all the bombast a bunch of pyrotechnics, real or faked, can provide. From an opening sequence which explains away the extinction of the dinosaurs via alien terra-forming to yet another try at turning Chicago into Man of Steel‘s Metropolis (post Kal-El and General Zod), no moment is too minor, no sequence too superficial to warrant fashion shoot sensibilities and cartoon carnage.
Having ditched Mr. LaBeouf and his dopey, “I am not a star” bull spit and subbing a former member of the Funky Bunch (Mark Wahlberg) for his mandatory human entry way, Transformers: Age of Extinction starts out promising enough. Tapping directly into Bay’s desire to misinform the audience, we get War on Terror soundbites and post-9/11 kneejerk safety concerns. For a brief shining second we wonder if the amped up auteur is going to go for some kind of anti-Neo Con satire…but no.
Instead, he embraces the tract as easily as a connection to Iraq and WMDs, making the case via a power-mad CIA agent named Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) who wants to eliminate the Autobots (and the more or less forgotten this time around Decepticons) from the planet forever. It’s payback for what they did for Chicago, thought is also turns out he’s more than despotic. He wants money, and by selling the salvaged results of his slash and burn tactics to tech mogul Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), he’s guaranteed some percentage of a multi-kagillion dollar defense contract.
Yes, these shapeshifting extraterrestrial machines are made up of a rare metal that, when melted down, can be then manipulated and programmed into anything the maker desires (kind of like Terminator 2‘s T-1000 without the desire to kill all of mankind…yet). There’s also something called “the Seed”, which supposedly will render large swatches of this Big Blue Marble into equally usable molten space stuff.
An intergalactic bounty hunter sent by the Transformers’ “Creators” to retrieve said item is working with Attinger and Joyce. Oh course, the smooth talking automaton (voiced in mandatory “all Brits are fiendish” style by Mark Ryan) has an agenda all his own. Luckily, it’s no more complicated than a non-Common Core math problem.
Into all this comes Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, whose name alone should indicate his destiny as a cog in Bay’s wonky war machine. He’s a struggling inventor and engineer living in Texas. He’s also a single dad dealing with a daughter (Nicola Peltz) with a tendency toward tank tops and short shorts, pink pussycat doll lipstick, and secret rendezvous with her Irish race car driving boyfriend (Jack Reynor).
While salvaging parts with his slacker surfer dude partner (T.J. Miller), Cade comes across a disabled Optimus Prime. With his massive farm in foreclosure, our hero starts seeing dollar signs. When it turns out that the main Autobot needs help, Cade shifts his dreams from cash to collaboration. Of course, our bitter robot wants nothing from humans anymore (hanging with Shia for several years can do that to an intelligence, even one outside our galaxy).
Attinger comes calling, Cade helps Optimus escape, the rest of the Autobots come to the rescue, and right around the time everyone relocates to China for some local color (and international turnstile tie-ins) the Dinobots show up, like a large prehistoric metal cavalry.
One of the main problems with any Transformers film is that the enemy is relatively easy to defeat. Sure, thousands die, millions are lost, (and billions are banked), but somehow, someway, Optimus and his buddies find a way to destroy what previously seemed indestructible. Even the highly touted American-built Transformers are taken down via mortars, grenades, and Marky Mark running around with a what appears to be the only combination sword and laserblaster in the history of the galaxy. In the end, it’s all impressive amounts of smoke and few self-reflecting mirrors.
Granted, if you’re under the age of 13 and know your parents won’t be required to sit with you at the local Cineplex and whine all the way through it, Transformers: Age of Extinction will be a way cool rad experience ready to fuel your raging pre-adolescence with more than just pulsating pubescent thoughts of sex. It will become a symbol, a badge of pretend geek honor you will wear until you discover girls/ boys/ drugs/ booze/ actual legitimate film…or any combination of the aforementioned.
Understand, when this Japanese import became a hit here in the States, our Mommies and Daddies were just getting out of their Huggies. We haven’t discovered anything, we’re just new to a party that was percolating along without us even before our sitting President was in law school. As for Michael Bay? He was in his 20s when Transformers took hold of a pre-teen demo. Now, nearly 50, he should know better. But because he refuses to, we get what he gives…and we buy it, lock stock, and repeating double barrel.