Michael Bay’s latest exercise in excess is the biggest, longest, loudest, explodiest film ever made.
I’m not exactly sure how to gauge the effect of Transformers: Age of Extinction had on me. I feel churlish for referring to it in such simplified terms as “good” or “bad,” and I’m even hard pressed to call it a movie. This film is a cinematic endurance test. It is a celebration of excess along the lines of a Bollywood film. Infamous schlockmeister Michael Bay, working on the fourth (the fourth!) of these movies, has only ratcheted up his movies more and more as the series has progressed and, with Age of Extinction, seems to have finally reached terminal velocity of sound and fury. The filmmakers throw just about everything they can at you, beating you aggressively down into your seat, and are going to make damn sure that you’re entertained. And if finding yourself lost in a spinning miasma of chaos represented by flying car parts, dancing electric air snakes, fire-breathing ancient dragon monsters, chases through space ships, gun battles in the streets of Hong Kong, and the constant mention of the word “transformium,” then you may just find yourself reasonably “entertained.” Although I think “dazed” may be a more appropriate adjective.
I was dazed upon my exit of the theater. On the drive home, I saw a billboard for an upcoming film that features a talking chimp on horseback, waving a gun around above his head. How odd that I should think how restrained that image was when compared to Age of Extinction.
I cannot think of a film that is bigger, longer, and more excessive than this one, and I’ve seen all of Zack Snyder’s films. I seem to have no recourse in describing this film, but to fall back on film theory. As action films have continued to evolve, editing has become faster and faster, the amount of information on the screen has increased and increased, the volume has risen higher and higher, and spacial continuity has pretty much flown out the window. Some film theorists, like David Bordwell, have referred to this phenomenon as “intensified continuity.” Others have used the more unkind term “chaos cinema.” The goal of this ever-mounting happenstance seems to be to overwhelm the audience rather than intrigue them. Consider me overwhelmed. We’ve now, in the modern epoch, reached something like Age of Extinction, which runs 165 minutes, contains at least eight acts, deals with a dozen different distinct locations, and features a bevvy of both human and robot characters, not to mention some robot dinosaurs for good measure. I cannot comment on the strength of the various characters because they typically only serve to fall through the air, screaming someone’s name, firing a gun, and mutating their bodies into vehicles. Sometimes they fall past some obvious product placement. Wanna go to Victoria’s Secret after the movie?
I understand that Michael Bay’s Transformers films are supposed to function as nostalgia – they are based on a toy product and a subsequent ’80s cartoon show by Hasbro – but Age of Extinction seems to have abandoned that angle. This is less a film version of an episode of the Transformers TV show, and more like an ambitious encapsulation of every single robot fantasy you had throughout your entire childhood rolled conveniently together into a deafening ball of swirling car parts. Some fans (and I know you’re out there) may be thrilled to see the Dinobots on screen, but they are but a drop in the bucket.
I have always taken issue with the design of the robots in these films, as they seem to look like randomly assembled piles of machinery, lumbering in a vague human shape toward an enemy that looks a little too much like them. The indistinct robot design not only robs the Transformers of character, but makes for fight scenes devoid of clarity; I have trouble distinguishing one robot from the next, and soon the fights look like two junkyards fighting. Age of Extinction hones the design a little bit, adding celebrity voices to the characters, and this was the first time when I could tell what was going on in much of the fight scenes. Or perhaps my eye was simple becoming used to it.
And I haven’t even gotten to the story yet. Just to do my critical due diligence, the story follows blue-collar Texan Mark Wahlberg as he finds and repairs Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the leader of the “good” Transformers. Transformers are being hunted and killed by a robot named Lockdown (Mark Ryan) who is in the employ of a kill-’em-all politician played by Kelsey Grammar. Meanwhile, inventor and Steve Jobs-like design magnate Stanley Tucci has discovered the ancient source of all Transformers, a rare metal called transformium, which he is using to build his own Transformers. The new Transformers, however, turn out to be evil, as they are being infected by the disembodied brain of Megatron (Frank Welker), the dead leader of the “bad” Transformers. We go to China, to Hong Kong, and spend a good deal of time aboard an alien spacecraft. Mark Wahlberg is also having family troubles; he doesn’t want his teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz) seeing her older boyfriend (Jack Reynor).
In terms of tone, Age of Extinction is the most overall consistent of the series; it mercifully lacks the off-the-wall tonal messiness of Revenge of the Fallen, famously rushed into production during a writers’ strike. Age of Extinction is the first of the Transformers films to feature any sort of cogent narrative thrust, and just because there’s a WHOLE LOT of it, doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be lost… too badly. That doesn’t mean that’s it’s still not exhausting. At the end, you’ll have felt like you ran a marathon. You too can stumble out into the sun afterwords, pleased to be outdoors, eager to take a nap in the sunlight. Have some lemonade. You accomplished something.