TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
Pain & Gain this is not, but I've seen worse backsliding in my day. Transformers: Age of Extinction exists, and I would describe no individual stretch of the picture as unpleasant. However, faint pleasure, experienced for a truly bludgeoning one hundred and sixty-five minutes, does not a gold-plated recommendation make.
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Ehren Kruger
With Mark Wahlberg (Cade Yeager) (lol), Nicola Peltz (Tessa Yeager), Jack Reynor (Shane Dyson), Kelsey Grammer (Harold Attinger), Stanley Tucci (Joshua Joyce), Bingbing Li (Su Yueming), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Frank Welker (Galvatron), John Goodman (Hound), Ken Watanabe (Drift), John DiMaggio (Crosshairs), and Mark Ryan (Lockdown)
Spoiler alert: moderate
So, I just watched a movie that features at least an hour too much footage, unlikeable and boring characters who act inconsistently from one scene to the next, the most distressingly retrograde depiction of masculinity possible, the most disgusting possible depiction of its one major female character to match, the gross and unnecessarily in-your-face framing of a minor's sexual characteristics (in its opening 15 minutes no less!), and, of course, big fucking trucks and even bigger explosions. Then, when I got done with Henri-Georges Clouzot's alleged masterpiece The Wages of Fear, I hurried out to catch Transformers: Age of Extinction, the new Mikey Bay movie, and it largely failed to offend me.
Frankly, while I suppose I did enjoy The Wages of Fear more than Extinction, I have the most unshakeable suspicion that it is purely because with the former, I had the ability to watch half of it before I went to work, and finish it nine hours later when I got home. But I had to watch Extinction in just one sitting, and that just can't be the recommended method.
A 105-minute version of this film would be a victory for everyone, but I cannot see how to get there. You could demand, with justification approaching a divine sanction, that no less than a solid hour be cut. But all Bay would have to do is ask, with that insufferable half-grin of his, "Where do you want me to start?" and your face would crinkle up as if you just ate a lemon wedge drenched in piss, because you could not possibly have any idea.
In fact, some tremendously bad intrascene edits suggest that the film was originally intended to be even longer. And Jesus? Wept.
Ehren Kruger, having been freed to depict life as it is lived (if life were lived in the shadow of transforming alien robots), elects to present the most picaresque, "...and then this happened" narrative since Spider-Man 3. And much as that (better, shorter) film did a great job capturing the experience of sitting down to half a dozen comic books, Extinction does a creditable job of replicating the experience of watching ten episodes of a cartoon in a row, though that cartoon may be Family Guy.
Anyway, I might as well try to roll out the plot:
After the Battle of Chicago in the last movie, a shadowy organization within the U.S. government has taken it upon itself to exterminate the alien menace, Autobot and Decepticon alike. But when Cade Yeager—widower, father, debtor, "inventor"—finds a heavily-damaged Optimus Prime, he naturally repairs him. No good deed can go unpunished: Cade's (slightly greed-driven) charity brings the government's wrath down upon him and his daughter, Tessa. This wrath includes a henchman who dresses like it's the fucking Matrix.
But Optimus defends the good humans, kills the bad ones, and they go on the run, reuniting with the surviving Autobots—Hound, Drift, Bumblebee, and Crosshairs (the latter is a robot that dresses like it's the Matrix, though this is not nearly so distractingly stupid as it could have been). Unfortunately, the CIA is working with another alien robot, Lockdown, who is in turn working to deliver Optimus to his mysterious Creators. Meanwhile, a billionaire is performing Mengelesque experiments upon Transformer prisoners in order to build an army. The prototype is his finest creation, Galvatron—and if you don't know what happens after that, then you have never seen one of the best animated films of all time, and I truly pity you.
That's Hour One, so let's leave it at "a lot of shit happens that I'd say doesn't really accord with series continuity if I remembered what series continuity was, but then things explode, Dinobots occur slightly, and two or three of the twenty plot threads that comprise this nonsense end up resolved."
There are action sequences, with reasonably well-designed robots, and sometimes they're pretty cool. My favorite was definitely the slow-motion, long(ish)-take wherein Optimus and Bumblebee juggle the pathetic humans with whom they've been burdened.
Pictured: bitchin' technology.
Oh, but I forgot to mention Shane, and I cannot imagine why I might have done that (except that he has no narrative value, and only has thematic value if you see the best in Bay, as I try to do). Shane is Tessa's boyfriend, a man of a score of years, who is only defiling a 17 year old girl because there aren't any actual babies around to throw upon the scalding metal topheth for the pleasure of his dark pagan gods.
He's Bay's strangest character yet!
Oh, wait, my notes are wrong—actually, they have a normal late-adolescent relationship. I must have drank half a gallon of paint and fell down a flight of stairs onto my skull, and this explains how I got confused.
So, it turns out a lot of people are either 1)scolds with unexamined values and very shaky grasps of actual human behavior, or 2)just hate Michael Bay so Goddamned much they can't help overreacting a bit whenever he gets within fifty yards of a school zone. But let's discuss the humor of this Transformers picture generally, before discussing the thirty seconds that seem to have generated a campaign against sexual agency and the concept of an informed citizenry.
The whole movie bends toward surprisingly decent comedy, largely devoid of the really nasty stuff of the previous films; the worst thing about Extinction is undoubtedly blog favorite Ken Watanabe. He is Drift, the Japanese Stereotype Transformer, which is something that makes so little sense it actually needs to be explained, but of course it is not. In combination with Godzilla, the trend of Watanabe's career—in Hollywood—is starting to disturb me a bit. The guy so cool that he got to play Clint Eastwood in the chanbara remake of Unforgiven is, on this side of the Pacific, forced to either reverently talk about giant monsters, or else present himself as the honorable warrior, reciting haiku while doing so.
I posted a picture of Optimus Prime riding Grimlock because I can't find one of Drift, though he is in the film approximately eighty times as much.
I'd say that's it, but I might have forgotten to mention the loud black lady and the part where everyone in China knows kung fu. I forgot the latter because you hate fun. In any event, if Bay did need a starting point for cuts, I may have found it.
Yet Drift is, paradoxically, also indispensibly good. He gets some the very best lines—and best reads—of the whole film, which is not bereft of agreeably funny lines and gutsy line reads. But this is to be expected: Watanabe, a titan of poise, presence, and timing, has routinely gotten the best lines in all his films.
Only not here, as the very gutsiest—and the funniest—belong to Stanley Tucci, our billionaire, who got to where he is by the Kinemalogue-approved method of "ALGORITHMS!" and "MAAATH!"
Get a STEM degree, or an Autobot will take your job!
It helps if you enjoy the performance that's onscreen the most. Mark Wahlberg's comical earnestness, which Bay deployed with such bilious irony last year, is now so indistinguishable from the bad old days that this might also be a sequel to The Happening. The key difference is that Bay is still making fun of his star on purpose—and it's genuinely entertaining.
And this finally brings us back to Shane, Tessa, and the patriarchal doofus with an overreaching custodial interest in his daughter's sexuality, whose attitudes way too many people have unintentionally recapitulated. The offending sequence is a conversation between Cade and Shane where he threatens to call the police and bust the young turk for stat rape. Shane—much like Batman—is prepared for any eventuality, and carries a (laminated!) printout of Texas' relevant laws, explaining that their Romeo and Juliet provisions exempt him from their ambit.
"...and the rule of law makes me want to fucking vomit." Not an actual quote. Her heart's in the right place. (The ribcage.)
The first thing to point out is that the age of consent in Texas is 17—which is amusing to me, as I might be the only one who's bothered to look it up (or, possibly, can read a perfectly plain statute). It's Tex. Penal Code §22.011(a)(2), for your edification. (Kruger likewise takes liberties with §22.011(e)(2)(A), Texas' Romeo and Juliet defense.)
I'm curious if initial drafts pegged Tessa at 16 and Shane at 19, or if Kruger went for the stat rape joke without a modicum of research, or what, but it's not terribly important. What is important is that we all remember that Transformers movies are farce first, but this time I can't agree that the farce is monstrous.
I feel like it's necessary to say that it's easy for me to take the condemnation personally. I had a similar, and similarly lawful, May-June relationship for nearly seven years—or "April-June," if you want to be a real jerk. It began when the young lady in question was about six months shy of 18. Tens of millions of other Americans—male, female, gay, straight—have had analogous romances. I'm not fond of the contempt held by self-appointed guardians of public hygiene for these relationships—many of which didn't end because I'm an asshole.
Nonetheless, I concede the reaction can be justified by more than the premise, in view of how Bay elects to shoot Peltz. Any of Bay's Transformers pictures could be titled Ephebophilia: The Movie—and be more accurately named—though it's not quite so egregious this time, and making a joke out of it does remove a bit of the sting.
In terms of sexist portrayal in the narrative, I really must point out that Tessa is integral to the climax (of the film—just in case your discombobulation is actually a nasty case of psychological projection). Her character arc (it exists as much as anyone else's) is that of finally refusing to allow the bossy, stupid men in her life to tell her what to do, as they have done throughout, and her willfullness saves the whole day. That said, I don't blame anyone for missing this important plot point, since it is in the last fifteen minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and no mind could be expected to still be paying attention.
As for sexist portrayal in the visuals, at least Peltz was 18 during shooting. (I surmise Legend gets a pass because when you watched an actual 17 year old get dolled-up in fetish gear, you were 17 too.)
But Bay objectifies every human being in range of his camera, regardless of age, gender, race, or belief system. Objectifying them is the only way he seems to even tolerate them. The hidden theme of Bay's oeuvre is becoming unmistakeable: Bay despises biological organisms.
It explains why he made a film only a robot could entirely focus on.
This is how I actually got a kick out of a movie where pitiful humans posture over the unacceptable possibility that two of them are fucking, while the world is literally ending. The Autobots themselves wonder if humans are worth saving, and seem to come to the conclusion that they aren't, although they do so anyway out of a misplaced inertia. There's a part where Hound exterminates a biologically-organized alien. Why? Because it was "too disturbing to live." (Some call it a vagina monster, but 1)wow, okay and 2)its most salient quality is that it was born instead of built.)
In Extinction, even the Transformers' struggles are made explicitly meaningless—despite their far superior construction, their recapitulation of human follies like emotion, individuality and ideology make them very nearly as worthless as we.
You get the distinct feeling that the reason Bay sometimes seems so very bored with these films is that, despite the vast freedoms accorded by his commercial success, he still is denied the ultimate freedom: to put an end to these pointless strivings. No, this is emphatically not, as I had hoped, the Mature Michael of Pain & Gain. But it is clearly from the same man who finds being a man an absurd condition to be in. Thus he makes absurd movies about it that for some reason make a billion dollars apiece. Is it so surprising that he's cynical?
...And if he'd made it an hour shorter, we might be talking about something I would remember a year from now, too.