The Messy Goodness of Transformers: Age of Extinction

transformers

I had the unfortunate experience of seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on my honeymoon. Hating it with a burning passion, I swore not to see anymore Transformers films. Somehow despite my best intentions my wife managed to get me to see Dark of the Moon with her. The third entry was cinematic torture for me, a confusing blur of sight and sound seemingly devoid of any hint of the deft storytelling I love so much. At this point, I was convinced that it was not only against my interests to see another Transformers movie, it was outright immoral to financially support the making of this cultural garbage.

I spent the last weekend of June bemoaning the box office failure of Tom Cruise’s zany Edge of Tomorrow while Michael Bay’s fourth entry in the series soared to profitability and widespread success.

So imagine my own surprise when I found myself, harrowed and bitter, willingly lining up to buy a ticket to Bay’s latest robot adventure. Impossibly I took my seat, braced myself, and enjoyed movie number four.

Was this on a whim? Perhaps a revealing lack of personal conviction? Had I finally given up and joined the masses in a non-exercise in brainless entertainment?

Actually what changed for me was something else. I watched a video by Tony Zhou called What is Bayhem? and for the first time, I understood. The myriad confusion and uncertainty and doubt I had over why so many people would pay money to watch a Michael Bay film melted away. I saw that behind the crass plotless undertakings was true artistry at work, albeit a twisted and often uncomfortable one.

It all made sense now.

Age of Extinction is a much much better film than the two sequels. It didn’t hurt my brain like they did and it had enough interesting and noteworthy things going on to justify its existence. I liked it. Although it’s not my favorite summer movie, it will probably make my top 10 list at the end of the year. I went to the movie, became enmeshed into the story, and returned home heartily contented. That’s really more than I can ask or deserve from any film.

As probably the biggest Transformers hater I know, I have little need to relive the infinitude of grudges against this franchise so I’d rather just commend the elements I believe really worked. Here’s a list of the major things that Extinction nailed this time:

Optimus Pessimist

Perhaps the best decision of this film was to transform Optimus Prime and the Autobots from Earth’s heroes into “we don’t need you anymore” refugees. Hunted down like filthy Decepticons, the Autobots fare much better as plucky underdogs than government-sponsored, self-appointed guardians of humanity. Optimus especially undergoes a convincing change from sacrificial leader to disenchanted rebel. He has helped the humans with nothing in return one time too many. His team of Autobots are disfunctional, trigger-happy, and tired of their mistreatment at the hands of thankless humans. I’m not arguing that all heroes need to be weary and jaded, but it seems like this shake up is exactly what this series needed.

A Likeable Human

The former Transformers films had a serious lack of likeable humans. However Mark Walberg makes for a revitalizing presence as master tinkerer and hyper-protective father, Cade Yeager. He is a strong enough character to allow the other humans to coalesce around his affable leadership and huge step up from the likes of a certain Sam Witwicky. Most of the emotional weight of this picture revolves around the relatability and believability of this Texan protagonist and it ultimately works. Although he gradually steps into the background as the film progresses, he provides a human anchor for all the robot chaos.

Remember Chicago

The story of Extinction is one deeply rooted in the context of the previous film’s events. Like the Marvel universe with its post-Avengers New York, this film centers around the fear of another Transformer-filled battle like Chicago. In this respect, an Autobot-murdering CIA bureaucrat like Kelsey Grammar’s Harold Attinger makes perfect sense. So does Stanley Tucci’s rich technocrat Joshua Joyce, who is building his own Transformer army to make sure humans never have to face such a threat again. This sense of continuity and logic provides an important narrative backbone to a franchise usually guilty of jumping off the rails simply in order to justify more robot battles.

Relentless Visuals

I have mentioned before my fondness for the beautiful visuals of somewhat underappreciated movies like Oblivion and Man of Steel. A weak story can often be supplemented by arresting cinematography, design, and special effects that play to the strength of the medium. And without a doubt Age of Extinction is absolutely one of the most visually striking films of the year. While it might not have the visual restraint or organic texture of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the extended sequences of Extinction’s vehicular turbulence is superbly rendered with eye-popping color and seamless motion. Despite all of the criticism lobbed at Michael Bay, simply no one makes movies that can compare with this continuous assault of finely crafted imagery. If you can put aside your differences for a moment and just weigh the raw scenery this movie throws at you, you might even find yourself enjoying it.

Jablonsky’s Score

The first thing I do when I get home from watching a movie is read the Wikipedia article detailing the cast, production details, and critical reception. But the second thing I do is head over to Spotify and start listening to the soundtrack. So many films, even great ones, have a lackluster or unmemorable score behind it. But Jablonsky really has created one of the more moving and emotionally tangible soundtracks of the summer. It adds the right amount of gravitas and heart to uplift a fairly chaotic film into something widely accessible. A special standout track is Best Thing That Ever Happened.

Unashamedly Ambitious

This movie took real risks. It killed off the comic relief character before things had barely got started. It balanced several antagonists. It gave us an all new human cast. It gave us new autobots. It respected all the Transformery stuff that had come before. It gave us set pieces featuring an ancient spaceship full of weird creatures, the besieged city of Hong Kong, and fairly awesome robot dinosaurs. But most of all, this movie decided to exist when by all accounts it probably wasn’t necessary, good, or proper to exist in the first place.

Not only did it arrive, it wasn’t half bad. It was more than just more of the same. It turned around a really terrible franchise and became okay. It declared itself to be a thing. And if that’s not high praise, just remember I vowed to never see this film in the first place.

I probably could list a few more good things about how this movie surprised me, but the biggest thing is that it actually surprised me. It was at times funny, beautiful, messy, confusing, epic, and lovingly human. All I have left to say is thank you Tony Zhou for helping me in my deep confusion. And thank you Michael Bay and company for doing that same old thing you do but better than you ever have before.

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