The fourth Transformers movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, is pretty terrible. It’s not really going to have its critical defenders, so piling on the bandwagon and expressing my many problems with the film doesn’t seem that important. It is such a scarring experience that I can’t help but want to share it though. Misery loves company. Except it’s not really that, it’s more a desperate attempt to manufacture some enjoyment from the experience after the fact. Like I just left the theatre, shook my fist at the sky, and cried “damn you Bay, I WILL make this worth my time!” So what follows are a collection of thoughts and observations on what might be the worst film I’ve ever seen in theatres.
MAJOR SPOILERS, if you care.
First up, in the classic Transformers vein, we get some painful establishing stuff. There’s no Optimus Prime narration though, but the script was saving that treat for the end. Real talk future filmmakers – you can’t end your movie with narration and not open it that way, and vice versa. Narration presents a narrative bracket at the least, and implies someone telling a story at the most. The bracket needs to be closed and the story needs to be finished. It’s basic stuff.
But then again this script is overwhelmingly clumsy.
The opening presents an image of alien (we see one pink hand) spaceships killing all the dinosaurs with liquid metal stuff. Then we cut to archeologists uncovering some of this metal including a dinosaur skeleton. We later learn the surface of the planet was turned to Transformium and then harvested by these ships. That seems like the sort of thing that would kill all life, not just the dinosaurs, and leave some geological evidence in the process. But what do I know.
The shots of spiky alien spaceships encroaching on prehistoric earth are pretty cool though. It’s exactly like what I would have wanted Grant Morrison’s Dinosaurs vs Aliens to look like. (Has that fallen through the same way all his big or small screen projects seem to?) The shots of the arctic are also pleasing to the eye.
Somewhere in here we see men-in-black team up with a Transformer with a gun head to kill an Autobot, and establish that this is a shady CIA op run by Kelsey Grammer. He’s only meant to be hunting Decepticons you see. Michael Bay seems to pin some of this on incompetent blind-eyed administration. (Doesn’t the second one have that joke that’s essentially about how cowardly Obama is? It’s like that, but incompetence this time.) Nevertheless Grammer’s actions have no real ramification. At least not ones that aren’t dished out by Optimus “Death Wish” Prime.
Some of these black-ops type shots are pretty cool too though.
We then get to see sun-kissed Texas. We meet the completely unlikeable inventor played by Mark Wahlberg. He plays a douchey father with a distressing relationship with his seventeen year old daughter.
Yes, the Bay eye candy in this movie is underage. It’s super uncomfortable and we’re not even into the really uncomfortable bits yet.
Sun-kissed Texas is also very pretty.
Whalberg, with the help of some comic relief, buys a ruined truck. Along the way Michael Bay has an old man declare cinema dead. Also he does that thing he does in Transformers: Dark of the Moon where sunset turns to day in between shots. I appreciate wanting to have pretty establishing shots but they’re pretty meaningless if the lighting completely changes for the rest of the scene.
It’s established in this scene that Wahlberg is Good At Football.
The comic relief has a surf board strapped to his car. This seems like an odd choice in Texas but maybe he has some emotional attachment to it and needs to keep it handy.
The truck turns out to be Optimus Prime and Wahlberg decides to help repair him. He roughly accomplishes nothing before the same men-in-black from before roll in.
There are about fifty-five American flags in this chunk of film.
“My face is my warrant!” Shouts Titus Welliver, in a line I dearly hope was improvised. Then he threatens to shoot Wahlberg’s daughter. Did I mention she’s not allowed to date? The movie has by this point. Almost a million different times. With so many to go! Anyways Whalberg coughs up everything he knows, which is unhelpful and unimportant anyways.
Then fucking explosions fuck yeah. Boom! Optimus Prime. AMERICA. That sort of thing.
There’s an interminable scene where CIA agents chase Mark Wahlberg and his daughter around while her (gasp) secret boyfriend drives like a maniac to get them to safety. Her secret boyfriend is an Irish stock-car driver. No other characterization is given.
I was sure his car was going to be a Transformer. He pulls off amazing tricks and survives incredible things without taking damage. At one point he basically says “gosh golly isn’t my driving unusually good today?” That Transformer, who was probably named something dumb like Stickshift anyways, was clearly written from the script.
It’s around here that I realized Bay’s shots stop being nice to look at when Bayhem breaks out. As soon as the explosions and gunfire and metal on metal starts it’s all either pre-vised mediocrity or too incoherent to actually be pleasing to the eye. Or too ridiculous (THE FUCKING SLOW MOTION). This is a problem given how full of Bayhem this film is.
Their escape is eventually successful.
They ride around in Optimus Prime, who essentially has an unrepared hole in his heart. However he travels past a big-rig, scans it, and upgrades his form. This appears to also repair all the damage Whalberg was trying to fix, making me wonder why the Transformers ever die.
Then there’s the fucking scene in the gas station. Mark Wahlberg confronts his daughter about her secret boyfriend. Turns out he’s not underage. He’s twenty and she’s seventeen. He fucking whips out a little cut-out of the Texas laws that declare their relationship legal and gives this prepared speech and it’s stomach-churning. It’s so wildly unneeded in the film. You can practically feel Michael Bay’s breath on your ear as he leans in to tell you about these laws he read about and how interesting they are. He probably says something really awful like “makes you reevaluate some things doesn’t it” before you sidle away from this clearly unpleasant man. Bay is clearly a scuzzy guy but this is next level, future court case debacle type stuff.
In fairness it might be the writer who wants to desperately excuse his attraction to children, but Bay definitely supported it so far as THIS seventeen year old was concerned. His camera still treats her (and every other woman) with the same leering touch he seems to have perfected.
Then they meet up with the surviving Autobots. They are Bumblebee (the halfwit), John Goodman (the fat smoking one), the green one (I guess he’s angry? And has a coat.), and Uncomfortablesterotype-bot (the Japanese one).
I wasn’t sure if the blue Autobot was going to be uncomfortable or not at first. Well okay, I was sure, but I hadn’t been proven right. Then it became clear he was meant to look like a samurai. And was voiced by Ken Watanabe. And then he spoke in a Haiku. And then it turned out his name was Drift. And then part of me died a little bit.
The Transformers bicker incessantly while also planning their attack on Stanley Tucci’s headquarters.
Stanley Tucci is the Steve Jobs inspired millionaire inventor character. He has a shady alliance with Kelsey Grammer, who brings him parts from Transformers to reverse engineer. He calls the stuff they’re made from Transformium. He also angrily shouts “Math! Equations!” at one point. He appears to be having fun playing his role. Kelsey Grammer, in turn, has his own shady alliance with the gun head Transformer. Gun head is on a big spaceship and seems to have a whole crew of Transformers he never calls on.
At this point I feel like I’ve seen three thousand different American flags.
Tucci’s main achievement is learning how to program the Transformium. The very first thing we see him make is The Pill by Beats by Dr. Dre. He shoved it down the camera’s throat while explaining what it is too. Then he makes a gun. It’s a pretty nice little visual summary of Michael Bay’s concerns. Tucci is also trying to build his own Transformers. One of them was being built using information drained from Megatron’s head. For some gosh darn reason it keeps looking like Megatron instead of Optimus. Yes, this is played as a surprise later.
So Optimus Prime announces he’s taken an oath to never kill humans. This is in the same breath as he announces he intends to kill Kelsey Grammer. Optimus Prime’s ideology in this movie is confused.
“Funny” break-in scene that half-wit Bumblebee almost screws up. There’s a moment where Bumblebee uses an audio clip from The Big Lebowski to communicate, which is sort of like hiring Leonard Nimoy and showing a clip from Star Trek. And then making him quote Star Trek. If you listen closely you can hear these actors writing extra zeroes on their paycheques. Then Mark Whalberg gets spotted and the Transformers have to get him out.
American explosions. The manufactured Transformer (who turns out to be one of a whole bunch and I can’t tell if they manufactured more that look like him or just one and if so when they decided to go ahead and finish the process they were cancelling part way through before) gets involved. His name is Galvatron (the movie even says this name is ridiculous, and then has the robot who’s actually Megatron “reincarnate” use it to refer to himself) and he fires missiles and speaks of his own accord. This doesn’t alarm the scientists, just pisses off Stanley Tucci.
There’s only one bit of note in this scene – a ridiculous slow motion shot. Bumblebee transforms, throwing the humans inside him out instead of crushing them in the process. He grabs them in midair and throws them to Optimus who catches them and crashes through a million things. Here’s the thing: the speed Bumblebee was driving plus the speed they were ejected at plus the speed of being thrown plus unyielding metal probably equals a pretty slow motion spray of viscera.
I only point this out because more frequently than not Bay’s slow motion shots seemed to elicit chuckles from the audience. It’s not just me who think they’re dumb. (My audience applauded though. It was hard for me.)
Gun head shows up and all the non-Optimus Autobots essentially disappear. Gun head’s spaceship scoops up Optimus Prime in a net, accidentally bringing Mark Wahlberg’s daughter along with him.
Much like the third movie we now have a half-hearted rescue plot line that lasts for a handful of scenes and adds zero forward momentum.
The Autobots bicker, because Michael Bay thought that was what people responded to in The Avengers, before deciding to go rescue their virtuous leader.
So it turns out gun head works for whoever made the Transformers. Ah, major spoilers I guess?
I like how gun head points out how stupid it would be for the Transformers to have evolved. Their Creator put a price on Optimus Prime’s head. Optimus was apparently only made to follow orders. This is weird given that he didn’t know he had a Creator and so had no orders to follow… But the point is he’s viewed as defunct and the Creator wants him back or dead or something.
Kelsey Grammer / Stanley Tucci send the men-in-black to collect their payment for giving Optimus Prime to gun head. Maybe I should start capitalizing that? Ahhh fuck it. Anyways they’re getting something called The Seed in exchange and it turns out that’s been their goal all along. It’ll help them do something vague. And they trust the menacing gun headed Autobot who repeatedly mutters about how much humanity and earth totally sux you dude.
The Autobots successfully break Optimus Prime out of his cage. It’s right near some other cages. I’d make a joke about them being important later but the whole Dinobots thing is so horribly unearned that I’d hate to imply there was any actual foreshadowing.
They fly off in a mini spaceship attached to the big one. It seems like bad design to put your prison with horrifying warriors on a convenient second ship but who am I to question the work of such an accomplished Creator.
There’s also another mini ship? I think. The action is pretty indecipherable again. Bumblebee, the green one, and the humans fly around shooting at Tucci-bots. I think they’re Tucci bots anyways. They’re shooting at something. They crash through a million explosions while flipping and shit. The humans are basically in a topless portion of the spaceship. They are completely unharmed.
They also crash through a Bud Light truck. The camera pans erotically over the blue bottles. Then Mark Wahlberg screams at someone about insurance and dramatically takes a single swig of Bud Light before further defacing a car he already crashed a spaceship through with the rest.
Fuck yeah America motherfuckers.
Fuck yeah I’m glad the aesthetic beauty of the American flag is so complex and nuanced that it’s still interesting to look at after the first three million times.
The Autobots, even Drift, who’s talked about honour a whole lot by the way, are dejected. Mark Wahlberg casually calls Stanley Tucci to explain the dangers of the seed to him. No I don’t know how he got the millionaire inventor’s number.
It turns out the Seed does that thing I described before, with the metal? Or rather with the Transformium. Not only that but Galvatron/Megatron wants the Seed to be detonated so that it kills a ton of people.
Somewhere in here Tucci flies to Beijing for the bump in overseas sales.
Some of the more static and less Transformer heavy shots of China are also very pretty.
Stanley Tucci has a sudden moral shift and decides to delay using the Seed. Megatron hacks the shit out of his other robots and decides to get the Seed himself.
Stanley Tucci goes on the run! Mark Wahlberg and his daughter and his boyfriend and some of the Autobots get involved. Somehow. I’m hazy on this bit.
Mark Wahlberg kills a CIA hit man with his powers of Being Good at Football. Yes he finds a Football in an apartment in a densely populated portion of Beijing. The only way this makes sense is if the location was a last minute economic choice.
Basically we end up with John Goodman, the humans, and Bumblebee pinned down and surrounded by Tucci-bots. Autonots, if you will. There’s an absolutely endless scene where John Goodman spews one-liners that sound like they were recorded for a video game. “I’m running out of guns – and ammo!” “ I’m like a fat ballerina!” It just goes on and on.
The rest of the Autobots are all like “whoa, we’re losing, let’s leave earth.” But Optimus Prime isn’t having any of that. He goes inside their spaceship and hits some things with swords and comes out with the Dinobots.
“You’re free now!” Optimus shouts. Then he punches the T-Rex into the ground and shoves his sword into his throat and growls “help me save my family or die.” Like that’s the actual line.
They kill a ton of Stanley Tucci-bots then. There’s this scene that I particularly loved that went something like this:
DINOBOTS and AUTOBOTS shoot and explode things. DRIFT, not currently speaking in Haiku or intoning about honour, sword fights some fuckers on a tall building.
More DINOBOTS, more explosions, more of what Michale Bay thinks is badass.
MARK WHALBERG: Nods approvingly.
That actually happens after the Dinobots arrive. There’s a cut to Mark Wahlberg and he just nods like “yeah, this IS awesome.” Which is funny because the scene is never ending and uninteresting.
Mark Wahlberg’s whole character arc this movie is essentially pro-ignorance. He has a line early on about how there’s nothing you shouldn’t try to invent and then later, when faced with what Stanley Tucci’s done, I guess, says the exact opposite. “Maybe there’s just some things you shouldn’t invent.” It’s like Michael Bay’s Gravity.
Gun head drives his spaceship over and starts using a giant magnet to pick up and drop metal. A ton of boats get dropped on them, proving Michael Bay saw Pacific Rim. Hell the main character’s last name sounds weirdly like Jaeger. The protagonists almost get hit by a boat propeller. Twice. While the Irish love interest/pedophile practices more of his super driving powers. Optimus Prime eventually shoots the magnet thing and that seems to solve the whole problem. Why no one tried that before I’ll never know.
Optimus Prime starts fighting gun head right near Mark Wahlberg. Kelsey Grammer pops out of literally nowhere and threatens Wahlberg with a gun. Optimus, following through on his threats, shoots him.
Optimus executes a surprising number of people in this series.
Gun head stabs Optimus through the chest with his own sword because his pause to shoot Kelsey Grammer exposes him. He has time to announce this before he does it.
Then the humans band together to keep gun head busy, pull the sword from Optimus’ chest, and generally save the day. The fact that the Seed was maybe about to detonate is essentially forgotten.
This chunk of the movie is notable because the Chinese setting prevents there from being any American flags at all.
Also they just let the Dinobots loose in China.
Then Optimus Prime announces that he’s going into space to find his Creator. The price on his head means he’ll be endangering earth if he stays here.
This scene is unbelievable. It’s just clumsy writing piled on top of illogical bullshit piled on top of stupid message.
Sure, all the dialogue in this film feels like a guy with kettles on his hands trying to communicate via sign language, but this scene is next level.
First off Optimus Prime says he’s not sure if he’ll see Mark Wahlberg again, and it smacks of “we don’t know if we can hire you again.”
Then he explains that Mark Wahlberg should look to the stars and imagine one of them is Optimus Prime’s soul. What? Is Prime dead? Why is his soul in the stars? Why is he talking about stars and souls at all?
Then he powers up his rocket boots. Because apparently the three or four scenes in this series where he flew around with a jet-pack (that happens in THIS MOVIE too mind you) were just some ridiculous costume changes or something? He has rocket boots. And he flies off into space. Just somewhere in space. He has no idea where these creators are. It’s just “blurg I’m flying into space now.”
Then he explains how some questions shouldn’t be asked, but who you are and why you’re here is not one of them.
Fucking mic drop!
Yeah, this movie is a mess, and you nail a lot of why.
I will say that, despite the flags, it’s not a very “America, fuck yeah!” movie. Once the C.I.A. thugs point their gun at Mark Whalberg’s daughter, I wanted to kill them. Fuck humans, man.
I did think that Tucci, Whalberg, and Grammer turned in good performances. I liked the Steve Jobs stuff, even if it’s a riff that’s not very deep. And I think you’re a little tough on the pedophilia angle. Yes, she’s filmed exactly as you describe, but it’s a little silly to me, if you’re casting this actress as a 17-year-old, to expect her to be filmed as if she’s not sexual. And I thought her relationship with her inventor father was interesting and reflected the whole “arrested development” phenomenon in men. It was sometimes heartening, between all the Bayhem.
But very little in this movie makes sense. The fact that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by Transformers carried the “undiscovered Transformers influence on Earth” trope way too far. I suspect a future film will reveal the Transformers won World War II, gave us atomic technology, caused Pompeii’s eruption, split Pangaea apart, etc.
Also, in a movie that ought to celebrate technology and space and science, where the main human hero is an amateur inventor, the final message shouldn’t be “dude, just stop inventing stuff.”
Glad you wrote this so I didn’t have to.
Admittedly, it is hard to engage in a movie’s exploration of our culture’s fraught definition of pedophilia when said movie casts a gorgeous girl in the role and then gives us close-ups of her butt.
Honestly I think Bay is probably fairly apolitical. I’m not sure he can muster a coherent world view. I think that’s writ large over his filmography.
All this said, the audience clapped at several points, and when the movie ended, I was surprised to hear pretty loud and apparently spontaneous applause.
My crowd did too! I couldn’t believe it. The only other crownd I’ve heard do that was for the Avengers.
A couple more quick thoughts.
On Galvatron: Galvatron debuted in the 1986 animated movie, where Unicron remakes Megatron into Galvatron. Galvatron is a cool character there. Objecting to his name is a little like objecting to Doctor Octopus or Doctor Doom’s name — it’s part of the premise, and we pardon super-hero movies for this on those grounds. And since Unicron’s not around in this movie, having the humans reconstruct Megatron as Galvatron is actually a cool idea. Tying this with the Steve Jobs character is also pretty cool. And having humans’ drive for power be the source of this new evil, in the wake of the last movie’s change to the status quo, is a good idea.
But you’re right that “he keeps coming out looking like Megatron” is super heavy-handed. (Not to mention nonsense, since your computer should show what the result of 3D printing will look like. Again, Hollywood doesn’t understand new technologies.) This process is also tied into the laugh-out-loud idea of Transformium. And these Transformers’ ability to transform by shifting down into basic building blocks basically means they’re shape-changers… there’s no need for their robot forms to reflect their vehicle forms. This irritates me perhaps more than it does you.
Similarly, I get the child-man dynamic of the Mark Whalberg character, and I dig that this character also reflects the declining middle class. I also like the theme of how mistakes produce good effects. That’s all well and good. But these good ideas get drowned out by the stupidity that follows, in which this amateur inventor character winds up basically attacking the idea of invention as a mistake. (Nice meta-commentary there, if we want to see it, about the franchise deciding to spin its wheels. Which dovetails nicely with the meta-commentary about how cinema is dead.)
I would up feeling like seeing the giant robots battling in the streets represent the money shots, and it’s this the movie’s offering. Watch robot dinosaurs climbing up buildings in 3D, tearing robots apart, resisting the pull of an anti-gravity device, etc. Like in a porno, everything setting up these money shots feels extraneous. And the fact that there are some good ideas there gets thrown away fast, when logic is thrown out to justify yet another amazing, climatic, giant-robot fight scene.
I figured Galvatron had a history, but it shouldn’t seem that dumb if I don’t know it. This is one of the few of these sorts of film I can experience as an outsider, and it seems pretty weird through that lens.