Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction
Does producing an online “pre-make” of Transformers: Age of Extinction disqualify me from writing an impartial review, or does it qualify me more than most? A bit of both, perhaps. My making the video essay Transformers: The Premake was driven in part by the sense that writing a conventional review of Age of Extinction would be a superfluous exercise, given how such franchise blockbusters have effectively pushed film criticism to the margins. Negative reviews of these films amount to a sideshow display of dissent amidst a relentless procession of trailers, fan videos, and opening-weekend box-office reports, and their finger-wagging expressions of contempt are often as formulaic as the films they bemoan. To truly reckon with something like Age of Extinction requires a critical approach that sees it for what it is: not so much a “movie” as a global product brought into being by an emerging transcultural entertainment industrial complex. This was the proposition of The Premake: that the production of the movie told a story more compelling and illuminating than the finished film could or would deliver.
That finished product is now set loose upon the world, and here I am still deliberating whether to evaluate it as a trans-cultural entertainment product or as a work of cinema. Because, as a movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction is in fact a significant improvement over its predecessors—it seems that the fourth time’s the charm. Or perhaps the charm lies in Mark Wahlberg, who contributed mightily to director Michael Bay’s previous (and possibly best) film, Pain and Gain, which dove headlong into his longstanding obsessions surrounding masculinity and success. Here Wahlberg provides surprising gravitas as a struggling repairman, Cade Yeager, who is trying to support his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, who however young is still subject to Bay’s leering eye for bare legs). Reduced to salvaging scrap metal, Cade stumbles upon the injured Autobot leader Optimus Prime, who is in hiding from U.S. government black ops agents seeking to destroy all Transformers after the cataclysm they wrought upon Chicago in the previous Transformers film. Images of American ruin and dysfunction proliferate in the opening scenes: a run-down movie theater; Wahlberg’s home on the brink of foreclosure; a government turned against its citizens in the war on terror; Optimus’ beat-up tractor-trailer carcass as an emblem for the U.S. auto industry on the ropes, in contrast to the shiny Camaros and Corvettes later on display.
Might these images of an America in disrepair, with its heroes desperately seeking redemption and renewal, also stand in for the much-maligned Transformers franchise itself? The desperation of an exhausted franchise is precisely the engine that drives Age of Extinction’s better qualities through an efficiently told story involving the ill-advised plan of a techo-magnate (Stanley Tucci) to build his own army of Transformers. Gone are the sophomoric scenes of comic relief involving Shia Labeouf (since relieved from the franchise) and jive-talking minstrel robots that plagued previous installments (one robo-minstrel remains, but here he makes a plea against exploiting labor). It also helps that the primary villains this time aren’t hunks of animated metal but high-level character actors Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver, who bring to their roles as jingoistic CIA officials more genuine menace than any CGI robot has yet to muster.
Cinematically, Bay continues to push the envelope on ultra high-def spectacle. We are treated to an ultra slow-mo close-up of a man’s face getting mauled by the tire of a car passing over him, as well as Cade chasing in vain after his abducted daughter amidst a dazzling whirlwind of debris, in one of the film’s most ingenious uses of 3-D. Yet the emotional effect of seeing a father lose his daughter is not so much supplemented as supplanted by expressive patterns of flying dirt. Bay’s visual talents are formidable without delivering actual dramatic, or even visceral, impact. A set piece in which Cade, Tessa and her boyfriend (Irish heartthrob Jack Reynor, playing the first Texan in film history who speaks with a brogue) walk on wires suspended atop Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower ought to induce vertigo, but Bay’s incessant cutting and camera movement keep undermining one’s ability to occupy a shot long enough to feel the threat of falling. The distracting sensory artifice created by 3-D further buffers the spectacle from its potential for inducing sheer terror. In contrast, YouTube footage of the production shot by amateurs on cellphones provides precisely the sensation of actuality, the ontological drama of inhabiting a physical space, that gives the images a weight lacking in the finished movie.
It’s in the film’s half-hour climactic battle in Hong Kong that Bay’s visuals allow the viewer to occupy the frame, as the action threads the narrow gaps between the city’s high-rises. The strong verticality of the building facades and stairways suggests a very, very expensive update to classic Hong Kong action cinema, the kind that thrived before the colony’s handover to mainland China. The political anxiety of the local HK population expressed in those films are here replaced by more global contentions. At one point Chinese government officials heroically vow “to protect Hong Kong at all costs,” an assertion of dominion that seems conspicuous within a Hollywood film (especially given how darkly the U.S. government is depicted)—until one considers that this is a Chinese co-production aimed at that nation’s booming box office. Hence we have shots of Mark Wahlberg holding a Chinese brand-name protein powder, Stanley Tucci drinking Shuhua milk, and a whopping 30 screen minutes featuring Chinese actress Li Bingbing (though she’s given little to do beyond sipping her branded Chinese bottled water and making eyes at Tucci).
Then there’s the matter of “Hong Kong” the location, which in reality is a composite of shots filmed in Chicago, Detroit, and Hong Kong—a pastiche brought forth by competing incentives and stipulations offered by both China and the U.S. cities to attract movie productions. Those like me who have sampled the amateur footage of each location on YouTube will experience the surreal sensation of seeing the Hong Kong action sequences flip between locations literally from one shot to the next, a transformation of space that I find more thrilling than computer-generated shape-shifting robots. This experience of Age of Extinction—which posits money as the true protagonist of the movie—was the one I expected to have in the wake of my investigation of the production, and it did deliver levels of subtextual coherence that the film otherwise lacks. Still, amidst all the geopolitical production intrigue, somehow a movie got made, and not an altogether bad one at that.