Michael Bay's metal monster mash goes east
No-one in modern cinema blows up $165 million like Michael Bay. His fourth installment of the money-spinning franchise Transformers: Age of Extinction is flashy, hollow, juvenile and about an hour too long, but at least all the money’s on the screen.
This time the rampaging robots turn their attention to the Far East, where they get to smash up Hong Kong. The story begins a few years after the events of Dark of the Moon, when the last battle between the warring bots demolished much of downtown Chicago.
Despite defeating the Decepticons, the benevolent Autobots are hiding from the CIA, led by hardline agent Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who wants to rid earth of all Transformers, good or otherwise.
Attinger is in cahoots with Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown, who wants the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, in exchange for an explosive “Seed”. The Seed will turn everything in its blast radius into an elusive element called Transformium. Attinger plans to sell it to arrogant billionaire Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who will use the material to create his own Transformers.
Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is a penniless inventor and single father, overly protective of his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Cade and his annoying sidekick Lucas (T J Miller) buy an old truck, which turns out to be Prime.
At a little under three hours, Age of Extinction makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Each line of dialogue barely has any connection to the one before. This is most obvious in the CIA scenes, which seem like screenwriter Ehren Kruger has randomly picked lines out of a Tom Clancy novel. The Autobots’ banter is half-baked one liners, and everything Prime says sounds like something out of a fortune cookie.
There are also major problems with coherence and logic, as though the film was made by a bunch of people with Attention Deficit Disorder jacked up on Red Bull, racing to the next cool idea before finishing the previous one. We drop into fights which we didn’t see start, while other incidents fall off the page without a resolution. Characters disappear and reappear, and it is difficult to tell who is doing what and why.
Bay’s movies have received this type of criticism throughout his career. Critics love battering his films, although criticism is almost redundant – despite poor reviews, he is one of the highest grossing filmmakers of all time. Bay makes films for teens, his films make a ton of money, so who cares if middle-aged film critics don’t like them?
Age of Extinction is in two parts. The first plays like a parody of Michael Bay movies. The cars are fast and the girls are hot; sinister CIA agents wearing shades emerge from black jeeps in slow motion; Bay frames everyone from extreme low angles against big skies; the star-spangled banner flutters in almost every shot. Anything can explode at any time.
When the film reaches its natural conclusion, everyone goes to Hong Kong for another forty-minute battle. This second part feels tacked on, but is the film’s saving grace.
In Hong Kong, we’re ground level and the film bursts into life – the streets bustle with the noise, crud and confusion that makes cities great. Bay’s editors do a stunning job of blending human mayhem with eye-popping special effects. Suddenly the Transformers feel out-of-place in their own movie – the wisest decision Bay makes is giving the human characters plenty to do so they’re not just bystanders hiding from rampaging robots.
Every action sequence that pays off involves the humans. A dizzying rooftop chase and bruising hand-to-hand combat between Cade and CIA henchman Savoy (Titus Welliver); Joyce’s lithe, superhot assistant Sue (Li Bingbing) protecting the snivelling entrepreneur from goons in a lift; and Lockdown’s looming flying saucer uses its magnet to rain down cars and ships on the heroes.
It is bombastic and utterly bonkers, and I was pinned back in my seat, cheeks wobbling, as if strapped into the centrifugal device NASA use to to test trainee astronauts.
Tucci turns it into the Stanley Tucci show, not just stealing the film, but fencing it off and using the loot to buy the movie’s biggest laughs. There is plenty of one star material in Age of Extinction, but I can’t rate it in comparison to other movies in its genre.
Michael Bay has created his own genre, the “Michael Bay Movie”, and his films are uniquely bad, almost avant-garde in their basic disrespect for storytelling that it is only worth judging them on their own terms.
Having said that, when every other film these days is a superhero movie, I actually find Michael Bay’s weird vision strangely comforting. It is reassuring to think that once the caped crusaders and men of steel have retreated to the comic collections of the nerds, Bay will still be there, blowing stuff up just like back in the Nineties.