Dark of the Moon hinted at a bright future. Transformers: Age of Extinction just delivers the same toxic tripe the franchise hinted at jettisoning.
Transformers and Revenge of the Fallen are abysmal pieces of trash. Utterly insufferable pieces of bro-y shite with no redeeming qualities at all. No potential is displayed in them, no competency in their construction is ever so much as hinted at, not a single moment is funny or entertaining in either film, and they both peddle the most toxic sexism and racism all in the supposedly safe environment of good, clean family fun. I despise them and everything they stand for. Dark of the Moon was similarly bad, but it was both a huge leap up in quality at what it does and started demonstrating actual potential for what the series could become. It’s still not a good film, let me make that abundantly clear, but somewhere between the constant appearances of actors and actresses that I liked and who had no right to be there, the very-well staged battle of Chicago and the general fact that Revenge of the Fallen had pretty much broken me, I saw the potential for a genuinely good blockbuster. Not one for the ages, or anything, but the potential for a fun diversion that could even use its space to tackle weighty themes if it wanted to.
Therefore, I went into Age of Extinction with a tiny part of me genuinely hoping for the best. I don’t even know why, this film series has always proven to be bad regardless of any potential in the franchise outside and inside these films, but a part of me was still hopeful. This time was going to be different! I emerged three hours later infuriated, realising that I had just been through Dark of the Moon again but on a louder scale. This is a bad film. This is a demonstrably bad film, but it’s also a slight (slight) improvement from most of what’s come before. Unfortunately, with the exception of the genuinely insufferable original, a Transformers film has yet to make me this upset. Whereas Dark of the Moon’s teases of a better film on the horizon were few and far between, Age of Extinction’s are frequent and loud, hinting at the film it could have been if everybody involved cared enough or were brave enough to actually pull the trigger. But they don’t and so what we’re left with is a slightly better version of the same bad film we’ve been force-fed the first two times.
Specifically, for the second time in the entire film series so far, Transformers threatens to touch upon actual themes that are intellectually deeper than “explosions and the military are KEWL!” Its mess of a plot certainly gives it more than enough possible material. There’s the concept of a public that both resents the Transformers for the events in the last film and is opportunistic for the money of turning them over to any government that will listen. There are hints towards something having originally created the Transformers with that thing being very pissed and very much wanting their play-things back. Militarisation and merchandising of the Transformers, the ability for humans to make their own Transformers, the breaking of Optimus Prime’s faith in the human race, the frequent hints that the Autobots really are just squabbling and barely united individuals without Optimus around to keep them in line, very unsubtle aliens-immigrants metaphors… There’s a lot that any filmmaker who gives half a damn can work with, but Bay and, more importantly, the script that he’s working with, by Dark of the Moon’s Ehren Kruger, don’t care about any of it. Once the explosions start, it’s all disposed of, the noise almost literally drowning out any potential nuance or reason for caring.
And that mindlessness is fine in concept, sometimes you just need a dumb action film that’s not aiming for anything more than to entertain you (see: Crank 2: High Voltage). The problem is that “loud noises” is the only setting Age of Extinction has. There’s no pacing, little variation, so it just draws attention to the fact that the film is a hollow spectacle actively wasting any and all potential depth it exhibits. Dumbness is fine, but it needs proper pacing and/or characters to care about in order to not feel like time is being wasted. For example, the Fast & Furious films are dumb. They are really dumb, but they’re paced well, they have characters that are likeable and that we the audience care for, and they don’t keep threatening to be smarter than what they’re currently turning out. And I think that’s what annoys me so much about Age of Extinction. It keeps hinting that it can be about more, it keeps hinting that it can use its premise and world to explore legitimate themes, it keeps hinting that it can be about something other than “shooty boom bang bang,” but it never goes there. It just keeps reverting to loud, numbing noises with no depth whatsoever.
Again, the Fast & Furious movies have built their reputation on (at least appearing to) having no brains and no pretentions to being something they’re not, ditto Crank 2 and that’s my favourite action film of all-time. But a major reason why they get away with it, and no Transformers movie has yet, is because Fast & Furious still invests its time in characters and character work. Violence and action can be cool on its own, yes, but create a cast of characters you care about or, at the very least, like and you’ve got the audience’s attention for however long you want to go loud for. The Witwickys are nowhere in sight this time (which means no Ma & Pa Witwicky, break out the party-poppers), but the Yeagers that replace them honestly aren’t much better.
Despite Mark Wahlberg’s natural screen charisma and likeability desperately attempting to work up a charm offensive like few I’ve ever seen, Cade is a boring man with little going on when he’s not outright being a terrible person – there’s an early scene where he, on the property he hasn’t paid rent on in six months, chases off, with a baseball bat, a realtor who is trying to do her job; yes, it is played for laughs. There’s also an insufferable comic relief character played by a tone-deaf T.J. Miller whose exit from my film I would have cheered had that not been entirely inappropriate cinema etiquette, a daughter (Nicola Peltz, because some genius decided that Katara from The Last Airbender should get another starring role in a major-release film) who we shall come back to (believe me, we will be talking about her) and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who is about as consistent a character as the level of Irishness in his accent. None of them have any real arc and none of them are in any way compelling or interesting enough to make up for the very clearly static proceedings.
The antagonists fair little better. Although he’s personified by the always-nice-to-see Kelsey Grammar, the head of the evil black-ops task force that’s murdering Transformers, Agent Attinger, is nothing more than a one-dimensional villain; the government agent who misguidedly thinks he’s protecting his country, and Grammar plays the role too straight to make up for the fact that he’s just an archetype that’s been done better elsewhere. Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, portrays James Joyce, the head of a revolutionary tech company that primarily researches Transformer remains for practical applications, and the character is a missed opportunity. As played by Tucci, which is to say like a cross between Steve Jobs and Jason Schwartzman, Joyce is an egocentric blowhard with little in the way of ethics or compassion towards anything but his tech… until he suddenly grows a conscience for reasons that I think just boil down to the filmmakers wanting him to share screen-time with Wahlberg. He is undoubtedly the best part of the film, but he’s still not someone I particularly cared about because his arc didn’t feel genuine, not to mention how his mere presence kept constantly reminding me of themes about technology and the advancement thereof that were going wasted simply by not being utilised.
Transformer-wise, this is probably the film with the most amount of Transformers in them, so far. Many of them even get a fair bit of screen-time, and all of the main ones have designs that make each of them distinctive and less hideous, too! Unfortunately, none of them have any depth. Optimus Prime should have a character arc, one where he wrestles with the fact that the humans have betrayed his entire kind and may not be worth saving after all, but it’s completely bungled by the film. His desire for vengeance, brought upon by a “shocking” discovery, is dropped almost literally as soon as it’s brought up and the attempts to get resonance out of the closure to his “we don’t kill humans” moral code fail miserably because… well… you have seen the other films, right?
The rest of them get one defining trait and that’s about it. Bumblebee is still the same character as he was at the beginning of the first Transformers, one of them has a British voice and a burning desire to tell the humans to get stuffed, one is an Asian stereotype, and one has the voice of John Goodman. There’s little reason to get attached to them because the film focusses far more on Cade and Optimus than the other Autobots. Meanwhile, the Transformer villain, Lockdown, is here to tease future sequel revelations and little more, although his face can transform into a gun which my inner 10 year-old admitted was pretty cool. Oh, and there’s a third villain (no prizes for guessing who it is, but it constitutes a spoiler so I’ll keep schtum) whose existence is almost literally just so they don’t have to set-up his origin in the sequel.
So, as you may have gathered, there are no characters to latch onto or find particularly interesting which means that the action scenes can only stand as endeavours of spectacle. Except here’s the thing about spectacle, prolonged exposure to it dulls its impact. After a certain point, loud noises and big booms are just going to be migraine-inducers instead of shock and awe-inducers and that’s more than the case from here. Some action scenes are relatively interesting or cool: the British Autobot has a moment where he leaps off of a ship and, guns akimbo and trenchcoat flapping in the breeze, guns down a pair of alien ships in slo-mo and my inner 10 year-old self was very much impressed, there’s a section during the (endless) finale where everybody has to try and avoid the Hong Kong cityscape being flung about by what amounts to a giant magnet, and the entrance of the Dinobots is a genuinely awesome moment. Unfortunately, the over-long run-time and one-note nature of the film dulls down any potential impact those scenes may have had. And those are pretty much the only good scenes, by the way. Bay is not a hack action movie director (anybody who says so clearly has not acquainted themselves with The Rock or either Bad Boys film) but he keeps directing these films like one.
Scene geography is a friggin’ mess, perhaps best exemplified by an early car chase from the Yeagers’ farm into and through a sleepy Texas town where I have absolutely no clue how everyone involved got from Point A to Point B to Point C. Even with their more individual designs, it’s still hard to properly tell which Transformer is shooting at what and which side they’re supposed to be on. Most frames are filled to the brim with explosions, debris and smoke with the camera almost never staying still, like it’s being controlled by a drunk epileptic having a fit. Editing in general is too quick which makes proceedings too disorientating, plus the aforementioned failure in scene geography. Pacing is one-note and that note simply reads “BRICK-WALL THIS MOTHER!” If an action scene needs to happen, it’s straight to explosions and large-scale destruction; no variation and no attempts to create tension (with the one exception being so inept at its job, it’s quite frankly embarrassing).
I could keep listing problems and complaints I have with Age of Extinction, so I will. Product placement is shockingly prevalent here. I’m more accepting of product placement than most people are (as long as attention isn’t drawn too much to it, I accept it as a way of making the film world closer to our own) but even I’ll admit that this film is taking the piss. A Transformer whose pre-robot form is that of an Oreo vending machine? A human technological invention whose first form change (the very first form change, the one that demonstrates its power) is a Beats-branded speaker system, and later on a ludicrously fake Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony toy? A Victoria’s Secret truck destroyed in super slow-motion whilst the brand name is front and centre? Several billboards for products like Nike and Phillips that go completely untarnished? A Bud Light truck that gets destroyed and very soon after has Cade open one of the bottles it was carrying to take a nice, cool, refreshing sip? A Transformer who has the Lamborghini badge displayed front and center on his non-disguise form? Did I pay to watch a film that wants to tell me a story or a prolonged ad-break for capitalism and consumerism?
But I haven’t even mentioned the most egregious and tone-deaf piece of in-movie advertising. That would be when Hong Kong is being destroyed in the final battle and the film cuts to China to have a Chinese government bureaucrat all but talk directly to the camera and state that “China will always help protect our Hong Kong brothers in their time of need!” I am not making this up! Nothing even comes of this, the battle continues as it did before that cutaway. This would be hilariously egregious if it weren’t for the recent protests and agitation in Hong Kong over the extent of China’s control over the region. To anyone with a stake or vested interest in the future and protection of Hong Kong, it’s downright offensive, being so tone-deaf to the situations ongoing in the real world in search for those sweet, sweet tax breaks. To quote a friend of mine who also saw the film, this would be like if a battle sequence took place in Ukraine and everyone involved called Russia for reinforcements. How did this get through an entire film crew with not one person raising their hand and saying “Erm, do you all realise how this looks?”
And speaking of total bewilderment at terrible things that somehow managed to get through an entire film production uncalled out by anybody at all, let’s talk about the giant sexist elephant in the room, shall we? One of the first scenes involving Tessa, Cade’s daughter, has Cade shame her for being 17 years-old and wearing short shorts. You have three guesses as to what the camera is focussing on when he does so and the first two don’t count. Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend who is three years her senior and is out of high school, whilst she is under the age of consent in America and still in high school. Cade immediately calls the pair of them out on this, only for the boyfriend to produce a text copy of the Romeo & Juliet law from his pocket to absolve them of any wrongdoing. This is played for laughs. I am not even going to dignify either of these things with righteous fury or a snarky toss-off, I’ll let you figure out how I feel about the way in which the film treats both of these scenes. Those two are the most blindingly obvious examples of sexism towards Tessa, but it runs deep throughout her entire character and throughout the entire film. Her character, her entire character, is that she keeps getting in danger and needing to be rescued. Seriously, whenever the film needs to ratchet up the stakes for Cade, it puts Tessa in danger. It puts her on the wrong end of a gun, it has her shot at, it kidnaps her several times, it traps her in rooms where she is being hunted.
There is one scene where she is hiding from a humanoid robot and a monster in a pod with a long and flexible tongue (kind of like a Licker from Resident Evil) wraps its tongue around her leg in a manner that rather calls to mind sexual assault. This monster never appears again after this point, it’s solely for this one really creepy and rather disgusting moment. It ends up going past lazy and cliché story-telling and ends up sailing dangerously close to outright misogyny seeing as she’s the only female who ends up in prolonged action in the entire movie (there are three named female characters, overall, and the only other one who gets into an action scene near-immediately gets her ass kicked and needs rescuing by a random man). I’d give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s just shitty writing, but this is the fourth instalment in a franchise that has casual sexism running through its lifeblood. Plus, as other critics have pointed out but was missed by me (I am willing to admit that), this is a film that has a scene where a vagina monster is blown apart by a Transformer whilst it remarks that it’s “too ugly to live”.
This is a film based on a children’s’ toy line.
Two other brief things I want on record before we wrap. 1] Yes, during the action scene in Hong Kong, there is a bit in which two characters of Asian descent bust out super martial-arts powers. It is a Transformers film, one that has a sassy angry black woman near the beginning (she’s the realtor the baseball bat-wielding Cade chases off) and an Autobot whose entire character is an honourable Shogun stereotype, you knew this was going to happen. 2] The Imagine Dragons song is fucking awful. It is fucking awful and it gets played during the action packed finale, in addition to the credits, so you have a song with lyrics that are being sung whilst important dialogue is supposed to be exchanged. I’m sorry, I thought big budget movies were supposed to hire professionals? This is a Junior School mistake. Literally, I learned this problem with overlaying music on pre-existing film and sound in Junior School, there is no excuse.
Also, again, the Imagine Dragons song is fucking awful.
There’s an old saying, folks, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I had been fooled by Transformers: Dark of the Moon that this franchise under the control of these people had some actual potential in it, whether that potential lay in being a big, dumb action movie or an action movie that actually did want to try tackling subjects beyond loud noises and bright lights. That was still a bad film, but it started giving me ideas. If everyone involved could kick their bad habits (the lame gags, the abysmal way that action scenes are shot, staged and edited, the racist stereotypes, the casual sexism and the burning desire to skip all semblances of story, character arcs and just plain character work in general in favour of just getting to the explosions) then Transformers had the potential to turn out a genuinely good film. Whether that good film fell under “big dumb fun” or “action film with brains” didn’t matter. Pain & Gain had even convinced me that Michael Bay hadn’t forgotten how to make movies, so maybe he’d finally show up for work this time.
Never have I felt so idiotic for believing a franchise’s promises to change. Never have I felt so idiotic for believing in a film’s potential. Transformers: Age of Extinction is a step back from Dark of the Moon and a slight (slight) improvement on the excretable first two films. But I’m not angry. I can’t get mad because to get mad would be admitting that I still hold out hope for this franchise, that I still hold a strong and lasting emotional response to this franchise. I have been failed by a series that has never demonstrated that it could achieve anything more than “non-irritating badness” and it stings because this time a part of me really thought that things were going to be different. But they aren’t. It’s the same horrible toxic shit that has been peddled beforehand and I feel like a total dumbass for letting even just that tiny little part of me think that this was going to be in any way different.
I am not angry at Transformers: Age of Extinction. I am just disappointed. I have no right to be, but I am, in both it and myself. Spare yourself the indignity and just stay away.
Callie Petch, close you send.