In the blockbuster-driven, corporate filmmaking world we live in, there are some film franchises that just won't die, I think even the most optimistic movie goers in Fresno would have to admit this. There are some franchises that have proven to be massive box office draws, winning legions of fans all over the world, but are nevertheless not accepted by critics. Perhaps there is no better example of this today than Michael Bay's Transformers films.
The films are an adaptation of the popular series of transforming action figures from Hasbro, which were such a huge hit in the 80s and even today that they have since been adapted in numerous comic books, video games and cartoons, most notably the original Generation One animated series that ran from 1984 to 1987. The original animated series even spun off into its own animated theatrical film which while a critical and financial disappointment, has since gone on to become a cult classic. This examiner makes it no secret that the Transformers were one of my favorite franchise growing up, be it from watching the cartoon of playing with some of the toys, so when news about the live action film got out, my feelings for it were the same as a lot of other people's, cautiously optimistic.
When Transformers was released in the summer of 2007, it came out among massive hype and concern from fans of the franchise. People just could no imagine how on Earth anyone could make cars transforming into robots look even remotely convincing on film.Having Michael Bay, one of the most hated directors in Hollywood, at the helm of them film also did not seem promising. And yet, the film proved to be one of the most financially successful films of the summer, despite some criticism for Bay's usual sense of humor and glorifying sexuality, and was also a disappointment to longtime fans of the franchise for devoting more attention to a large cast of original human characters instead of the robot characters. Despite these concerns, the film proved so successful that a sequel was greenlit almost immediately. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was released in the summer of 2009 to spectacular box office, but also some of the most unanimously hateful reviews for any film. The sequel was bashed for such faults as overly obnoxious and perverted humor, convoluted storytelling, bad performances, loud and nauseating action sequences, and even offensive robot characters. And yet, despite these incredulous flaws, this examiner’s dared to argue as a Transformers fan that at least it did offer a much more ambitious adaptation of the franchise in terms of a greatly expanded robot cast, a globe-trotting adventure plot, and exploring some of the deeper elements of the Transformers mythology...But those things were still no justification for the quality of the end result, even if it was made during a writers strike. Still, the success in the wake of this backlash did lead to Bay directing a third entry in the series. Released in 2011, Transformers: Dark of the Moon was yet another massive box office hit, but once again it was a critical failure, fairly only marginally better than it's most recent predecessor. It was criticized for being absurdly long, disjointed, goofy, even pretentious, and all of Bay's usual humor and shenanigans fell along with it. But from the perspective just of a fan, it was probably the most satisfying of he three, mostly because of the improved treatment (though still relative) of the robot characters themselves.
At the end of my review for the third film, I questioned about how the end of the trilogy would affect the inevitable future for the franchise, since there was simply no way that Paramount, and especially Hasbro, were ever going to allow it go, with or without Bay. I wan't sure what I was really looking for when I wrote that three years ago, except that I was probably hoping for a fresh start and a new vision from a different director, maybe even a total reboot, for the fourth film. Well now the fourth film has finally come out and it seems that history is repeating itself once again.
Transformers: Age of Extinction marks Michael Bay fourth time adapting the Hasbro toy franchise into live action film, and while there seems to be a lot change on the surface, when you really get down to it, the end result is more of the same. It was decided for this story to cut their losses and continue after the events of the third film, but to get rid of all of he human characters from the original trilogy. Gone was former franchise leading man Shia LeBeouf and in was Mark Wahlberg. Gone were all of the robots from the first three films other than Optimus Prime and Bumble bee (and maybe one other, more on that later) and in were an all new, and noticeably smaller, cast of robots. With the Autobot and Decepticon war pretty much over at the end of the first film, the main villains this time would be a ruthless group of human tasked with hunting the heroic Autobots down, despite everything they have done to protect us in the past. Clearly, this was promising to be a different type of Transformers film, but lets discuss how different Age of Extinction is really.
The film opens four years after the final battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons which left Chicago in ruins and resulted in the deaths of over a thousand civilians. As a result the U.S. government has severed its ties with the Autobots and branded them all as fugitives. In further response, an elite CIA unit called "Cemetery Wind" is formed by paranoid politician Harold Attinger (played by Kelsey Grammer) with the intent of hunting down and exterminating the surviving Autobots, but to make this manhunt a reality, Attinger has also make an alliance with a dreaded Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan), who has agreed to a contract to capture the Autobot's leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), in exchange for giving Attinger and his men a "Seed", a powerful relic that cyber-forms any wide area of land. Meanwhile, using data obtained from destroyed Transformers found in the wake of the Battle of Chicago, business tycoon Joshua Joyce (played by Stanley Tucci) and his technology firm Kinetic Solutions Incorporated (KSI) have discovered "Transformium", the molecularly unstable metal that is the lifeblood of Transformers. Joyce intends to use Transformium to build an armada of man-made Transformer that will be totally under the control of the government and therefore save thousands of human live in the field of battle, but since Transformium is so rare, he hopes to use the Seed as a means of creating more. Joyce's most prized creation is in this en devour is Galvatron, a Transformer created from the data inside the severed head of former Decepticon leader Megatron.
Meanwhile, in rural Texas, struggling robotics inventor Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his friend Lucas Flannery (played by T.J. Miller) purchase an rusty old semi-truck in hopes of stripping it down and selling the parts to put Cade's daughter Tessa (played by Nicola Peltz) through college. But Tessa has little faith left in her father after years of failure and near-poverty that resulted from his inventor lifestyle, and she is also hiding from his that fact that he is in a relationship with an Irish race car driver named Shane Dyson (played by Jack Reynor) Cade discovers that the truck he bought is none other than the injured and in hiding leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), and it is not long before Lockdown and Cemetary Wind operatives storm into the Yeagers' farm and threaten to kill them unless they reveal where Optimus Prime is. Prime comes out of hiding to fend off against the operatives while Cade, Tessa, and Lucas are rescued by Tessa's boyfriend, but during the escape one of them is killed by Lockdown. Using a drone he took during the raid, Cade discovers that the operatives and KSI are working together, while Optimus rallies the remaining Autobots and travel with their new human allies to infiltrate KSI where they discover the firm's reverse engineering of Transformer technology.
After the Autobots have a skirmish with KSI's prototype Transformers Galvatron and Stinger, during which Optimus makes a shocking discovery, he gets blasted from behind by Lockdown and he and Tessa are captured and taken into Lockdown's ship. It is here that mysteries are brought up about the Transformers origins, and it is also here that Cade is forced to put aside his resentment of his daughter's new boyfriend in order to save her, and the human race, from impending extinction. And they may receive some backup from some very unusual, and very powerful allies.
Okay look, regardless of whether or not this can really be considered a fresh start to the series, your enjoyment of this film is totally dependent on whether or not you are a fan of the previous films. Some people loved what Bay has done for the franchise because really they are just their to have a good time and bask in the absurdity. But those who want some kind of reality and, frankly, common sense in their films are the ones who loathe Bay's vision of the franchise. If you are already a fan, then this film will precisely what you expect. If you are not a fan...then this film gives you exactly what you expect, with at least one critical difference.
The number one problem with this film, at least for this examiner, is the sheer running time. Ever one of these films somehow gets progressively longer and more self-indulgent: Transformers ran for 144 minutes, Revenge of the Fallen ran for 150 minutes, Dark of the Moon ran for 154 minutes...Age of Extinction clocks in at a whopping 165 minutes! I'm sorry, I love the Transformers concept, but there is no excuse for this kind of run time unless it has more substance. What pads the time out is Bay's usual bland characterization, lengthy and over-the-top action sequences, and Bay's usual humor. there are only so many films that deserve to be of this kind of length (The Lord of the Rings and Watchmen for instance), but for a Transformers film, this will be a endurance test.
Sadly, the running time is not the only problem with the film. The action sequences here are every bit as over the top as you expect, and then some. Once that first car chase stars, you know exactly what you are in for: a full-blown assault of your senses, huge, loud, chaotic, explosions everywhere, robot-on-robot carnage, the works. The final battle in Hong Kong may even rival the Battle of Chicago in the third film for it's sheer size, length, and how something is going on at all times and we are given no time to breathe until it is all over.
Bay usual style of humor is still present, but at least it is somewhat kept back...somewhat. While the stakes are always high and the overall tone, at least in terms of what is happening to the Transformers themselves, makes this feel darker than previous Transformers film, it is still peppered with a lot of goofy moments. Some of the dialogue is laughably immature ("My face in my warrant!") Characters are written awkwardly and largely for comedic relief, such as Stanley Tucci's character, but have some redeeming qualities and are worth having in the plot, while other comic relief characters, like T.J. Miller's character, are just irritating morons that get in the way of everything.
Some of the sexual gratification is still there too, but most of it is Nicola Peltz standing around in short shorts.
I already mentioned some amateurish dialogue, but besides that a lot of the plot just doesn't make sense. Okay, this Lockdown character is working for these mysterious "Creators" of the Transformers whom we never meet in the film, and the job they give him is the capture Optimus Prime. To do this, he also enters an alliance with Attinger to hunt hunt down the rest of the Autobots, and in exchange for their help in Prime's capture, Lockdown is going to give then the film's McGuffin, the "Seed", to Attinger and Joyce so they can use it to make more Transformium (Seriously, that was the only name you could come us with!) for their mass-produced, man-made Transformers project. Okay, all of that is convoluted enough, but lets get back to the Creators and this Seed thing. At one point we are told that these alien Creators came to Earth during the dinosaur era and used one of these seeds to turn our planet's matter into the metal they are all made from, thus creating the Transformers...But I thought in the first movie you said that they were all given life by the AllSpark...on Cybertron? And just how far back does the Transformers history with our planet really go anyway (wiping out he dinosaurs, building the pyramids over a massive sun harvesting machine, being reverse-engineered to become the source of all modern technology, inspiring the entire space race, etc.). Maybe these "Creators" actually created the AllSpark first, which then subsequently created the Transformers for a specific purpose that they have supposedly fallen away from, and that why they want Prime taken prisoner? I don't know, that's all I've got; I get the feeling that this is something that will be cleared up if there ends up being a fifth film.
I also found the absence of any of the human characters from the first three film without any explanation whatsoever a bit jarring, ironically enough. Prime treats Cade like he is the first real human friend he has had in four years, and that is most likely true. But that raises the question about where Sam and Carly are, or Seymour Simmons, or Lennox, Epps, and the N.E.S.T. soldiers that helped defend the world from the Decepticons? When all of this anti-Transformers backlash went down after the third film and the Autobots got systematically hunted down, did those characters seriously do nothing to defend them, even if it was just vocal support? Did Sam just ditch Prime and Bumblebee cold turkey and start a new life with Carly off screen? I doubt it was that simple, but the film doesn't concern itself with answering those kind of lingering questions.
Oh yeah, and why is it that without Prime the Autobots all seem anxious to kill each other so they each can take over as leader? You would think in dark times like these that good robots would want to stick together.
The special effects were also surprisingly hit-and-miss here. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the robot shots were are impressive as ever, ILM's work always being one of the quality staples in this series. But as we got nearer to the end, something about some of the shots started to look more rushed not quite as good, I'm not quite sure why. There was one effect in particular I need to discuss, and that is the transformation effect on Galvatron and the other KSI transformers. I can understand wanting to separate them out from the others or wanting to do something visually different, but what we get is this bizarre de-materialization effect where, for example, a big rig truck turns into a cloud of pixilated cubes that floats through the air, then re-materializes as a robot. It just looked weird and unfinished, and I would have preferred it if Bay had just stuck with the proven transformation effect all the way through. Even the 3-D did not stand out as much this time as it did in Dark of the Moon, save for maybe a few moments where we see snow ans ash flying across the screen and some explosions in the foreground.
Okay, so is there anything that I did like about the film as a fan? Surprising, yes. I liked that this film was trying to have an overall darker and more ominous tone, almost in defiance of the obnoxious humor of the previous installments. We find the Autobots in a terrible state of being now as most of their ranks have now been wiped out by the very humans they swore to protect from the Decepticons. This was a theme we saw in the previous films as well, with Sector Seven investigating alien activity in the first film, the government liaison putting them down in the second film, and the world leaders ultimately giving in to the Decepticons’ demands to exile the Autobots in the third film, and here taken to it’s final, darkest extreme. I remember years ago I played the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and at some point in the game my character had a conversation with someone who hated Jedi, and when my character explained to him that it was the evil Sith that were the enemy, the person replied that as far as he was concerned Jedi and Sith were two names for the same thing. That is exactly the attitude that the government and a lot of civilians are looking at the Transformers in, and probably, unfortunately, how at lot of us would see them if this happened in real life; we don’t see good robot and bad robots, just robots whose war got thousands of humans killed. Early on we see the Cemetery Wind team hunting an Autobot, and it turns out to be Ratchet, the last member of the original five Autobots who originally landed on Earth in the first movie. Besides Optimus and Bumblebee, who are the heroic faces of the franchise and are under writer’s protection (okay, so Prime died in the second film, but he came back), Ratchet is the only one of that initial group left after Jazz and Ironhide were killed in the previous films, and to see him meet his maker like this, at the hands of the humans themselves and this Lockdown character, was tragic.
In speaking of Lockdown, I can agree with IGN to a point that he is definitely one of the better villains in the series. He is a bounty hunter and not officially a Decepticon, he has an intimidating design and voice, he has little to no concern for the humans he is working for or with, and he had an awesome spaceship. The big downside is that his motivations are not totally clear. Usually bounty hunters are only interested in money, but what he tells us is that he is hunting down Optimus for mysterious clients called “The Creators,” whom we never learn more about and are only brought up to set up a likely plot for a fifth film. This begs the question of what he really has to gain from doing all of this, but even at 165 minutes the film does not leave you time to dwell on that.
This film also gives us a very different look at Optimus Prime. Having been the noble, selfless, diplomatic yet stern leader we all know and love for three films, this time we see a Prime who is literally beaten down to his wits end. He has had enough of protecting the humans and only cares now for the safety of his fellow Autobots, and frankly, I can’t blame him. How much have they gone through to defend us against the Decepticons, all just to be hunted down in the wake of their final victory against mankind’s true enemy. It takes the new friendship he forms with Cade and his family to reawaken his faith in humanity again, and even then it plays over the span of the whole film.
Some of the new Autobots were fun, if goofy and over-the-top as usual. Drift was yet another blatant racial stereotype, in this case a Japanese samurai in the form of a robot, right down to having a golden samurai mask face, goatee, speaking in hiaku and referring to Optimus as sensei. I’m not going to blame any Asian viewers who take offense to this, but I will say that he did offer an honorable warrior flare to the Autobot ranks that we haven’t seen yet (by the way, was he supposed to be a triple changer, because I saw him turn into both a car and a helicopter?) and I don’t think this is anywhere near as blatantly offensive and Skids and Mudflap were in Revenge of the Fallen; at least Drift has a talented actor like Ken Watanabe to give him life. Crosshairs was okay, but he was probably the least defined of the new characters. I was confused about why he had what looked like a skirt on at first, until near the end when I realized that he was the Autobot’s paratrooper. Perhaps the most amusing of the new robots was Hound, the rotund, cigar smoking, gun-totting commando. Yes, the image lacks all subtlety, he looking fat and having a beard makes no sense, but it gives him some character and at least is good for an inner laugh, plus John Goodman’s voice fits the characters quite well.
I do have some mixed feelings on the new sort-of Decepticons though. The inclusion of Galvatron was no real surprise to me as a fan, nor was the reveal of what was really going on with this character, although even if you are not a Transformers fan his name should still be a dead giveaway. But I am not big on the idea of him being a man-made Transformer instead of merely an upgrade of a preexisting character into a more powerful form. It somehow takes a lot of the mystique out of it. I will admit that giving him a flat nose truck form for his alternate mode was an almost perverse reflection on Optimus, both of how we first meet him in this film and how we all fondly remember him from the original cartoon (By the way, if you are finally going to make Prime an flat nose truck, even if it is a beat up junker one, can he at least have his classic color scheme? Just asking.) Not much to say about the Stinger character since he is just there are a man-made counterpart to Bumblebee with no history or persona of his own, but I will admit that after all the build up in the film about how he is "better than Bumblebee in every way," it was fun to finally deal with what we all know is just a cheap knockoff of the real deal.
But now that we are discussing new characters, this brings me to my biggest disappointment of the film from the perspective of a fan…the Dinobots. Growing up these were some of my favorite characters in the franchise, especially their leader Grimlock; I clearly remember owning a Generation Two toy of him when I was a kid. I am not alone in that sentiment because these characters were a lot of kid’s favorites and have long been in demand to be included in the films; seriously, giant robots that can turn into giant metal dinosaurs, what kid isn’t going to fall in love with that? As this film was coming out, the Dinobots were the thing I was looking forward to the most; that image splashed all over the advertising of Optimus Prime riding Grimlock with a sword in his hand as if he were some sort of knight was an irresistible image (even if the G1 Grimlock would likely never let Prime do that).
Unfortunately, the Dinobots themselves do not make their appearance until roughly the last fifteen minutes of this monster of a film, and their introduction and origins are pretty vague and even ridiculous, leaving you with far more questions than answers. Furthermore, none of the Dinobots ever speak or get formally introduced. Prime awakens them, they transform into dinosaurs, Prime knocks Grimlock down and threatens to kill him with his sword if they don’t help, the Autobots ride them into the final battle, and then Prime sets them all free at the end…That’s it! It would have been charming to see them speak in their classic dimwitted, third-person manner like in the cartoon, especially if Gregg Berger could have reprised his role as Grimlock again, but no such luck. Also, unlike in the toy line for the film, only four Dinobots ever appear on screen and they are all grey instead of being color coordinated for easier identification, and only the T-Rex and Triceratops are recognizable, the Pteronadon for some reason has two heads and of all things they chose to include a Spinosaurus into the group (you know, for those of us who are nostalgic for Jurassic Park III). Having said all of that, when they do go into battle breathing fire with the Autobots riding them it was still the highlight of the film for me; Grimlock and the Dinobots take names and literally rip the enemy to pieces. Essentially, the Dinobots are used similarly to Devastator and the Constructicons in Revenge of the Fallen (minus the offensive genital humor); they appear as part of the ensemble, make a huge splash with their appearance, and then are done with. I hope that since they are still alive by the end, unlike Devastator, that more can be done with them if there are further sequels, but I’m not holding my breath.
I don't have much else to say, but as usual I have to end this review by discussing the performances. Mark Wahlberg does deliver one of the stronger performances as Cade Yeager, playing a very different leading man than Shai LeBeouf did and someone who is older, more proactive and inventive, and even stern at places. He suffers from the script's nature and dialogue as much as anyone else, but I really bought into this guy's desire to keep his daughter safe and the lengths he goes through to do so, despite a few lapses in logic at times. Stanley Tucci is a mixed bag as Joshua Joyce, playing this part with his distinct dignity and caring effort, but he is heavily burdened throughout with awkward moments of comic relief, yelling, and just an overall oddness, think John Turturro's character from the other films only as a super rich scientist and industrialist. Kelsey Grammer is actually pretty intimidation in places as Harold Attinger, coming off very cold, stern and at one point threatening to Mark Wahlberg, but while he thankfully never become comic relief, there are some points where he suddenly turns angry and starts yelling a lot. I didn't care for Nicola Peltz's performance as Katara in The Last Airbender, and I really don't care much for her as Tessa Yeager either. Her acting just seemed really flat and her character tended to while and talk back a lot; also, while Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley at least got to play female roles with some sense of strength, Peltz's character ended up just being a damsel-in-distress. Similarly, Jack Reynor didn't do much for me either as Shane Dyson, being essentially just a one-note bad boy who looks like a rugged young hero and drives cars very well, but is little else besides that, also his supposed Irish accent seemed very off-and-on to me. It also bugged me how much attitude this guy kept showing the overprotective Mark Wahlberg when she had been dating his underage daughter is secret, and therefore was in no position to be giving her dad any lip, but I guess that's more a fault of the writing. Titus Welliver was just a one-note evil henchmen as James Savoy, coming off dangerous (save for one hilariously bad line), but too one note to really care about after that key scene at the Yeager farm. T.J. Miller was a big frustration for me as Lucas Flannery, playing this slacker who was a complete stoner,-surfer dude cliche, I was irritated every time he opened his mouth; thank goodness we do not have to endure him for the entirely of this venture. Other performances include Sophia Myles as Darcy Tyril, Li Bingbing as Su Yueming, Melanie Specht as the "Grande Dame", and Victoria Summer as Joshua's executive assistant.
But, like with all of the Transformers films, the performances this examiner really cares about are the voice over performances. Peter Cullen, as always, brings his A game regardless of the project as the voice of Optimus Prime, this time getting to play the part much more bitter and broken than we have seen in the past. John Goodman provides the voice of Hound, and was actually one of the more fun voice performances. His voice fit this bearded, rotund, gun-totting and chain smoking fighter pretty well in my opinion. Ken Watanabe provides the voice of Drift, and while yes, this character can be labeled a stereotype, Watanabe seems to take it seriously and treats it with dignity at least. John DiMaggio provides the voice of Crosshairs, using an accent that sounds similar to his voice as Leadfoot from the third film (which he reprises at one point). Not as much to say about him, just that he plays it like a reckless gun fighter, probably the least interesting of the three new Autobots. Robert Foxworth reprises his role as Ratchet, given what, by the nature of his scene, is probably the most sympathetic voice performance of the film; after three movies, it really is tragic to see him go out this way. Frank Welker reprises his role from the original series as Galvatron, bringing a familiar sound and aged bitterness that characterized his most famous role from the original series. He is limited a bit in what he has to say here, but this was clearly just the setup for a bigger role in future films. Mark Ryan provides the voice of Lockdown and he plays it with cold, emotionless power and intimidation; this guy is a threat the moment you see him, and Ryan's voice goes a long way to selling that. Reno Wilson reprises his role as Brains, but his role is mostly just a humorous extended cameo; think of him as the Wheelie for this story, just without the foul mouth.
Overall, Transformers: Age of Extinction is just what you expect, but whether that is a good or a bad thing it up to you. If you are a fan of the previous films, then this will likely be just as good to you; if you hate the other films, then I suggest you sit this one out. There are the usual moments and awesome visual that I always appreciate as a fan of the Transformers overall, but there is just not enough here for me to give it a recommendation. Under slightly better circumstances, I might have been able to give it a two out of five, but as it is, especially at an unforgivable 165 minute run time, the highest I can go is an enthusiastic one star.