So. Transformers: Age of Extinction, then. Last weekend the internet gave Michael Bay’s new endurance test an F-minus-minus-minus. I’m not sure if they sat through it or assumed as much based on the available evidence and testimonies. I have no idea how many critics were fans of the cartoons or other related products. I owned several toys and bought the first year’s worth of the original Marvel Comics series, but lost interest in both around age 14 and forfeited knowledge of any subsequent characters or continuity. I thought the first film was the Greatest Michael Bay Film of All Time For What That’s Worth, the second one was the complete opposite of art, and the third was somewhere in between, improved by use of real-life Chicago as a setting for the last four hours of its running time.
If it hadn’t been for the sake of father/son quality time while he’s home visiting for the weekend, I might not have seen Age of Extinction. But here he was, here the weekend was, and there the movie was.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Academy Award Nominee Mark Wahlberg is our heroically named hero Cade Yaeger, one of the rarest possible specimens in film history: a teen dad who took responsibility for his decisions and dedicated his life to the safety and upbringing of his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz, Katara from the live-action Last Airbender). Cade’s aspirations of becoming an important inventor have come to naught, making Tessa’s college hopes an unaffordable dream. Life is hard in their small Texas town where no one speaks with a Texas accent, not even a really fake-sounding one, and America is a much more fearful place five years after the infamous Battle of Chicago, where much of the Magnificent Mile was destroyed and all combatants have been vilified ever since, even those who fought for our side, so it’s like a home-soil sequel to the Vietnam War.
Cade and Tessa find their lives changed forever when he brings home a battle-scarred veteran (Peter Cullen) who’s bitter toward an ungrateful populace and yearning to reunite with his old comrades, if any are still alive. He’s also on the run from a government black-ops conspiracy that intends to use him and his kind as fodder for cruel genetic experiments. If successful, their mapped genomes may yield a lucrative super-soldier army that will protect America and only America from future terrorist threats for a price. Some veterans from both sides of the war have a real problem with that. Meanwhile, the shadowy pursuers have also forged an alliance with a third party led by a nasty bounty hunter nicknamed Lockdown (Mark Ryan from the Starz series Black Sails), who has a fairly destructive arsenal and vague ulterior motives for going after the vets.
In the middle of it all is a MacGuffin called the Seed, a device the size of a golf bag that can either produce abundant building materials or explode like a nuke, depending on what the movie needs it to mean for plot’s sake.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Leading the black-ops effort are respectable actors Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer, competing to see who can elevate the most scenes with their mere presence. (Tucci wins by a wide margin, though Grammer thankfully avoids reprising his past villains such as Sideshow Bob or Stinky Pete.) Also on their side to varying degrees are Titus Welliver, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Bingbing Li (Ada Wong from the Resident Evil movies); and comedian Thomas Lennon as their mandatory comic relief. (My son also recognized YouTube star Kassem G as a background scientist.)
Other veterans on Cade’s side include Academy Award Winner Ken Watanabe (Godzilla), Futurama‘s John DiMaggio (as a displaced Irishman), and a scene-stealing John Goodman as a very rare example of a plus-size good guy in a major-studio action film. Also along for the ride is T.J. Miller (from the How to Train Your Dragon series) as more comic relief, who at some point loses touch with “funny” and becomes a liability to both the war and the movie.
Sitting on the sidelines is longtime character actor Richard Riehle as a theater owner whose setting sparks some belabored meta-commentary on the inferiority of sequels. And more fun trivia: there was one face I didn’t recognize, but who figured into a key scene involving a stalled elevator with such curious prominence that I had to look him up and see if he was anyone famous. In China, the answer is yes: Olympic gold-medal boxer Zou Shiming. So now I know.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Wait! I just remembered! There may have been a robot. Possibly more than one. And an explosion. Or two. Wait, no, hundreds. Loud ones because the speakers were cranked to 19. They may or may not have turned the entire theater into the world’s largest vibrating couch. And reminded me more than once of the world-disaster oeuvre of Roland Emmerich. If you like dinosaurs, there were also some of those, because kids love dinosaurs. For the teens, there’s a scene where six teen girls (all seniors in high school!) cheer in favor of tanning and drinking.
Your kids may also appreciate the vivid showcase for new Transformers toys now in stores. Parents with seven-figure incomes will see more of a virtual show floor for high-end, full-scale, fully drivable versions of said toys. While you’re deciding which four-wheel investment is right for you, you can also treat yourself to a Budweiser, check out the latest Gucci sunglasses, or stare for several long seconds at a bus stop with the world’s least illustrated Victoria’s Secret ad.
Are you a tourist like me? You may appreciate the extended slideshow of scenic China, where the Beijing nightlife is breathtaking, city dwellings are towering and dense to the point of intimidation, and the forests were made for hiding the strangest rendezvous from prying eyes. Closer to home, we once again swoop through the streets of Chicago, travel along Lower Wacker Avenue (as seen in The Dark Knight!), glance at Grant Park from Lake Shore Drive, watch Kelsey Grammer walk under the Cloud Gate, and, in the film’s most suspenseful sequence, approach the upper floors of Willis Tower at a literally death-defying angle. Beijing and Chicago: two great cities, separate vacation packages available, robot wars sold separately.
Morals of the story, as taught by Wahlberg:
1. Humans are plucky enough to fend off attackers five times their size if they’re pure of heart and armed with an alien laser sword that should be much too heavy for a mere mortal to drag behind them, let alone heft, fire, or use to parry deathblows.
2. Honesty is the best policy.
3. Don’t mess with Texas.
4. Daughters shouldn’t dress like characters in a Michael Bay movie.
Nitpicking? Whenever the endless Beijing battle focuses on robots only, it’s as incomprehensible a mess as the first three films. Earlier battles work better by dint of concentrating on fewer robots. Later on, parts and participants become interchangeable, sides become muddled, and spatial relationships between events become impossible to track. (This is even worse during an extended sequence aboard an alien ship, which I’m convinced was constructed out of random, connective wormholes in lieu of a working blueprint.)
The camera begins to objectify the 17-year-old Tessa in her early scenes, but when Wahlberg threatens other characters to back away from her, the cameraman wisely steps off as well. That’s not to say that all other ladies in the film are modestly dressed, or that Extinction rises above a zero on the Bechdel Test, but the costumes are largely upgraded on the respectability scale from Level Michael Bay to Level Typical Hollywood. That’s, er, technically progress.
Pet peeve invoked: fighters keep disappearing from fight scenes without explanation. The first skirmish between Optimus and Lockdown ends offscreen apparently because the plot really needed the human characters to escape and they couldn’t do that with him in the way. Throughout the climax, Optimus is accosted by a formidable enemy who basically quits the battle without telling anybody until after the dust settles. And it’s not just robots being hooked offstage: there’s one ex-girlfriend character who runs alongside Our Heroes until one minute before their finishing move, and then suddenly everyone’s hanging out and celebrating, but she’s as MIA as Chewbacca’s medal at the end of Star Wars.
Also, there’s a moment where Optimus backstabs an opponent and then shouts, “Honor until the end!” Someone should maybe explain the “honor” thing to him. I nominate Ken Watanabe’s Robo-Samurai.
So did I like it or not? Here’s the thing: despite the internet’s savage hyperbole, the 165-minute running time, and the long list of issues described above, Transformers: Age of Extinction is surprisingly followable. Sure, it’s hollow at times, but it never approached the depths of loathsomeness I’d been led to expect. Thanks for much of that newfound tolerability are owed to the replacement cast. Mark Wahlberg’s everyman replaces the living aggravation machine that flailed and shrieked its way through the original trilogy; Stanley Tucci is nowhere near the eye-rolling caricature that John Turturro devolved into; no one even tries to copy the tackiness of the Witwicky family; and for once there’s an Autobot besides Optimus who has a crowd-pleasing personality.
That’s the key to surviving summer blockbuster action disaster events: too often they require temporary brain shutdown to endure, but if your descent into the maelstrom is accompanied by likable tour guides, they may give you just enough will to live through it all with eyes open. As world-traveling disaster epics go, Extinction falls short of the sublime madness that was 2012 (forevermore my yardstick for such flicks), but it easily overcomes the second and third Transformers chapters in coherence, travel scenery, acting, non-exploitative female characters, and cringe factor. And okay, yeah, some of the action was as cool as Bay thinks it was. I didn’t hate it and it’s not my least favorite thing I’ve seen in theaters this year. Simply put, it exceeded my pessimistic expectations and earned itself a “Most Improved” ribbon for positive reinforcement.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Transformers: Age of Extinction end credits, but if you’re wondering why parts of Steve Jablonsky’s score sounds more like Hans Zimmer’s than ever, scrutinizing those credits mentions Zimmer himself for “Additional Music Production”, or words to those effect. Right after his name is another contributor I didn’t detect and wouldn’t expect: Skrillex.