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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Salem Watches a Movie – Transformers: Age of Extinction

     I'd like to start by stating up front that this is still a terrible movie. Despite anything I may say below that sounds like a positive, there's not enough to redeem this from the depths of flawed film-making.

[Spoilers lie ahead for whatever passes for a plot]

      I've been a fan of Transformers since I was a little kid. Even when I was living overseas, watching the meager selection of Saturday morning cartoons on the one English-language channel in Germany, the Armed Forces Network (AFN), I would sit inches from the screen, drinking in the adventures of Optimus Prime and the hidden war between giant robots, wondering why Megatron never executed Starscream, why Thundercracker and Mirage never just abandoned the war and struck out on their own, and why there were so goddamn many humans around.

      I was psyched when I heard there was going to be a live action film. I was even OK with the character models. Sure, they aren't the blocky beefcakes of the original designs, but I can't really see the G1 robots translating well into live-action anyway. They'd be horribly stiff and inflexible. Sure, the 'bayformers' look a little like a pile of scrap parts, but you can see how they could unfold from a car or truck into the spiky humanoids that they are. But then I saw the films. I saw Shia Lebouf shouting insensibly. I saw attempts at dumb humor that would be more at home in one of Adam Sandler's cash-grab joke films. I saw how half the films were nothing but humans shouting at each other, and the scripts were paper-thin. For three films, I endured this. I kept coming back for those brief scenes where robots were beating the lubricant out of each other.

      I've heard people say that Age of Extinction is the worst Transformers film to date. I humbly disagree. I almost couldn't tell that this was a Michael Bay film. All of his trademarks are absent, or scaled down to a shocking degree. There was no comedy racist robot. There were no sweeping beauty shots of US Military hardware. Only a single amateur gynecology shot. No Shia Lebouf screaming incoherently. No humping dogs, annoying parents, or terrible over- or under-acting from actors that have no place in the movie. There weren't even any robots peeing on humans or climbing structures with their wrecking-ball scrotums on display.

      Shia's been replaced my Mark Wahlberg, who is an infinitely better actor and character, an absent-minded inventor and robotics expert, lending a believable affinity to his willing alliance with the fugitive Autobots. Megan Fox and not-Megan Fox's part is filled by the much more talented Nicola Peltz, playing Wahlberg's daughter (and caretaker). Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci (who seems to be delivering Shia's cringe-worthy lines with much more quality gusto) chew up the scenery as the human adversaries. Rounding out the humans are Li Bingbing and Sophia Myles, who I cannot remember the names of either of their characters, but they really could have been consolidated into one more effective character. Then there's the kinda creepy "Irish" (with an accent veering into 'Straya territory) rally driver/boyfriend to Wahlberg's 17 year old daughter, carrying a Romeo & Juliet statute card in his wallet.

      But enough about the humans. This time around, it really felt like they were making a movie about giant robots, as you'll see much fewer scenes that are just humans, and the ones you do see are much shorter and less often. Optimus Prime gets much more characterization, lending a feel of instability and hints of PTSD, with his first line upon awakening being “I'LL KILL YOU ALL.” This is a damaged soldier. The other robots get plenty of character, too, now that the movie doesn't focus on Shia and Bumblebee. John Goodman's Hound is a hilariously inept old soldier, who spends the entire movie expending ammo and dropping spare guns. Crosshairs is basically Robot Jason Statham, a grizzled British 'bot with a trenchcoat made of Corvette body panels. Drift is... well, Drift is Drift. I've never liked Drift. He's a recent addition to the comics which just screamed painfully weaboo. And he has a stupid samurai helmet for a face. He did get a good line, though, upon encountering the Dinobots, “I thought he was just going to turn into a giant car..”

Crosshairs: Robot Jason Statham, and best part of the movie

      Speaking of Dinobots, I understand that if they had been introduced early in the film, most of the threat of the enemies would have been nullfied. They're gigantic and awesome, but really only show up in the last half hour of a film that's already 2 hours and 45 minutes long. They look brilliant, and it was good to see them, but damn they weren't there long.

      The robot threats this time around are bounty hunter Lockdown and the human-built Galvatron. Lockdown has gotten some really great representations in the animated series in the last few years, and turns out to be probably the best mechanized antagonist the series has had. Twice in the film he faced off against Prime, and could have taken him both times in a fair fight. And his face turns into a giant sniper rifle. Galvatron, on the other hand, is wasted, looks kinda silly, and suffers from probably the worst part of the entire film. The transformation animation of the human-constructed robots consists of breaking into a cloud of tiny blocks and reconstituting into robots. It looks like a crude placeholder animation for the actual transformation and its very, very jarringly out of place.

      All in all, this is, while still a bad movie, far and away better than the previous films. There's the seeds of an interesting story that are planted here about a creator race of mechanized beings that terraformed the Earth and built the Autobots and Decepticons. The story of this film was, almost beat for beat, a better retelling of the first movie, and it mostly discards everything from the first films save the Battle of Chicago. A 15-minute montage of robot fights from the previous film probably could have benefited the finished product, making it rely even less on the previous movies and rounding it out to an even 3 hours (because, hey, why not?). In the end, it is still a Michael Bay film, just less of one, and it tries to do waaay too much over way too long of a run-time, but I will stand by my statement that this is still the best live-action Transformers film to date.

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