Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Film Review: Transformers - Age of Extinction

I've been an avid fan of Michael Bay's take on Transformers since 2007. As a grown adult I can appreciate a different take on Transformers, realising that me liking it isn't compulsory; in an era of IDW's turgid, soul-destroying comics and some largely poor, unimaginative cartoons the films don't stand out as a particularly poor area. The first in 2007 did a fine job of relaunching the line into genuine popularity with a confident swagger; 2009's Revenge of the Fallen sandwiched a poor middle section between a superb opening and a decent conclusion but at least showed that errors from the franchise's past wouldn't be repeated. 2011's Dark of the Moon delivered solid big-screen action after a slow and overcomplicated start. 2014's Age of Extinction meanwhile greatly disappointed me; while the revamp of the universe showed considerable promise the actual execution was arguably spottier than any of the previous three instalments.

[Contains minor trailer spoilers for The Last Knight]

The successes are numerous. Mark Wahlberg, the first genuinely established star dropped into the series, brings genuine leading man charisma without wrenching too much focus from the robots, a difficult balance to acheive. While he's not a technically gifted actor he manages to make Cade Yeager convincing as a frustrated dreamer, as an overprotective father and as an alien laser-toting man of action. Daughter Tessa is also relatively successful, tapping a little into the spikiness Megan Fox exhibited; her love interest Shane recovers from a ham-fisted introduction (which involves disproportionate attention being thrown on their invisible age difference for the script to tentatively justify something that didn't really need to even be addressed; it would be in character for Cade to distrust Shane even if their ages were exact) to be something of a non-entity, a third wheel to facilitate the "protect her/let her grow up" dilemma that faces Cade.

The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Kelsey Grammer brings sinister gravitas to his role of villain Harold Attinger but Stanley Tucci's Joshua Joyce is too much of a crass Steve Jobs parody to really take particularly seriously; the ultra-hip absurd innovative business guru was already given a broad lashing in Dark of the Moon with Bruce Brazos. While Joyce comes into play in the plot more than Brazos did he spends too much time doing the whole silly eccentric; he's then required to work as a minor antagonist before a switch to a weedy good guy. Tucci is a fine actor but here he's swimming up river. Titus Welliver's role as Attinger's field commander is basically obviously there to give Cade someone to kill while T.J. Miller does his standard amiable but faintly annoying thing as Yeager's partner Lucas, obliterated at just the right point.

Also a success are the Transformers, or at least some of them. Within the confines of a two-and-a-half hour action film there's a fair attempt at a character arc for several Autobots. These are occasionally crude and obvious but really look at any genre film and it's more than most get. Optimus Prime gets to avenge his fallen friends in person, reconnect with the human race a little and come back from the edge of death; Bumblebee is redefined as a solo act without the close friendship with Sam Witwicky; Crosshairs discovers some respect for Optimus, his comrades and the humans. Hound doesn't really have an arc and is clearly a straight replacement for Ironhide but as recompense gets a blinding action set-piece and a solid voice performance from John Goodman; only Drift, heavily modelled on his More Than Meets the Eye persona of dangerous fortune cookie, makes little impression but still has a more distinct personality than several of his predecessors and again benefits from a charismatic voice actor in the form of Ken Watanabe.

Lockdown is also very strong (though Mark Ryan is poor casting, simply because he sounds like a slightly malicious Jetfire); on the face of it he's a very encouraging sign of progress for the franchise, picked on how well he would fit the story Bay and his army of scriptwriters wanted to tell. It shows thinking outside the box and his non-partisan nature, clear goals and physical abilities make him a solid success as a villain while also placating the few hundred manchildren who actually liked Animated. The Dinobots meanwhile are reduced to something of a deus ex machina, a visual effect more along the lines of Devastator in the second film. They feel like they only appear because they'd been promised. On the other hand one of the previous sequels' problems, that of cast members disappearing with their fates unknown, is handled better; Ratchet gets an onscreen death which accurately conveys the darkness of the situation and has considerable gravitas considering his long-running presence while Leadfoot's fate is also briefly shown with the clear implication that Sideswipe, Dino, Roadbuster (who has a KSI drone modelled after him) and Topspin have gone the same way. It's much neater than the likes of Jolt, Skids and Mudflap disappearing without explanation; here only Brains vanishes inexplicably, which is a start.

Even more out of place is Galvatron, in this case Megatron's consciousness in a new human-built body. Megatron's role as the bad guy in a series that for the longest time had to always had to let the good guys win had left him with a serious case of threat fatigue. Since the franchise's decision to begin catering to adult fans and the general move away from the black and white morals of the Saturday morning cartoon the character had something of a recovery and he was a natural villain for the first film and a fair returning presence in the second. The third played up his fall with interesting results but really after two deaths and a serious mauling he's played out as a serious threat. Here he feels like he's included through contractual obligation, which considering how little attention Bay and Paramount have paid to Hasbro throughout the series seems unlikely. Galvatron instead is mashed into the middle of the film and after a respectable fight scene with Optimus Prime takes a poor secondary threat role to Lockdown, getting ignored by most while his short-lived army of drones are dealt with by Hound and Bumblebee and then slinking off.

Most of the problems come from structure and pacing rather than any of the particular individual elements; coherent plotting hasn't been the franchise's strong point but the latter had been the genuine Achilles heel. But it's not so much that Age of Extinction is slow particularly, more that it actually has too much plot. One of the factors coming into play for the film was substantial funding from Chinese sources, presumably the cost of keeping the budget competitive with other blockbusters (Wahlberg for instance will have commanded a considerable fee - reported as in the ballpark of $16m - as a genuinely established front-line) which comes with the catch of the need to film in Hong Kong. This means that the second half of the movie relocates to the province and it's entirely possible this came late in the day because the result is it feels like there's material for two films that's been mashed together to try and hide it.

The first would logically cover the post-Chicago world, introduce the Yeagers, return Optimus Prime to sentience, introduce Lockdown, KSI and Cemetry Wind. Optimus would be captured and rescued, Joyce would see the error of his ways but his programme would be a handy backdoor to set Galvatron up for a fifth film, Cemetery Wind and Lockdown would be defeated and there would even be space for seeding the Dinobots. The second film would then be a race for the macguffin (possibly the transformium seed left by Lockdown but really it wouldn't matter beyond neatness) in Hong Kong with the Autobots receiving some support from Joyce's local subsidiary without the rather absurd presence of Cemetery Wind following them in person to a country that's on the opposite end of the political spectrum to America and has military forces of its' own but with Galvatron and his Deceptidrones as opposition.

The shame is the first segment has genuine promise and elan; the plot is intelligent and challenging, taking a hard look at the impact of the Transformers on Earth. The Yeagers are well-characterised and the action is punchy with some fine character work for the hunted Optimus while the best action sequences - Ratchet's death, Optimus' escape from Cemetry Wind (including a beautifully played scene where Cade, Shane, Tessa and Lucas are being chased around with Optimus and Lockdown duking it out in the background), the Autobot reunion and the assault on KSI - are also heavily loaded before a descent into muddy plotting, cluttered characters and destruction porn. I do feel though that the reunion missed a trick - it would have been great fun to have the Autobots burst out of various hiding places in a mirror of the Decepticon roll-call from the first film before assembling in Monument Valley; as it is it looks like the other four have just been hanging around John Ford country aimlessly waiting for a call which might not have come.

As it is we get an awkward merger of the two threads; Attinger, Savoy and Lockdown are quite artificially stitched into the Hong Kong material in a futile attempt to cut down on the episodic feel while the Dinobots are also held back until the end. The whole prologue sequence showing the presence of the Transformers' presumed creators Cyberforming part of a prehistoric Earth and Darcy discovering correlating remains in Antarctica have no real relevance to the film; the implication is that they're meant to be the expected Dinobots but of course they're instead introduced as prisoners onboard Lockdown's ship. I would theorise that the latter was a late addition and the former was at least scripted with the intent but left in to surprise the audience. Since realising that much of Transformers fandom are impatient pricks intent on finding out everything about the films even in preproduction, Bay and Paramount have mounted ever-more elaborate disinformation campaigns; several false clues for Revenge of the Fallen were rumbled to much masturbating by some sections who then piped down when the promotional campaign for Dark of the Moon successfully covered Sentinel Prime's role by putting much more emphasis on Shockwave.

All good fun but it reaches a certain tipping point when it starts to interfere with the film itself; Shockwave had arguably done this, a potential headlining villain becoming another powerful but as agood as generic Deceptcion footsoldier. Here the presence of the prelude in the finished movie is simply to make the audience (those of them that have seen the trailers and are aware of the broad origin and nature of the Dinobots) that the Dinobots are coming from one place when they actually come from another - for all the difference it actually makes anyway. All it means though is that Darcy's discovery is left a dangling, distracting loose end throughout and then even afterwards and on a second viewing it's just filling run-time. It's possible that this too is down to the Chinese backing; Darcy herself is rather unsubtly replaced by Su Yuemeng as Joyce's female sidekick who can handle herself a bit when the action shifts to Hong Kong, with the replacement character played by famed Chinese actress Li Bingbing. This sort of thing happens in films, where the demands of backers are a necessity; the oddity here is leaving Darcy and the prologue setting her up as a serious plot element still in the film. Beyond simply wanting to wrongfoot the audience there seems little rationale for this, though it might be Bay's simple financial efficiency - one of the lesser known areas where films waste money is in hiring actors, locations and other resources during pre-production which are then cut (and paid off) before shooting even begins due to late script rewrites. It's possible that having Sophia Myles under contract, ILM working on Cyberforming effects and Antarctic-type locations booked Bay felt he had to use them.

The result of so much double-time is that Age of Extinction is brutally long; including credits it's some 165 minutes. While it avoids the large troughs that plagued the two previous films (notably doing a good job of evenly spreading Transformers appearances, the only serious gap being the narratively crucial section introducing the every day lives of Cade and Tessa) there is still a lot of padding even before the misdirection and awkward duplication of some functions comes across, notably several unnecessary comic relief scenes featuring Joyce's oddness that really aren't needed. Another fault are some disappointing effects; while Transformium works well in the plot and the idea of constant transformation is something the franchise should really have tackled before the actual effects used for both the drones' transformations and Joyce's various demonstrations are distractingly cartoonish and rob the film of the splendour of conventional transformations. While this is almost certainly budget-dictated and the reason why Galvatron has an army of transforming robots rather than the same old Decepticon protoforms but the detailed, working transformation sequences are one of the series' unique selling points but continue to get rarer. While Optimus still gets a couple of beautiful ones most of the new characters fit the growing template of vehicle modes peeling away in plates to become robots with very few alt mode features. A shame compared to the well-worked models of, say, Ironhide or Barricade.

However, the single worst thing about Age of Extinction is that the bad guys have a point. It's not Optimus' characterisation, which continues to be a strong element and taps into the character's long-standing habit of having elastic patience that snaps spectacularly when it's finally pushed enough. His urge for revenge on the allies that have turned on him for political points is fair enough and up to the boarding of Lockdown's ship the Autobots' actions are more than justifiable seeing as we're not bound by Saturday morning cartoon regulations anymore. However, at this point things go off-kilter - the decision to mount the rescue over Chicago rather than, say, after leaving the solar system is risking human lives, as is stealing a chunk of Lockdown's ship. This means that Lockdown's return to Earth which results in so much destruction in Hong Kong is entirely down to the Autobots' actions, and that's before they ride giant mechanical dinosaurs through the city. Meanwhile it's only because of their raid that the KSI Transformers are activated when still not entirely tested and Optimus' presence might even be responsible for a Dark Knight Returns-style awakening for the Megatron personality elements. Not to mention that Joyce's initial plan was to plant the seed in the Gobi desert and he only changes his plan to Hong Kong because there are Autobots on his case.

Then finally at the end Optimus Prime chooses to jet off into space to meet his creators, leaving behind a trail of destruction, four Autobots he knows can't co-operate and a handful of human allies because he has to go right this moment - never mind that the situation of the Autobots and their collaborators remains unchanged and their outlaw status would possibly even be increased by the destruction wrought which includes the death of US government agents (with nearly all of those who know the truth of Cemetery Wind's operation dead). Oh, and Hound obliterates some organic alien being held prisoner on Lockdown's ship for growling at him. Really you're left with the impression that if Optimus Prime hadn't been found and reactivated by Cade the result would have been that  Bumblebee, Drift, Hound and Crosshairs would have been eventually killed while Lockdown would have found Prime and taken him off into space but a load of collateral damage and implied human casualties wouldn't have happened. It wouldn't be so bad if the film even touched on the morality of their self-preservation but really such questions feel like poor scripting rather than an attempt to start a debate.

Most worryingly of all is that there's no need to change. Age of Extinction was savaged by reviewers as all the sequels have been, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 18% (the lowest yet). Alright, so hacking a Bay film apart is what a lot of critics live for, a memetic past-time. Bay is one of the few big-budget auteurs out there and quite rightly makes films for his audience, not for critics. Yet it took over a billion dollars at the box office , the biggest take of 2014. The success was a mild surprise; while superhero films are ten a penny as are CGI space operas and weepy romcoms; Transformers however has the transforming alien robot genre cornered and it seems the worldwide box office is more than prepared to reward this specialist area every two to three years regardless of script problems.

The initial burst of promotion for The Last Knight certainly seems to have learnt little. While there are some promising ideas and the addition of more credibility by the addition of Anthony Hopkins, slightly past his peak both in terms of quality and box office pull but nevertheless a boon for a film series based on some plastic action figures. Already there seem to be at least three distinct plot threads - a British-based one focusing on new revelations about the Transformers' role in Earth's past (a recurring theme - Megatron in the first one, the Primes in the second, the moon landings in the third); one based on Cade, Bumblebee and company being on the run on Earth and one of Optimus Prime meeting the race's creators. These would not be impossible to pull together into a coherent film, but would you really trust those involved to do so based on how Age of Extinction turned out.

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