Guns, Drugs & Energon: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Michael Bay-lieve it or not, they’re still making Transformers movies! Last week saw the release of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of the decade old Blockbuster franchise based on some Hasbro toys. Join Max Robinson and Patrick Stinson this week as they brave the dubious racial caricatures and ever-increasing plot devices, and mighty robots of  The Gobots The Transformers.

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Max: In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson released a truly great film that made a household name out of its star, an already popular rapper and model. The movie was Boogie Nights, the star was Mark Wahlberg, and 17 years later he starred in a movie that wasn’t as good that starred talking transforming robots and T.J. Miller. THAT movie was Transformers: Age of Extinction, maybe the most profoundly strange movie in Michael Bay’s repertoire. As much as this one is kind of a slog, there’s maybe about an hour or so of movie I love wholeheartedly. Pat, your thoughts?

Patrick: I want to credit two things right off the bat. First of all, I always always credit my friend’s immediate in-theater review after the first time we saw it: “This is the best Transformers movie I’ve ever seen followed by the best shitty Transformers movie I’ve ever seen!”

Second, yeah we have Mark Wahlberg starring this time, and he’s okay at…being. But it’s a completely understandable deal breaker if you want to skip a Wahlberg joint, particularly since there’s a tasteless scene when he “charmingly” threatens a black woman with a baseball bat and damages her car, considering that Mark Wahlberg once beat an Asian man so severely that he was permanently blinded. So…everyone has their lines drawn in a different place. I can still enjoy these movies despite him but that’s a pretty big shame overall.

Max: Mark Wahlberg! It goes without saying, probably not a very nice guy! As our destitute Texan dadbod hero Cade Yeager, Marky Mark is kind of an odd fit as the new lead for a franchise that started as a vehicle for two teenage stars. Cade’s hook (broke inventor still mourning his dead high school sweetheart wife and worried about his newly-college age daughter) is fine if leadened with a kind of boring ensemble. The weird dad-daughter-daughter’s boyfriend conflict that takes up screen time when there aren’t robots is probably the only singularly unpleasant part of Age of Extinction and two men arguing over perceived ownership of a teenage girl is pretty backwards even for a Michael Bay flick. Also uhhhh T.J. Miller gets turned into a horrifying metal skeleton statue, which is impressive in its audacity.

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Patrick: T.J. Miller plays a buddy who made me laugh a couple of times before being actually-sort-of-daringly blown away. Cade’s daughter and her boyfriend, despite being ostensible co-leads, are stupefyingly uncharismatic. The only thing anyone seems to remember about them is the boyfriend’s legal defense of their fuckening.

Max: Everyone brings up the “Romeo and Juliet law” bit as the movie’s biggest problem but as god as my witness I maintain it’s a pretty funny (and fairly innocuous) gag. The real draw of the first act of the movie are the shots of the Texas countryside. After three movies largely set in urban centers or in foreign military bases, you can tell Bay relishes getting back to his Pearl Harbor Americana roots with lots of golden hour footage of farm houses and rusty Buicks.

Patrick: After an inexplicable dinosaur-filled intro that is relevant to nothing else (not even the Dinobots who will be showing up in 2 hours 20 minutes) we get a strong, gritty start, full of shadowy government agents with universal jurisdiction, suffering salt-of-the-earth types, Texas sun (which I can testify actually does make everything look Michael Bay-y at that intensity), and Autobots viewed with fear and suspicion. In this dangerous, dreary post-Dark of the Moon landscape, enter Lockdown, the Cybertronian bounty hunter from Transformers Animated, making a left-field appearance and swaggering off with the movie.

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Max: So, this is the first Transformers movie where Bay and crew actually do something actually interesting with the Autobots and their relationship with the government. Last movie had them as a kind of quid pro quo hit squad for the U.S., now the world’s changed and Kelsey Grammer’s villainous Dick Cheneyesque Harold Attinger spends his days murdering Transformers with Seal Team Six “Cemetery Wind.” At the end of the day, I’m not sure what statement we’re meant to walk away from Age of Extinction’s terrifyingly out of control government hit squad’s propensity for assaulting teenage girls or how the human bad guys of the movie are explicitly the military industrial complex but, hell, I’m here for it. This is a movie where TV’s Frasier has custom dead Autobot playing cards and Optimus Prime is horrified to discover that a Fortune 500 company is melting down his friends into raw materials!

Patrick: I’m not sure there’s anyone on Earth who isn’t pretty sure they know Michael Bay’s politics, myself included. But it’s worth noting that this film’s portrayal of the military-industrial complex and government secrecy is a full one-hundred eighty degree flip from Transformers 2007. Soldiers are never the good guys here. Even the series’ notorious robot gore is played for drama and queasiness rather than exhilaration. A dirty deal between Transformers-hating Attinger and alien mercenary Lockdown leads to massive death and dismemberment for innocents of both species, and a USA weapons program comes within a whisper of starting the apocalypse in another country. I don’t think you’re wrong to read indictments of Middle East policy and American xenophobia in the proceedings. The movie’s questioning attitude toward the hallmarks of American hegemony is paralleled in the character arc of Optimus Prime, whose crisis of faith presents the most compelling storyline yet for one of the Transformers.

Max: Optimus Prime gets a legitimately interesting arc in this, which isn’t something you can say for really any of these movies. When we first find him, he’s a dust-covered damaged hulk hiding out amongst some garbage (in, naturally, a live action version of his classic G1 truck mode). When he’s Frankenstein’ed back to consciousness by Cade, he’s a paranoid wreck haunted by the death of his former comrades. After three movies of stoicism (and climactic bloodthirstiness), we’re faced with an Optimus who’s a shell of his former self. Even when he’s back in command of the Autobots, he just seems to want to stop Lockdown/Galvatron and leave the humans who’ve taken so much from him to their own self-destruction.

Patrick: While ideas here and there are recognizably sourced from the comics in 1-3, this is the first movie where it feels like someone (screenwriter Ehren Kruger?) sat down and read ‘em. Optimus Prime was often sidelined by heroic angst. In Marvel, the Autobots were more hated than the X-Men. And Drift, introduced in IDW comics, becomes one of the few secondary Autobots who’s more than just a nameslap, recognizably acting as his berserker-tempered-by-New Age BS self. He fits right into a new Autobot ensemble that, with the benefit of lessons learned, is far more memorable in design, voice, and personality than the first bunch. Sadly, this comes at the cost of the final non-Bumblebee 2007 Autobot, Ratchet, who’s thrown on the sacrificial pyre to introduce the villains. When Bay’s on his game he plays your emotions like a fiddle, or at least a banjo.

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Max: I’m hot and cold on the new Autobots, which consist of Drift (whose horrifyingly human face is voiced by Ken Watanabe!), Hound (John Goodman just doing AGGRESSIVE schtick) and Robot John Constantine Crosshairs. They typically don’t get much to do, but I do dig how you get the vibe that these are the only good guys left standing and they don’t particularly like each other. Plus, Ken Watanabe’s deadpan “I thought he’d turn into a giant car” when Grimlock first transforms into a giant dino is incredible.

Decepticon-wise, we get the movie version of Lockdown and Megatron reincarnation Galvatron. I gotta be honest, I feel like the whiffed it on these guys. As interesting as Stanley Tucci’s evil Steve Jobs-type “manufacturing” new Transformers that end up being the new Decepticons is, Galvatron isn’t different enough from Megatron to be interesting on his own. Lockdown feels like an even bigger missed opportunity considering how Lance Henriksen’s “scrupulous shitkicker” take on the character from Transformers Animated is a ready-made starting point for this. Instead, he’s just kind of vaguely menacing and British.

Patrick: I really like Galvatron, actually, because his origin adds a nice bit of techno-horror to the often overly-fantasy-based Transformers. More importantly in my humble opinion, it provides a chance to recast the literally-phoning-it-in-from-Australia Hugo Weaving with Megatron’s original VA, Frank Welker. Welker developed a new voice for the character in Transformers Prime that puts his old performance to shame, and it’s well-used here. The unique threat the character and his minions present is explained with the use of Transformium, known in other segments of the franchise as cybermatter or sentio metallico. As presented, it gives the Transformers their incredible shapeshifting ability, and the ghoulish horror show of melting down Transformers allows the film’s humans, and Galvatron, to use it in new and visually striking ways.

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Max: Man, “Transformium” is such bullshit. These movies are always juggling too many different plot devices and characters but introducing new Transformers who are basically just made of flowing nanites feels sort of like a cheat. And on top of that, Stanley Tucci painstakingly shows us that Transformium can be turned into ANYTHING and there’s no real payoff for that! Amazingly, the next movie completely forgets about this all powerful plot device. Pat, the fucking Dinobots are in this movie and Optimus Prime rides one of them into battle. Gimme your take on this movie’s completely bonkers third act.

Patrick: I love me the Dinobots, but they are tied pretty tightly into the third act, which is the film’s deathblow. Structurally speaking the action climax of the movie should kick into high gear after Optimus is captured by Lockdown. This is hyperextended into a third act every bit as long as the second, with FIVE complex action sequences (invasion and escape from Lockdown’s ship, chase through Hong Kong, Dinobot charge, battle with Lockdown’s ship, and final duel). Despite the fact that there are battles in two different cities, they hardly look different enough from each other to tell them apart at times. There’s even a whole dedicated scene of exposition crammed in there. Now, I’m of the opinion that these movies can and should throw everything on the screen that they can and hold nothing back. But the sacrifice here was audience fatigue, a total shortchanging of the Dinobots themselves, even more dubious gaps in continuity than usual, and losing that paranoid feel that made the start of the movie so special. On the plus side, the Hound battle scene and the Lockdown duel are EXACTLY what I watch these movies for.

Max: I rewatched this movie less than a week ago and I can barely remember what happens at the end of this one before OPTIMUS PRIME SHOOTS KELSEY GRAMMER WITH A MISSILE. Props to Bay for making Optimus deliberately taking a human life (to save his new human friend) a big and meaningful character moment. Prime takes no joy in doing it and you get the sense he’s crossed a line he never wanted to cross.

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Patrick: It’s a strong moment but again plays into Optimus’ ongoing murderosity. After all, he ends the movie with “I’m coming for you.” It’s also uncomfortable the way he threatens the Dinobots into helping out. But overall, Peter Cullen and the animators do a fantastic job depicting Optimus Prime’s righteousness, doubt, and yes even restraint. It is a performance that I don’t think would have been technically possible back in 2007. This is Optimus’ movie, arguably the only one in the franchise where he is the lead character (it’s him or Cade, and he’s more interesting).

Max: In the end, Age of Extinction is more high than low but it’s definitely not exempt from the Bay “quirks” and muddy plotting that plagued the other sequels. It is, however, supremely entertaining when it’s firing on all cylinders.

NEXT: We wrap up with The Last Knight. Anthony Hopkins saying “duuuuude,” Drunk Merlin, Evil Optimus with a tribal face tattoo. EVERYTHING YOU KNEW IS WRONG….AGAIN!

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