Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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After the battle over Chicago, Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots have gone into hiding.  They are hunted by a mysterious alien Transformer who has partnered with the American government and a multinational corporation.  Cade Yeager, inventor and father, discovers and revives the dormant Optimus.  Together, they may be the only people able to take down the conspiracy that threatens to destroy all Transformers.  Michael Bay returns to direct the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise.

My assetThe biggest mistake I see when people are talking about Michael Bay's films is that he does not know what he is doing.  A cursory glance of any of his films shows that he is a man capable of electric moments and can film an action scene like no other.  Bay is of the same educational background as his peer Zack Snyder, another misunderstood auteur.  Neither one has explosions for explosions sake, and always has a narrative lurking amidst all the wreckage and chaos.

Where Bay and Snyder differ, both in quality as well as form, is in how delicately they treat their subjects.  Bay is an evil genius who gives American audiences exactly what they want, and Snyder is aware that true American heroics are rare.  Bay's version of serving the audiences has come in the form of many morally execrable entertainments.  In both Bad Boys 2 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Bay plays to the worst American xeno and homophobic tendencies while keeping the nationalism cranked up to deafening.  As Bay's career has gone on his open disdain for his "heroes" has grown more blunt and eventually led to the Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) of Transformers: Dark of the Moon who is hunting harmless and castrated beings to mercilessly slaughter.

I hated those films, even though I recognize the American satire in them, because they become merciless slogs over their elongated run-time.  Even Bay's Pain & Gain, possibly his most open satire to-date, did not have a good long game and petered out in the end.  So it came as a huge surprise that Transformers: Age of Extinction feels like nothing else Bay has done while holding true to all of his signature camera tricks and narrative bloat.  I didn't exactly enjoy myself through a lot of the film, but I had a lot to think about in the way Bay shows how small town American values (already hiding some darkness) are easily perverted in the face of jingoistic nationalism.

The art direction took a huge jump in quality with some inspiration from H.R. Giger.

The art direction took a huge jump in quality with some inspiration from H.R. Giger.

What Age of Extinction does is cram three films worth of character transformation into one narrative.  The previous three Transformers films showed Optimus' slow decline into fascist behavior, something that is examined almost as soon as he is onscreen in Age of Extinction.  The very first thing he tries to do when brought back to life by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is threaten to kill the harmless human.  Though he eventually comes to his senses, Optimus' regard for human life in relation to his is clear during multiple moments where he saves "his" humans and damns the rest.  Even his compatriots, the Autobots, mean nothing to him unless they are willing to stand together.  The bearer of the red, white, and blue is a murderous tyrant, and if the things around him do not fall in line then they deserve to die.

Bay frames this by framing Optimus' blood lust against the slow corruption of Cade.  When Cade is introduced it is through a gentle long shot of Cade driving his car along a train in a way that recalls Richard Donner's first Superman.  He's already unconsciously associated with the one being that stands for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way,' before Bay starts to examine his small town pride.  See, Cade has this habit of threatening everyone who is encroaching on his land or, more nebulously, his pride.  Bay frequently shoots Cade in an uplifting manner against an American flag, most notably when Cade threatens a poor man who had his car and then life destroyed through his actions.  In a small hateful touch, Cade reaches in and grabs the poor guy's beer to chug right before threatening him.

American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism.

This change comes only as Cade grows closer with Optimus, but the other Autobots have even less tact that Optimus.   John Goodman, who voices the grizzly Hound, turns in a vocal performance that shows just how routine the Autobots threats of violence have become.  In the midst of a commando mission Hound slaughters a caged and not-so-vaguely vaginal monster with a bored, "You're just too disturbing to live.  Take that bitch, you're dead."  The "heroes" are flat-out murderers now - and the difference in this Transformers versus the others is that Bay presents a narrative that recognizes them for the monsters they've become.

Stanley Tucci takes over the comic relief authority role that John Turturro had in earlier films.  Tucci's character Joshua, a CEO who hopes to harness controllable Transformer technology, calls Optimus out on his behavior from their very first scene on.  Bay frames Joshua and Optimus in a way that emphasizes just how small Joshua is in relation to the towering Optimus as the devastation is clearly seen in the background.  Optimus is a bully, and Joshua recognizes the moral absurdity of allying with him later when he nearly goes insane and realizes that his dealing with Optimus has got him carrying around a tactical nuke while the government hunts them both.

Grammar plays the antagonist to Tucci and Wahlberg, but is really the hero of Age of Extinction.

Grammer plays the antagonist to Tucci and Wahlberg, but is really the hero of Age of Extinction.

All the while Cade glowers at defenseless people, shows open yearning for his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and giggles at slaughter as an increasing variety of American flags flap in the breeze.  Cade got involved with this entirely because he needed to protect his investment, his family, his money, his Autobot.  The government, for all its shadowy bluster, is the one entity concerned with the safety of all.  Curiously the "bad guy" Harold, played by Kelsey Grammer, is often framed with American flags in the background as well but almost always behind glass.  This visual hint provides a key difference between the two - Cade lets his nationalistic fury fly out and causes untold collateral damage, while the cooler Harold is able to keep his love of country under well enough control to do what needs to be done.

Bay ties all of this together with some wonderful designs that pay tribute to the recently deceased H.R. Giger.  Except where Giger mixed dark visions of sex and violence, the Transformers are just violent, and the techno-organic battleships that litter the landscape are erotic tributes to penetration and death.  Gone also is the nightmarish and nonsensical cinematography of the previous films.  Amir Mokri, also the cinematographer on Man of Steel, keeps the violence brutally clear in gorgeous wide shots and clear spatial geography.  This time, Bay wants to make sure the amount of carnage the Transformers gleefully inflict on the earth is clear as can be.

Age of Extinction shows a level of craft, and complete contempt for its characters, that distinguishes itself from Bay's other work.  I admit, I did not enjoy myself watching it, but was morbidly fascinated with the way the ultra-violent Optimus weaponizes small town American sentiment.  Bay's film is, dare I say, subtle and actually takes its time in this transformation.  Credit at last due, Bay made a pretty good film.

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Tail - Age of ExtinctionTransformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Directed by Michael Bay.
Screenplay written by Ehren Kruger.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci.

Posted by Andrew

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