Movie Review: "Transformers Age of Extinction"
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is the fourth film in the "Transformers" live action movie franchise. Director and producer Michael Bay returns again to helm this production. Instead of a total reboot of the series, this movie serves as a "soft reboot", acknowledging some of the events and characters from the previous movies, but striking out in a whole new direction. Before you continue, please note this review will contain SPOILERS so be warned!
Gone are the Witwicky clan and Sam's assorted romantic interests. Also gone are the N.E.S.T. soldiers from previous films. This is a whole new slate in terms of the human cast. Taking the male lead in the film is Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yaeger, father of Tessa Yaeger (Nicola Peltz). Kelsey Grammer plays the government agent Harold Attinger who leads a secretive group that is hunting down all Transformers, not just Decepticons. Also involved in the fray is Jack Reynor as Shane Dyson (Tessa's boyfriend) and Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs type figure whose technology company features heavily in this film. Peter Cullen returns as the voice of Optimus Prime and Frank Welker lends his voice to Galvatron. Other celebrity voices include John Goodman as Hound and Ken Watanabe as Drift. You can read a complete cast list on IMDB.
Moving away from the rah rah military themes of the previous three films, this time out the scope of the "Transformers" story has expanded beyond Autobots and Decepticons fighting on Earth. Following the battle of Chicago in "Dark of the Moon", the government has begun to hunt down Transformers regardless of their affiliation. The Transformers all go into hiding but if they are caught, the humans have no mercy and destroy them. There is no mercy given, only death. Aiding them in their quest is the Cybertronian mercenary Lockdown. Lockdown captains a gigantic Cybertronian ship full of warriors and creatures that either serve his whim or serve as part of his collection of exotic aliens from all over the galaxy. When Optimus Prime emerges from hiding, a sequence of events is set off that change the fate of Earth and the Transformers race.
Of the four movies in the series, I found this one's story to be one of the most cohesive (the first one is very straight forward so that one wins by default). While the film does run a lengthy two hours and forty five minutes, I found that around each half hour or so of the film the scope of the story would expand, "hooking" you to find out what happens next. The first "hook" is seeing Ratchet hunted down by humans and how dark the government (or a sub-section of it) has turned. This feeds into the narrative of Optimus Prime hiding out and having lost his faith in humans. As Cade begins to help Optimus recover his faith the scope expands with the introduction of Joyce and his company's meddling with Transformers technology. Then we find out Lockdown has his own agenda citing the "creators" of Optimus Prime and suggesting a history of "Knights" and "Exploration" that blows open the whole scope of the "Transformers" story in this universe. As if that wasn't enough, our next hook is the reveal that Galvatron isn't a drone, he is Megatron reincarnated and he has his own plans (which don't end at the movie's conclusion).
This was a smart way to build up each element. Start "small" then expand the scope over and over again. This film, after all, is intended to serve as a "soft reboot" of the franchise, setting up two more films in a new trilogy. Between Optimus Prime seeking out his "Creators" and Galvatron being loose on Earth there two huge (and divergent) storylines left dangling open at the end of the film. On a slightly smaller scale we now have the Yaeger family left with four Autobots defending them, but against what exactly? And just what are the Dinobots going to do with their newfound freedom? There's a lot of potential for new stories and dare I say it, spin off comic books by IDW! I found myself hooked over and over again by these story points and wanting to learn more and more. Before I knew it, the film was over and while Earth was saved, I still found myself wondering and open to the new possibilities introduced in this movie.
I also found the story of humans trying to control Galvatron and Stinger an interesting allegory to the modern use of drones in warfare. This creates a perceived distance from war, but in fact war still very much affects us at home even if we're using robots to fight it. The new Decepticon army is also an interesting look into the science fiction trope of mankind's inventions backfiring on him (shades of "The Terminator" here) told through the lens of Galvatron's machinations. It's not explored in depth, but I was surprised to even find this commentary so evident on screen.
I am going to also give credit where it's due to the Transformers themselves. Each was written as a very distinct character this time out. Optimus' crisis of faith, Bulkhe-I mean Hound's bravado, Drift's faux philosophical calm and Crosshair's rebellious spirit all shone through beautifully. Lockdown was amazing and perhaps the most memorable robot villain of the franchise. He was a potent force both physically and psychologically. I was very pleased with his portrayal. It truly felt like there was an effort made to distinguish characters from each other instead of having them all be mechanical cyphers. Some people will (and have) absolutely hated Optimus Prime's more warrior-like persona in these films, but I've long since distanced this Optimus from any other. In this film he leads a people who have been systematically hunted down. Frankly he would have had every right to just get on the ship he stole from Lockdown and just leave. Instead he stayed to fight for the humans and ultimately save Cade. Saving Cade involved him taking down an enemy combatant. Whether that creature was flesh or mechanical is irrelevant. As we saw several times in the film, humans were not creatures to be treated with kid gloves. They were every bit as threatening to Transformers as Transformers were to them.
Despite its hooks and addictive action, the story does have some issues with pacing (which seems to be a Bay movie staple) and dangling threads. There were some drawn out car chases that could've been shortened and the entire "magnet scene" (you've seen bits in the trailer where Lockdown's ship is sucking up buildings and cars) was drawn out and didn't quite serve the purpose you would think. Those are easily about ten to fifteen minutes of screen time I would've preferred seeing Transformers talked about or robot versus robot action (more Dinobots please!). There are also moments that aren't clear unless you watch the film twice back to back (as I did). For instance, the Dinobots and Autobots have a very dramatic scene on a bridge where they make a stand to hold the line and...we never see what happens there. It felt like a scene was missing. There also needed to be clarity on why the Autobots were all so hostile towards each other. At first I was confused, but then chalked it up to the Autobots being beaten down psychologically and frustrated at the humans hunting them, so they took it out on each other. Still, it's not very clear so seeing the "good guys" beating each other up was kind of odd.
I'm also going to call out the story on its relatively spare use of the Dinobots. Their introduction is amazing and when they are fighting on screen it is a thing of beauty. However, they really should have done more. We never get to see Slug really do much but scramble around and transform a couple times. Strafe doesn't transform in certain scenes where it would have made sense for him to do so and the setup of the aforementioned "bridge" scene went nowhere - but could have been amazing. I'm hoping the Dinobots appear in the next film more because twenty or so minutes of them (if you combine all their shots) isn't enough!
Almost every "Transformers" film in history has been an ensemble piece, (even the 1986 animated movie). However in Bay's movies the acting is all over the place. He's very good at getting "name" actors into his films, but their characters sometimes make you scream "You're better than this!" (I'm looking at you John Malkovitch). This film is no different. Relative newcomer Nicola Peltz ranges from "good" to "okay girl, stop it" . Her scenes with Mark Wahlberg where they play up the father/daughter relationship felt genuine, but whenever she wound up screaming "Optimus" she said it in such a weird way that I cringed each time. Mark Wahlberg did a great job of playing the "father" and "hero" parts of Cade's character, but the scientist parts were...a bit less convincing. I kept wanting more Doc Brown and less "hero is frustrated" from the routine. On the other hand, Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci lent wonderful gravitas and really helped ground the film from an acting standpoint. They're both wonderful actors and they did a great job with the material they were given. Kudos also go out to Titus Welliver who I've seen in a lot of shows playing all sorts of roles (good and evil). He does menace very well and he nails it here.
The voice acting was stellar in this film. I can't tell you how many times my inner fanboy squeed hearing Frank Welker as Galvatron. If you listen to certain scenes, you'll hear some of G1 Megatron underneath the growling voice. Cullen played a disenchanted and broken Optimus Prime very well. This isn't your G1 cartoon Optimus, this is more like the G1 comic book Optimus under Simon Furman's writing who had doubts and sometimes didn't make the wisest choices. Mark Ryan did an awesome job as Lockdown, making the character really come to life with menace that I never quite felt from Megatron in previous films. If his voice sounded a bit familiar, he also voiced Jetfire in "Revenge of the Fallen".
My biggest complaint about past "Transformers" films is that Michael Bay has some incredible characters to work with (both human and robot) but he can't seem to hold the camera still long enough for us to get a good look at them. He loves his quick cuts and shaking cameras. There is plenty of that in this film, but less so than previous films. I theorize this is due (in part) to the use of real IMAX cameras during filming. These cameras are big and shaking them around or moving them too much on the fly is not practical. This actually forces Bay to focus on a lot of shots and I'm glad he did. There are tons of examples of action shots that could have been a disaster with his traditional style, but worked here. One example is Optimus Prime's meeting with the Dinobots. When he engages in combat with Grimlock, there are a lot of wide shots, we get to see the action framed well. Optimus' blue and red colors contrast brilliantly against Grimlock's grey metal and the green grass. This bright, vibrant and energetic style permeates the film, though there are parts where sadly, Bay falls back into his old ways (such as the motorcycle chase in Hong Kong).
There are some beautiful wide shots in this film, something I didn't really notice in previous films. When Cade is looking at the night sky on his porch, the shot is almost "wallpaper worthy" as I call it, with a tree set against a beautifully lit sky and his house. It was a very rare and serene moment in a chaotic film. The shots of the desert as Optimus Prime changed his truck form and drove on the highway were stunning to see, especially in IMAX (listen for a wonderfully familiar sound in that scene).
The CG on the Transformers themselves is almost flawless this time. They were incredible in the previous three films, no doubt, but except of a couple of scenes they blend flawlessly into their environments. There are scenes here and there where the contrast of colors or focus doesn't quite work. One instance is Galvatron giving orders in Hong Kong. It's very clear in one shot that he is superimposed against footage of an existing building. In another shot, Crosshairs hops up on a waterfall but the water doesn't really fall around him in a believable way. In general these are quick shots. A majority of the "money shots" look amazing. The gleam on Drift's armor really drew my eyes and the detail level on Hound with all his pouches and ammunition was incredible.
I left this film far happier and satisfied than I had originally expected. I had seen a wave of negative reviews (from both fans and critics) before I sat down to watch the movie so I was worried. I thought I'd have a headache form shaking camera work, more racial jokes, more sexually inappropriate humor and robots who were indistinguishable from each other. Instead, I found a compelling set up for future films, fun action, spectacular visuals and believe it or not, humor that worked and didn't offend (no Devastator balls here folks). This was a really fun film and a great summer popcorn flick. If you are married to G1 material, then you may not enjoy it, but if you've enjoyed the previous three films on any level, this is worth checking out. If you can do it on an IMAX 3D screen (the big one, not the lesser "imitation" ones) then definitely splurge for it, it's worth it.
Like the three films before it, "Age of Extinction" contains many call backs or references to other aspects of "Transformers" lore. Some of these may be purely coincidental, while others show that there are elements of "Transformers" fiction that continue to appear even decades after they were introduced. Here is a list of the ones that jumped out at me, though I'm sure there are others:
- Transformers visiting Earth in the past and seeding some type of material has been done before, most recently with the IDW Publishing comic book series.
- The "rusty" truck mode that Optimus Prime adopts is based on Generation One Optimus Prime's vehicle mode, which in turn has become the "Evasion Mode" Optimus Prime figure.
- Humans have often played the role of aggressors in "Transformers" history. In the current IDW Publishing comic book series, the humans have assembled the "Earth Defense Command" specifically to combat Autobots (while in an alliance with Decepticons). Back in the 80's, the G.I. Joe team destroyed Bumblebee (leading to his rebirth as Goldbug) when they thought he was a threat.
- Cade repairing Optimus Prime is somewhat reminiscent of Sparkplug Witwicky repairing Bumblebee in the original four issue Marvel Comic books "Transformers" series.
- The "Spark" referred to by Optimus Prime is a term that goes back to "Beast Wars", where the Spark was represented as a sphere of pulsating energy and served as the "soul" of the Transformer.
- During the scene where Cade uses a drone at the ATM, there is a pickup truck with the "Tonka" logo on it. Tonka is also owned by Hasbro.
- When Optimus Prime changes to his updated truck form, listen for the original transforming sound effect from the 80's cartoon as his Autobot symbol emerges.
- Autobot Drift is based on an IDW Publishing character of the same name (who also received the action figure treatment years ago). Like this on screen version, that Autobot used a sword as his primary weapon.
- Hound is largely based on Bulkhead, a character first introduced in "Transformers Animated" and who later became a central member of the Autobot team in "Transformers Prime".
- Lockdown is based on a character of the same name in "Animated" who was also a bounty hunter and had a hook hand.
- Ratchet was an appropriate choice for Lockdown to meet in the film as the two also had a dark history in "Transformers Animated".
- This film is hardly the first time humans have messed with "Transformers" technology or controlled it. As far back as the original Marvel Comic Books series, we saw humans manipulating Transformers technology including the "Autobot Suit" built by Circuit Breaker out of the bodies of several Autobots.
- The idea that the Dinobots have existed for millions of years is often represented in various fiction. In "Fall of Cybertron" they were shown as having dinosaur modes thanks to Shockwave's experiments on them. In the G1 Marvel comic book, the Autobot ship Ark gave five warriors forms based on the local life forms of the time.
- Galvatron being a reincarnation of Megatron was an established concept in the 1986 animated "Transformers" film.
- Joshua Joyce is very similar to other figures in "Transformers" history such as Dr. Arkeville or Sumdac, both of whom were scientists that used Transformers technology for their own ends, though this story leans towards Sumdac who had Megatron's head "imprisoned" for a while.
- The concept that Transformers have "creators" (instead of say, being straight up borne out of Primus' well of Sparks or something) goes back to the "Generation One" cartoon where the creatures known as Quintessons built the Transformers as robotic slaves millions of years ago.
- The concept of Autobot "Knights" calls back to both the way one of Primus' original 13 creations looked (with a suit of armor and sword) and the current IDW Publishing Comic Book, where the search for the lost "Knights" of Cybertron is driving a major story point.
- When the scientists at the lab get a phone call from Joyce in Hong Kong, they are using the "Transformium" to create a My Little Pony figure (Rainbow Dash) specifically - another Hasbro brand.
- In the same scene where Rainbow Dash appears, a phone goes off playing the old "Robots in disguise" theme song.
- Galvatron controlling an army of vehicular drones (instead of a motley collection of Transformers with individual personalities) is very reminiscent of Megatron's control of the Vehicon army in "Beast Machines".