Blockbuster Talk: America, Football, Skrillex, and ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’
This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to discuss truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: We’re maxing out our Bayometers with Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment of the grotesquely successful franchise.
Emily Yoshida: The last time Robert Mays and I joined forces in a professional capacity, it was at Coachella, in the Sahara Tent, in front of an elaborate laser-firing spaceship that contained Skrillex. I’m glad we’re both back in our comfort zone.
I think the Transformers series occupies kind of a rarefied position at this point in its run: Most critics have stopped trying to tell you how or why it’s bad. Freed of having to make a value judgment, you can instead look at it more like a piece of abstract art, all buzzing and clanking and short shorts, and maybe try to have a transcendental experience with what could, if you’re cynical, be seen as the purest distillation of megabudget American cinema. And there were a few spots in Transformers: Age of Extinction where I was able to stop thinking about plot, continuity, editing, and language and kind of commune with the film as a series of vibrations and light patterns. Here’s the thing, though: It was still hot fucking garbage.
Robert Mays: On the spectrum of laser-firing spaceship spectacles, that show in the desert was on one end and this was securely on the other. If they’re really going to make two more of these things, they should just hand the whole franchise over to Skrillex. At least he’d pretend to give a shit, which is way more than we can expect from Michael Bay at this point.
I’ve never gotten much out of the visual side of movies like this. The massive set pieces in something like Transformers or at the end of Iron Man 3 are actually when I start to tune out. That’s a problem here, because this installment was nothing but set pieces. It was 165 minutes of destruction, in an intelligence-cleaving way that I’ve never seen before. Also, yeah, 165 minutes. This thing is 15 minutes longer than Lincoln.
My main problem isn’t with the total absence of anything hinting at dialogue, character, or any other element of actual storytelling. Pacific Rim isn’t exactly Glengarry Glen Ross. But I enjoyed every second of that movie in a way I didn’t even approach yesterday. The reason for that is pretty simple: This movie isn’t fun. No one associated with it is having a good time anymore, so how can I? There’s not even the illusion of effort. When we get introduced to Mark Wahlberg, he’s driving a pickup truck and listening to country in what we’re told is “Texas, USA.” No one could be bothered to spend the seven seconds it would’ve taken to pick a city. Sure, that’s small, but that’s what has turned this franchise from empty but watchable to insulting: It’s not just that they have no time for small, it’s that they seem to be actively working against it.
Yoshida: Let’s talk about Texas for a second. I don’t remember where the previous Transformers movies took place (while driving his truck and listening to country music, Wahlberg passes a billboard that reads “REMEMBER CHICAGO,” to which I immediately thought, Wait, I literally don’t remember), but it’s sort of surprising to me that they didn’t all take place in “Texas, USA.” Bay’s able to graft on every ham-fisted idea he has about American-ness and independence and good, old-fashioned values onto the foreversunset and billowing American flags of this postcard amalgamation of the Lone Star State. Ironically, it is a vision of America that feels like it’s targeted at someone who’s never been to America (fun/terrible fact: Transformers: AoE grossed $300 million worldwide this weekend). Optimus Prime is found in a dusty back room of a dead small-town movie theater (whose proprietor laments the current state of cinema as “nothing but sequels and remakes” — What You Did There, I See It). Wahlberg tells a menacing federal agent not to mess with Texas with all the authority you’d expect from Boston’s proudest son. That same federal agent later gets taken out via a well-targeted football, albeit in a Hong Kong microapartment, something I may still be trying too hard to read into.
During those 165 minutes I kind of found myself wishing I’d seen Pain & Gain, which was roundly praised as “not terrible” and apparently hinted that Bay may have more of an ear and eye for satire than we may give him credit for, especially with regard to all of these hyper-American tropes he’s known for. Did you see Pain & Gain? Are you familiar with TV Carnage? Transformers: AoE feels like a TV Carnage compilation of itself.
Mays: Did I see Pain & Gain? That might be the meanest thing anyone has ever suggested about me. Of course I saw Pain & Gain! I saw it the day it came out, because as much as I’ve hated the Transformers movies, I’ll always give Bay and South Florida a chance.
“Not terrible” is about right. I wanted a lot out of a movie whose trailer starts with Wahlberg saying “I believe in fitness,” and there were stretches of Pain & Gain when I got it. It isn’t a great movie, but it actually tried to be about something, and that side of it — the one with the red, white, and blue dripping off it — was at least interesting. This has the opposite approach when considering place. It has two locales: farmland, and skyline to be destroyed. The traits of each don’t really matter, and on Bay’s atlas, they’re apparently right next to each other. I don’t know where there’s a stretch of highway lined with barns 10 minutes away from Chicago, but I guess he found it.
When I saw Pain & Gain, I agreed with everyone pointing to Bay’s feel for satire, and I actually enjoyed Wahlberg going back to playing a dolt on purpose in a way he makes work. But after watching what I did yesterday, I feel like I may have given him too much credit. If Pain & Gain was a satire of Michael Bay movies in the best way possible (his “foray into character study” still has a coked-up The Rock jumping off a dock to retrieve his severed big toe), Trans4mers is the worst parody of them. I know no one needs to hear any more about how much Bay hates women, but WOW was this bad. Based on most of the context, I think we’re supposed to like Nicola Peltz’s character. Compared to the other women Bay has put onscreen, I think we’re even supposed to admire her. And still, her résumé as is follows: a potential high school graduate, knows how to cook without ketchup, can balance a checkbook.
The last time we see her, she’s actually kissing her boyfriend with one foot in the air while standing in that foreversunset you mentioned. It’d fit right into that TV Carnage clip. And I don’t want to get too far off Michael Bay and America, but we need to talk about the boyfriend at some point. In Jack Reynor’s first 30 seconds, he manages to speak in Australian, Irish, and American accents. It’s supposed to be Irish, but by the halfway point, Reynor — who is from Colorado — is back to sounding like your standard Colora-bro. I want to believe there was a “Yeah, but what if he were Irish?” conversation at 4 a.m. that they tried for two weeks and eventually forgot/didn’t care about.
Yoshida: Waitwaitwait, the bf WASN’T ACTUALLY 100% IRISH? Wow, and here I was thinking that Reynor must have been so perfect in his audition that Bay had the script retooled around him. Nope, as it turns out, Bay and/or the writers had just been sitting on those leprechaun jokes all along. Perhaps the Irishness was a way to position his character as an invading Other while still keeping him very white. To Reynor’s credit, “By the way, I’m totally legit, I just got picked up by Red Bull” was one of about three spit-out-my-drink LOL lines in this mess. Another was when the green trench coat–wearing Australian-bot says “Let’s rock” before clunking off into battle.
The “human story” concerns (troublingly!) overprotective father Wahlberg learning to accept the other man in his daughter’s (Peltz) life by working together with him to defeat some Decepticons or whatever. Tessa is supposed to be more virtuous than Megan Fox’s bad-girl-gone-good; Wahlberg’s character is very concerned about her virginity. But the camera lingers on her just as pervily as it did on Fox, even as Wahlberg keeps reminding us that she’s not 18 yet. There’s a jaw-dropping scene where Tessa and her boyfriend explain Texas’s “Romeo and Juliet” law to Wahlberg as a way to sidestep the whole jailbait angle. It’s supposed to be funny, I think. The anxiety over Peltz’s character’s sexuality may actually be the most American aspect of Trans4mers. The approximately 857 action set pieces are all bookended by Tessa tearfully bidding farewell to her dad, then tearfully reuniting with her boyfriend while Wahlberg looks on disapprovingly.
But enough about the dumb humans. Let’s talk about those robots, or specifically, those robot dinosaurs. Two hot takes about robot dinosaurs: (1) They come in wayyyy too late in the game, and (2) who cares, we’re all going to die someday. No but seriously, is there any version of this movie in which the maximalism and sensory bombardment manages to still be fun or surprising, a version where you can find it in yourself to get excited about robo-dinos 125 minutes in? Do you have respect for the armies of VFX and sound-design professionals who are just doing what they’re paid to do, or should we just burn the whole thing to the ground?
Mays: I had a few favorite lines, but “My face is my warrant” has to take it. That’s an airtight argument to get in pretty much anywhere.
So when I was saying before that I’ve become kind of numb to the clanging and barrel-rolling and car-destroying, I meant the actual fight scenes. I don’t mean about how not-quite-the-same Autobots kill Megatron’s cronies. The moments that succeed in pushing me a little bit closer to the 7-year-old version of myself are whenever we’re introduced to something new. When we first meet the Dinobot, and one of the Autobots responds with, “I just thought it’d be a really big car,” I actually smiled — a real-life human response! That’s what this is supposed to be! We all loved dinosaurs at the same age that kids like Transformers, and 125 minutes in was the only time I could imagine a child enjoying this movie.
That’s one of the fatal flaws with our sequel-based summers: The chances to surprise shrink with every movie of a franchise. When we meet the Dinobots, or when Lockdown is pacing down the freeway with his giant ship in tow, it’s impossible not to respect those armies of VFX folks. In those rare instances, they get to create. For the most part, though, the world of this series is fully formed, and honestly, it’s really boring. Does anyone else think Optimus Prime is just sort of a dick? He spends a lot of time barking out orders and generally seeming like a humorless asshole. The human version of him would wear a lot of crew-length white socks and own a TV tray. He’s a Greg Schiano who can turn into a truck.
What do you think? You know a lot more than I do about what goes into making a movie. Am I missing something in the translation here that makes the visual part of this worth it for its own sake?
Yoshida: At one point Optimus Prime, like the lost seventh employee at Empire Records, tells the bad corporate robot that he doesn’t have a soul, and the baddie responds, “That is why I have no fear.” That’s basically an explanation of why this movie exists. Nobody. Gives. A. Shit. They know at this point that they don’t have to. Like a shiny new Vegas resort, its creators slap down those marble floors and vessel sinks all while knowing it has a very limited lifespan, relatively speaking, before it’s demolished. At least a casino endeavors to be continually fun to continue to get money from you. So yes, while there are virtuosic turns by the ILM team here, and shots that definitely took weeks and weeks to create, it’s hard for me to look beyond that, for lack of a more precise word, soullessness. Even aside from the CGI, these movies are so viscerally gross-looking to me. For the past decade or so, I feel like Bay has told his makeup department to paint all of his actors, male and female, with Tang-colored bronzer (except for the sunglasses area) while giving them sunburn-pink lips. Good thing he fills the frame with so many lens flares (SO MANY!) that you don’t have to look at them for very long at any given time.
All of that said, I’m able to still have respect for the sound team, and not just because our friend helped them out this time. I feel like their work is less tied to gut-level taste. These movies always get nominated for the Academy Award Sound Design/Editing awards, and they never win, and that’s kind of crazy to me. If you listen to isolated effects tracks, you can hear the amount of work and imagination being poured into every second, albeit in service of a big dumb machine. It seems like it’s the last corner of the movie where anyone’s having any fun.
Yeah, sorry Frasier, Tooch, Erlich, and Thomas Lennon: not about your paychecks, but about what misery this looked like, and the irreparable damage that spray tan did to your bedsheets. I’m sure any lingering regret you may have for doing this film will be as ephemeral as my retainment of its plot. I’m not sorry for the dude from Lost who gets killed by the football, though. He’s having the time of his life, and if we’re rewarding fun here, then he demands our respect.