"Transformers: Age of Exinction" has enough room to include fire-breathing Dinobots. Credit: Paramount Pictures
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' Director: Michael Bay Stars: Michael Bay, Stanley Tucci Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
The fourth, nearly three-hour-long “Transformers” is out, and so begins the bi-annual-or-so tradition of critics gasping with horror at the latest from Michael Bay — a vulgarian who’s so hated he will undoubtedly be treated as an abused genius by future cinephiles. His detractors aren’t wrong: He is awful, not only in his sadistic, pummeling filmmaking style but in his casually bullying, one could argue cynical worldview. But he is an original, cranking his junky pictures to such extremes that they simply can’t be ignored.
Here are the few things that are at least theoretically admirable about the Shia- (and John Turturro-)less “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and the many things that are wrong with it, many of which are the things that are wrong with all of his pictures:
Mark Wahlberg gets involved in some battle bot mayhem in "Transformers: Age of Extinction." Credit: Paramount Pictures
This one does, atypically, make a touch of sense
Bay doesn’t care about plot holes, nor about even giving you the basics of his plots. In “Transformers 4,” Optimus Prime and his goodly Autobots have been declared enemies of the state following the last movie, where they saved humankind but did so by basically leveling Chicago. Yet the CIA, led by sniveling baddie Kelsey Grammar, thinks all giant alien robots that transform into cars are the problem, and has thus gone about hunting them down and destroying them. Why they don’t leave the planet isn’t addressed, at least not coherently. The same goes for a fearsome transformer bounty hunter with a massive, scary ship, who has made it his mission to capture Optimus Prime. Why? And what will he do with him once he has him? Why are you using your brain? Drop your jaw and give in.
But everything else…well, it kind of almost sort of makes sense this time. Prime has disguised himself as a trunk junker and winds up in the garage/lab of a junkyard inventor from Texas with the impenetrable name of Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, in boyish charm mode). Prime goes on the run from the psychotic authorities along with Yeager, who drags along his short-shorts-clad, teenage daughter (Nicole Peltz) and her Irish speed racer boyfriend (Jack Reynor). Meanwhile Transformer technology has wound up in the hands of a Steve Jobs-y tech giant (Stanley Tucci), which allows the Autobots some other people to fight while destroying major cities. This isn’t exactly streamlined storytelling, but for Bay it’s downright Aesopian.
One Transformer fights another Transformer in "Transformers: Age of Extinction." Credit: Paramount Pictures
It's basically easy to follow visually
When Bay first started with 1995’s comparatively modest “Bad Boys,” he was hopping on the hyper-cutting bandwagon established by Oliver Stone and Tony Scott in the early 1990s: one that favored pure sensation over visual sense. You couldn’t follow one shot to another or tell who was where, but that’s because you were (theoretically) enjoying the whiplash. Bay went even further than Stone and Scott; parts of “Bad Boys II” are unfollowable, and the entire climax of the “Transformers” is an incoherent mish-mash of flashy images, urban destruction, twisting metal and people running like chickens sans heads.
But to do that would be to waste this fancy new 3-D technology; if you can’t see it, then the glasses are doing nothing. For the third “Transformers” Bay experimented with shots of coherent lengths: three seconds, five seconds, sometimes seven — seven! — whole seconds. He does the same here and even thinks about how one image will cut with the other, so that you not only get the rush of kinesis but you can say with confidence that you know what’s going on. The chases and battles and mid-air dogfights are all easy to parse, and some of them are even enjoyable. (The Dinobots aren't used too much but they're admittedly kind of cool.)
Two of Michael Bay's favorite things in the world are crammed into one shot: hot blondes with loose clothing (Nicole Peltz) and the American flag. America! Credit: Paramount Pictures
But he’s still Michael Bay
Trash filmmakers are up front with their obsessions, putting them right on the screen in every movie. Brian De Palma loves long takes, split screen mayhem and hot women making out. Michael Bay loves fast cars, big guns, pointless explosions, destroying massive cities, funny black people, racial stereotypes, glib jokes, the American flag, our troops, young girls with shorts that barely exist and overprotective fathers with hot daughters who wear shorts that barely exist.
All are in “Transformers 4,” cycled over and over for 165 minutes. He thinks big but he rarely thinks different. Despite his rep as an anti-elitist populist, Bay does seem to have read some of his reviews. Apart from being more visually readable, these last two “Transformers” have been less casually racist. (There’s no illiterate, gold-toothed minstrel bots here, as in number two, though the “sassy” tiny robot returns, and one Autobot is an Asian stereotype. There’s also a lot of Irish jokes, because Bay evidently never got over the 1910s.) It’s maybe, arguably, possibly not even a touch less casually sexist. There’s only one braindead babe, although she’s repeatedly, tiresomely upbraided by her father, Wahlberg, who because of the extreme length has enough time to fill an entire season of “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”-level jokes.
But he's still Michael Bay. He burns an innocent, harmless supporting character to death then pores over his carbonized corpse. He expresses righteous indignation at senseless destruction, then follows that up with several reels of senseless destruction. He can’t even remember his own outrage. We’re told that climactic battle from the third one that you thought was AWESOME actually destroyed Chicago and killed tens of hundreds of people. There’s a billboard in Texas that reads “Remember Chicago.” It’s treated like 9/11 times a thousand — but then an hour passes and the action goes back to a pretty reconstructed Windy City. Bay destroys it a little bit — just a little bit. Then he heads off to Beijing, rewarding Chinese viewers — who love big, dumb American cinema more than most nations — by utterly leveling that city too. Don’t go see Bay movies, Bucharest, Romania, or you’re next!
The essence of Michael Bay: The director appears to either be demonstrating a shot to actress Nicola Peltz or about to kill her with some awesome green weapon. Credit: Paramount Pictures
But a tame-ish Bay is not a fun Bay
Bay’s detractors also tend to see every single one of his movies — usually in a theater, to best take in their pomposity and bombast. He is in fact the embodiment of the term "love to hate." Roger Ebert called movies “machines that create empathy,” allowing viewers the chance to get into the headspaces of people completely unlike them. So, in a way, do Bay’s movies. They allow mild-mannered, liberal-minded, non-sexist, non-racist, art film-loving people the chance to briefly (okay, not that briefly) view the world through the eyes of someone they consider if not a genuinely terrible person then someone who sees things, well, differently.
But Bay has been playing it not nice but, very relatively speaking, reined-in with his last two “Transformers” pictures. (Luckily, last year’s “Pain & Gain” was something else entirely: a film mocking the Bay lifestyle made by Bay himself. And Bay can never be fully self-aware.) Where’s the fun in that? Parts of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” are watchable, even thrilling. But he’s supposed to be offensive, wretched, vulgar. The worst it can do is have a car plow through a VFW, for a laugh. That’s horrible, but he used to cram the horrible into every single frame. It’s almost as though, on the cusp of 50, he’s acting like he’s a quasi-mature 23.