Yesterday, the Fourth of July, my wife and I went to see the latest Transformers movie, as the Founders intended. Waking up this morning, I can tell: the brain cell loss was considerable.
We didn’t expect much, of course–it’s a Michael Bay movie, after all–but I’ll give it this, it was entertaining. We laughed a lot, especially at things that the filmmaker pretty obviously didn’t intend to be funny. As a result, we were at the receiving end of dirty looks from fellow
congregants audience members. I’ll also admit that the fact that, for me, absolutely nothing in the movie made the tiniest lick of sense is almost certainly due to ignorance. I’ve seen one other Transformers movie and remember almost nothing about it, except for big noisy fight scenes between robots, some of which we were supposed to be rooting for and some we were supposed to be rooting against, but I had no idea which were which. So I had a bit of a struggle unpacking the mythology.
Because there is a mythology. Bay, and his pet writer, Ehren Kruger, have created an entire back story involving transformers. And considering that their source material consists mostly of a children’s toy from the mid ’80s, plus a completely terrible TV show from a few years after that, it’s an impressive feat.
The Age of Extinction part of the movie’s title has to do with dinosaurs. We even see it. Lots of dinosaurs attacked by a space ship, which transformates them. That’s like forty seconds into the movie, a sequence lasting maybe thirty seconds more. And the title, the Extinction thing–has nothing whatever to do with anything else that ever happens ever again in the whole entire three hour movie.
So cut to the present, and an archeologist, Darcy Tirrell (Sophie Miles), has found transformatiated dinosaurs. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, an inventor/mechanic played by Mark Wahlberg has found an old truck which he’s trying to fix and sell, while his superhot daughter, Nicola Peltz frets about the impending foreclosure on his property, while hiding from Daddy the existence of a boyfriend, played by Jack Reynor. (And dear old Dad spends the whole movie creepily obsessed with her dating life). (These ‘characters’ all have character names, BTW, but I never did catch what any of them were). And the evil armed minions of evil CIA chief Frazier Crane–sorry, I meant Kelsey Grammer–show up, making evil threats. And billionaire Stanley Tucci chews out his staff because the lobby music in his place of business isn’t imposing enough.
Okay, so: Kelsey Grammer. He’s head of the CIA, working under what we’re given to understand is a weak milquetoast of a President. (We never meet this President, but props to Thomas Lennon, who turns the President’s Chief of Staff into a wonderfully ineffectual comic character). Anyway, ‘Murrica’s been attacked by evil robots. Saved by good robots, most especially the splendidly named Optimus Prime. (Who has, one presumes, a saturnine twin named Pessimus Prime, plus maybe a sister named Meh.) Anyway, American armed forces are clearly out of their league fighting Transformers. So here’s Frazier’s brilliant scheme. He’ll ally with the evil Transformers. See? Brilliant, huh? And help them hunt down Optimus, plus his five bizarrely culturally stereotyped Transformer friends. And then, see, the CIA will locate dead Transformers, melt them down, and use the stuff they’re made of to create an army of pro-‘Murrican Transformer soldiers. And those soldiers will be built by Stanley Tucci’s company! The military-industrial complex: Transformiated! (Rimshot).
(What are the politics of this ridiculous plot? That the CIA needs oversight? That we shouldn’t ally with bad guys, that it would make more sense to ally with good guys? That Stanley Tucci should probably consider shaving? That we shouldn’t put Kelsey Grammer in charge of, like, everything? I read lots of nonsense about how retrograde this movie’s politics were; I’d say it’s more incoherent than anything. American soldiers are evil! Except when they’re good! Or maybe: broke inventors rule?)
Oh oh oh, and the stuff, the raw material of Transformer construction, the stuff Tucci’s company is going to built its army from? It’s called transformium. When we heard that name, I heard my wife guffaw out loud. Transformium. I guess ‘Unobtainium’ was taken.
Okay, so, that’s the evil plot by evil Kelsey Grammer. And Tucci’s built him a prototype, called Galvatron, made from the transformium they got from the bad Transformer from a previous movie, Megatron. No big deal, because this is a Transformer we ‘Murricans can control, see. Except Megatron’s consciousness lingers, and takes over, so all Grammer/Tucci’s evil machinations have managed to really create is a superpissed super bad guy Transformer. Plus there’s a new evil Transformer, Lockdown. I think the good guy Transformers are called ‘autobots’ and the bad guy Transformers are called ‘decepticons’. (Which would make Dick Cheney a decepti-neocon? Rimshot). And Mark Wahlberg and daughter and daughter’s boyfriend are on the side of Optimus Prime. Who they can totally fight effectively alongside of. Lots and lots of fight scenes ensue, trashing first Mark Wahlberg’s farm, then Chicago, then Hong Kong.
And things get really weird. Like, there’s an alien space ship, where apparently Lockdown gathers lots of specimen/hostages from many planets, and where he briefly incarcerates Optimus Prime. But also, a second space ship, which Our Heroes commandeer. Plus there are Transformer evil dogs. Plus good-but-uncivilized-and-unruly Transformer dinosaurs. Plus Tucci makes a big deal about how little transformium he has, only barely enough to finish Galvatron, but also apparently enough for fifty Transformer soldiers, which just sort of show up randomly. Plus at one point Mark Walhberg looks Stanley Tucci in the eye, broke inventor to billionaire inventor, and persuades him to stop being evil, and from that point on, Tucci’s a good guy. Evil comic sidekick characters are allowed, of course, to switch sides and become good guy comic sidekick characters, according to the sacred laws of 19 century melodrama, which no action movie, ever, can ever ever violate, as per constitutional mandate.
Oh, my goodness, it’s a silly movie. And at the end, when Optimus Prime is intoning portentiously “when you look up at the stars, think of me. . . ” my wife and I both just lost it. One of those laughing spells, like in Church, where you have to try to stifle it, but end up making things worse.
The biggest problem with the movie is not the wacko plot or the bad dialogue or the two-dimensional characters. It’s a Michael Bay movie. It’s the action sequences, big fights between robots where you’re never oriented in time or place, have no idea even who is fighting and who we’re supposed to be rooting for, or why we should care. He’s too in love with the ‘people running from big ‘splosions’ shot. He gets to use Chinese martial arts actress Bing-bing Li, and films the sequence in tight quarters, where you can’t see what’s going on. He’s the most successful action movie director of all time and his action sequences are the worst things in his mostly terrible movies. I just felt bad for the good people of Hong Kong, whose city just got thrashed. Or at least a model of it.
Wahlberg’s fine, I guess. Tucci’s actually a lot of fun. Nicola Peltz is very pretty, cries on command, and runs away from evil blue screen robots really convincingly. Titus Welliver got to do his usual evil soldier schtick, and is always a pleasure to watch. Jack Reynor was completely forgettable.
But hey, it was the Fourth of July. We had hamburgers and hot dogs and french fries and then went to see a big, dumb, noisy movie. Pursuing happiness, man. Proud to be an American. ‘Cause at least I know I’m free.