Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

6 thoughts on “Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

  1. A much kinder/fairer review than most would have given, and I think you’re right to give props to the film’s technical achievements, which are worth celebrating and are obviously pivotal in getting the bums to stay on seats, and come back for more. For my part I have little love for these movies, but Mrs Mike enjoys them – there’s generally a point, around the hour mark, when I give up entirely on following what’s happening and struggle to tell who’s who when metal is crashing into metal for the umpteenth time. I do remember one masterful scene in this instalment, however, when a character who appears to being developed into a presence throughout the movie is killed, rather brutally and suddenly, which I found quite surprising and bold.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a very odd moment, because it’s not That Kind Of Movie — it’s just blockbuster silliness, not the kind of thing where anyone actually dies (except the robots, who are routinely mutilated). But I suppose it is all the more effective for that, because it does actually add a bit of genuine jeopardy. Not that you can feel that when you can barely follow what’s going on!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I blame trash like this, and how audiences seem to be addicted to it like it’s celluloid crack cocaine, for the poor box office of BR2049 and other films that really deserve better. People don’t seem to go to the cinema for a dramatic or suspenseful experience- they just want a dumb thrill ride the noisier the better. Hollywood only has itself to blame and reliance on 3D and now 4D gimmicks just exasperate the steady decline of quality cinema. I dread Justice League, it’s got disaster written all over it. Massive reshoots, two directors, what can go wrong?

    Yep I’m still sore about BR2049 being so unfairly ignored!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think spectacle is such a driver at the box office because, if it doesn’t ‘need’ a huge screen to look good, why not wait a couple of months and save a small fortune? Especially when you also dodge all the phone users, etc. When there’s so much to catch up on at home — quality TV, old films, etc — why fork out for anything less than “needs the big screen”?

      Though it is a shame that wide audiences can’t seem to handle spectacle and thinking at the same time, because 2049 definitely delivered both. The Transformers films clearly demonstrate how low the bar is for some, because it’s striking how little sense they make. Well, I’m saying that as someone who just gave one of them 3 stars! But if Bay cared about adding half-decent storytelling to his technical prowess, perhaps these could have been great blockbusters.

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      • I don’t know why studios/cinema chains don’t try something radical, like varying the ticket prices. Why should I pay the same price for a $30 million film as a $200 million blockbuster? Or the same price for the main screen as one of the smaller screens that films usually get relegated to after a few weeks?

        In the case of BR2049, now it’s drifting out to smaller screens in favour of the latest Marvel juggernaut, why not try encouraging punters by halving the ticket prices? Better than nothing at all, surely. Even in its first week at my local cineworld, some showings in small screens were the same price as showings in the prestigious big screens. I chose my screening accordingly because I refused to pay the same price for a small screen, it felt unfair and not reflective of a lesser experience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess they fear ordinary punters would start waiting for the lower price… and once you’re waiting a few weeks, why not wait four months and watch at home? Though you see announcements of films coming to disc just four months after the cinema and in the comments are people going “why the long wait?!”, so maybe it’d be fine.

          The screen size thing would certainly make sense though. They’re certainly happy to put the price up for a much bigger screen, i.e. IMAX. Maybe they’d sell out the small screens quicker to those after a bargain, but there’ll be those who want the better experience, as well as latecomers ‘forced’ into the better screen. The chains all seem to believe in having a couple of rows of premium seats, so why not apply the same principle to screen sizes?

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