It was bizarrely shocking to realise that 'Transformers: Age of Extinction', the fourth in this inexplicably thriving franchise, was at once exactly what I expected it to be and something I never expected in my wildest dreams.
But first, confession time.
I haven't seen any of the previous 'Transformers' movies, mostly because I can't stand anything with Michael Bay's name on it and because I'm fully aware that this franchise exists only to sell toys with anything that impedes that goal being discarded with extreme prejudice. Yet, I've heard good things about the first two in the series, from people whose opinions I trust even if their particular tastes in movies are wildly different from mine.
Incidentally, I'm not sure I know anyone who's even seen the third film, 'Dark of the Moon', bizarrely as it's currently the seventh highest grossing movie of all time with over $1.1 billion to its credit. In my circles, it's apparently invisible. This fourth film would be too, if only I wasn't frequenting the West Wind Glendale 9 to review modern drive-in movies for the Nameless Zine.
'Age of Extinction' is hardly a minor picture, somehow on target to beat its predecessor's performance, ranking at the very top of this year's box office as the only film to break a billion dollars in 2014. Of course, box office take is hardly the best way to judge the quality of a movie. If we cared only about that benchmark, 'The Phantom Menace' would be the best 'Star Wars' movie, 'Alice in Wonderland' would be the greatest Tim Burton film and 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2' would be better than any picture made before 1993.
So, I wasn't surprised to find that 'Age of Extinction' was a mess of a movie, two hours and forty five minutes of sprawling action, full of aliens, robots, explosions and everything that a five year old would think was insanely cool. What I was surprised to find is that it was incredibly boring.
I expected a ride and I got one. I expected explosions and all that other jazz. I expected a flimsy story and I expected not to care, because you can only get so much story in a ride. Most of what I expected was here, albeit in far larger quantities than I imagined. But I never expected to be bored. What I found was that explosions are great, but each has to be bigger and better than the last one and that's incredibly tough to do for nearly three hours. This doesn't come close. I quickly reached the point where explosions that would be awesome if seen in isolation were merely worthy of another yawn.
Even when I should have got interested, when the picture shifts to Hong Kong and Li Bingbing gets more of a role, my legs were getting restless and I wanted to sleep. Whatever the opposite of a recommendation is, that's it.
Fortunately for you, dear readers, I persevered in the holy name of journalism and so witnessed the movie jump the shark in ways I'm still trying to fully fathom. It actually felt like the movie jumped the shark that was jumping the shark. The only thing missing was the Fonz, but he was cool to the generation before mine. This movie is cool to kids a generation or two after me, perhaps only to those born after 2008.
The credits claim that the script was written by Ehren Kruger, who has penned every 'Transformers' sequel thus far, but I wonder if that's stretching the truth. It feels more likely that he has a hundred five year old kids, through some quirk in the adoption system, who he collectively bribed with candy to draw their visions of coolness, pictures which he then shuffled into a random order and translated into stage directions.
Surely he's the one who wrote a charismatic industrial leader, Joshua Joyce, to look exactly like Steve Jobs, because five year olds don't know who Jobs was. He's probably the one who made Jobs, I mean Joyce, the comic relief once his story arc is exposed. It's more likely to be the five year olds who made him the one with transformium, harvested from the remnants of dinosaurs melted by aliens millions of years ago and dug up in the Arctic by his geologist assistant. You're not seeing any credibility flaws in this synopsis, right?
This is the sort of story that has a poor but mildly sympathetic single father from Texas who builds clunky robots take on a CIA assassin in a one on one fight and win. You know that had to be written by a five year old. Kruger may have had Marky Mark from the Funky Bunch cast as the single dad because that's the power of nostalgia for someone born in 1972, but I'd like to hope that an experienced Hollywood screenwriter has a little more believability in him than that.
As he didn't write the first film, he may have inherited the idea that alien robots who transform into American trucks have to adopt stereotypical Earth characters. That's five year olds projecting wish fulfilment if ever I saw it. There's the one who's like Jackie Chan and the one like Jason Statham and the one like Jack Elam, though the only five year olds who have an idea of who Jack Elam is are the ones whose parents inflicted 'Suburban Commando' on them. Apparently all Autobots, who are the good guy alien transformer robots for those like me without background in this stuff, have to be based on famous Earthlings whose names begin with J. Except John Lennon. That wouldn't work at all.
The most obvious material written by five year olds comes near the end when this sort of story knows only that has to go even more outrageously hog wild than it's been going for more than two hours already. What could be cooler than alien robots who transform into fast cars? How about alien robots fighting each other on top of a two headed alien robot pterodactyl? Not wild enough? Make it happen over the streets of Hong Kong? Ah, the exploding streets of Hong Kong! That's cool, right?
By this point, the screen simply isn't big enough. I needed to be inside the screen to get the scale of this and I don't mean sitting in an IMAX theatre with 3D glasses on. I needed to be in a Holodeck presentation with my eyelids propped open with matchsticks and a surround sound speaker system directly wired to my brain. The drive-in hasn't quite got that far yet.
Gareth Edwards, who remade 'Godzilla' earlier this year, knows exactly what I'm talking about. He shot his battle between giant monsters in such a way that we rarely see them, we just see bits of them. He'd show us a city in ruins being dwarfed by the left shin of Godzilla, which ably highlights just how big the monster is, not only because he dwarfs the city but because he dwarfs the very human anguish that we recognise amongst the wreckage.
Ehren Kruger doesn't understand this at all, perhaps because he's a five year old kid made larger by a Zoltar machine, so he just shows us the cool stuff because who cares about people? This is for anyone who thinks that alien robots fighting each other on top of a two headed alien robot pterodactyl above the exploding streets of Hong Kong is the coolest thing imaginable and they're willing to wade through two plus hours of explosions to see it.
I struggled to find anything here to praise. Gritting my teeth, I have to admit that Mark Wahlberg was one of the best things in the film, but only because the 165 minute running time allowed us to see him do some actual human interaction, at least before the truck he bought out of a disused movie theatre for parts turned out to be Optimus Prime, the resonant voiced leader of the Autobots.
I certainly cared more about his character than that of his put upon 17 year old daughter who thinks she's cute or his unpaid assistant who thinks he's cool. I didn't care at all for his daughter's hidden boyfriend who arrives in the nick of time to save them from the CIA because he's really an Irish rally car driver with a fast vehicle which can speed unscathed through fields of corn. He's awesome and he knows it. He drives through buildings. He drives out of the top floors of buildings onto conveniently placed ramps. What a guy! Yeah, he's that boring.
I didn't care about any of the transformers at all. Not Optimus Prime, nor any of his clichéd Autobots who are hiding out on top of the monuments in Monument Valley from the minions of Kelsey Grammer, who's supposed to be the most Tea Party guy in DC, pledged to take back our planet for humans after the destruction of Chicago in a previous entry in the series. Of course, his tough looking minions literally can't hit a slow moving truck that's driving in a straight line. With missiles. They shoot worse than stormtroopers. I nearly ducked in case they shot me.
Normally when I hate the good guys, I find myself rooting for the bad guys, which would be Gravitron here, the shiny transformer built by Steve Jobs, I mean Joshua Joyce. But he's even more pissy than the rest of them. 'They're ruining everything,' says Gravitron the Pouty at one point in perhaps the most five year old line of them all. I certainly didn't care for the deus ex machina Dinobots, because I'd been all-cooled out by that point.
To suggest I hated this movie is an understatement. I hated it with a passion. I hated it for its relentless stupidity and its wallowing in clichés. I hated it because it wouldn't end. And I hated it for arrogantly assuming that a collage of cool things makes a big picture that's cool. It isn't. It's boring. And I hated it for being boring.
The only really cool thing in this movie is probably the alien spaceship, which is a cross between Hell, an industrial complex and the Giger ship from 'Alien'. And it's wasted, because hey, explosions and dinosaurs and aliens and trucks and shiny.
If everybody who saw this movie asked for their money back, maybe Paramount would go bankrupt returning that $1.1 billion and we won't have to be inflicted with 'Transformers' episodes five and six. They're on their way and I'm cringing already.