Let me get the acknowledgements out of the way. Transformers: Age of Extinction is not a great movie. It’s not a good movie. Narratively it lacks one of a story’s five basic components–theme. There is no intentional abstract meaning. It’s literally just good robots fighting bad robots with human involvement mucking up the proceedings. Production-wise, Michael Bay’s directorial approach, as everyone already knows, focuses on grand, sweeping images, not smaller, intimate ones. At times it seems as if the budget on the smaller sets and scenes were cut in favor of the inclusion of larger explosions and fancier cars elsewhere. There’s also two really noticeable plot holes, one gigantic enough to fly Optimus Prime through and the other a minor annoyance that can be excused considering the material.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is also not a bad movie. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. I saw Transformers 4 on opening weekend and enjoyed it. I left the theater feeling a lot better about the three hours and $16 (for two tickets) I spent on it than I did the first two entries in the series. You see, way back before the franchise became the whipping boy of critics and the internet, my curiosity and appreciation for a then-relatively-unknown Shia LaBeouf coxed me into the theater for Transformers. I was greatly disappointed, not only by the story, but by the awful attempts at humor and the misuse of LaBeouf (a problem that seems to be a constant in his career since Holes). I was so disappointed, I refused to see any of its guaranteed sequels…until Transformers: Revenge of Fallen blew up the box office. It seemed like everyone was seeing it, and I didn’t understand why. Again, curiosity coxed me into my seat. My response can best be summed up with two images:
I was done. There would be no more Transformers for me, no matter how awesome the Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon trailer ended up being. And make no mistake about it, it was awesome. I remember not realizing it was for Transformers the first time I saw it until the robot reveal. Of course, I also remember critics and the internet immediately decrying it by pointing out that, scientifically, it’s impossible for there to be a true dark side of the moon. You won’t get an argument from me on that point. It just completely misses the point of Bay’s movies. That critique is where I parted ways with the critics and the internet, no matter how much I agreed that these high-grossing flicks just weren’t very good.
Transition back to today. I saw Transformers: Age of Extinction and enjoyed it. I understand that the mere fact that I’m releasing that statement on the internet makes it seem controversial. Let me assure you, it is not. I understand that there are a lot of people out there who think no one should ever see the movie. To me, those critics and the internet telling me not to see it is like people on the Paleo diet telling me I shouldn’t eat artificial sugars because it’s not good for me. To quote a man I respect greatly (who not-so-coincidentally loves the Transformers movies), “If I want a cookie, I’m going to eat a fucking cookie.”
What convinced me to fork over my cash for the fourth feature in the franchise was the cast. Specifically, the inclusion of Mark Wahlberg, one of my favorite actors, led me to believe this action movie would be a bit more adult and a bit less teen-angst-against-your-parents. Later, I spotted TJ Miller in a random frame in a trailer and wondered why wasn’t he being marketed more. He’s one of the funniest guys around. (My question was answered in the first half hour of the movie.) The strength of the cast doesn’t end with those two actors. Kelsey Grammar is a superb villain, combining all the negative stereotypes of right-wing Hawks into his CIA Director who’s gone rogue. Stanley Tucci plays his character so complexly I bought his transition from mustache-twirling villain to sympathetic government-duped businessman. Finally, Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor are endearing second fiddles to Walhberg, always coming across as relatable and confident, never annoying and juvenile. This ensemble elevated the experience from an electric light show to an emotional journey (though not a terribly complicated one). As Optimus Prime shot into space and the end credits rolled, they’re the reason I felt satisfied at being dazzled with destruction.
And destruction is the perfect word to describe what I witnessed. Age of Extinction romps, rolls, and roars over no less than three locales–Texas, Chicago, and Bejing–leaving a wave of smashed buildings and roadways in its wake. If senseless destruction is the ultimate sin a director can commit (let’s not forget the heat that Zack Snyder took for the state of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel), then it’s no wonder Bay is so despised. He revels in the big, bold, and flashy. Most of the time Age of Extinction feels less like a movie and more like a show in Las Vegas or Disney World. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who has written three of the four in the saga, describes working with Bay as exactly that kind of experience:
Writing for Michael is very — he’s a very sensory director, and sometimes an “overload” director. He’s someone who is always looking to top himself, certainly from an action perspective and a stylistic perspective. So very early on we’re throwing ideas back and forth. We talk about sequences and visuals and moments. Whereas in some other films, or “ordinary” films, you might be very slavish to story and narrative first, and logical sense above all. When you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all. It needs to be amazing fun for the audience. They need to be swept up, and be promised that they’re going to see things that make it worth spending money on a ticket.
You have to understand, with a big summer movie like this, especially this franchise, [Michael Bay] doesn’t quite look at it like competing with movies. He looks at it like “should I go see Transformers, or spend a day at Six Flags?” There’s a big spectacle quality to it that he is promising, and that is one of the things that makes this franchise different than your X-Men, Spider-Man, or Planet of the Apes films. It’s something this series does that is its own style. That is all part of the package. Some days, it’s like writing a Cirque du Soleil show.
So maybe it’s beyond ridiculous that in the finale the Autobots keep trying to drive a bomb out of Bejing when Optimus Prime can fly and there’s a Pterodactyl Dinobot; but that’s not the point. It’s about the fight and how it looks. Make no mistake about it, this movie has a conflict (Optimus Prime vs. A Transformer Bounty Hunter) and a logical (just not realistic) series of events. It’s a battle between good and evil. Everything else is just window dressing to make it more epic. It’s why I can excuse Bumble Bee disappearing during the climatic battle between Optimus and the Bounty Hunter. Where did he go? Why do none of the characters care? Because I don’t.
I went to the theater to relax and enjoy the spectacle, so when Wahlberg’s character informed a CIA agent that he needed a warrant to search his farm and the agent responded “my face is my warrant,” I didn’t groan. I smiled.
If I want to see a Michael Bay movie, I’m going to see a fucking Michael Bay movie.