Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) - Eros and Thanatos in a Terrible Work of Genius

If you mention Michael Bay's name on the internet, you're almost guaranteed to get an immediate, negative reaction. His name has become synonymous with loud, brainless action schlock, and even seeing his name as a producer on films he didn't write or direct (the upcoming 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the numerous horror remakes he produced under his Platinum Dunes label) is enough to raise some ire. Since 2007's Transformers, he's been particularly demonized for the direction he's taken this franchise.

Bay is a director who carefully crafts a specific feel that runs through his films, and has an unmistakeable sense of style. That style is sometimes revolting, but it's all his, and it's hard to accuse the man of producing generic films. A Michael Bay film has his fingerprints all over it, and even when handling a toy-centric mega-franchise like Transformers he gives the films a feel of their own that's completely distinct from other modern summer blockbusters. I actually think there's a certain brilliance to what he does, even when I think the result is gross.

For me, a film dense with subtext can be great even if the story's awful. The what and why of the film interests me even (sometimes especially) in bad movies. Transformers: Age of Extinction is a film loaded with subtext, sometimes beautiful and sometimes sickening. There's a lot going on here and I think "turning your brain off" and just enjoying the action (if that works for you here, more power to you) will miss what really makes this awful, plodding film actually kind of incredible to watch. This isn't a "so bad it's good" thing; this film's genuinely loaded with things worth thinking about, even if you conclude, "this is horrible, why would anyone want to say this in a movie?"

The Story So Far

Before getting into all that, the basics: Age of Extinction is the fourth installment in the Transformers series and it's not a great film. The script is terrible, the human characters are entirely unlikeable outside of the campy villains, (Kelsey Grammer as a CIA chief and Titus Welliver as his head hitman, both great) it's incredibly long and could have told its story in an hour, and the fire-breathing robot dinosaurs advertised heavily don't appear until the final act. I do think the action is an improvement over the first film's (as a disclaimer: I haven't seen the second or third film and didn't need to to follow this one) and is chaotic but easy to follow. Smartly, every important robot has a distinct shape and color, making it simple to tell who's doing what where, even if up close they still just look like a mash-up of random pieces of metal.

The story centers around Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a violent failure of an inventor whose purposes in life are digging up scrap metal and making sure no boys touch his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Together with his comic relief sidekick Lucas (T. J. Miller), Cade unknowingly comes across the hibernating shell of Optimus Prime, leader of the Good Guy Autobots, who has been dormant since an attack some time between the third and fourth films. After a massive battle blows up Chicago in the previous film, Transformers, both the good Autobots and evil Decepticons, are declared enemies of the state and are hunted and killed by the CIA, who are secretly working for alien bounty hunters employed by God. The CIA comes to claim Optimus, who Cade helps revive, and violence breaks out, leading to a car chase and lots of explosions and eventually they meet Steve Jobs (Stanley Tucci), who has been buying dead Transformers/torturing live ones to manufacture cool new products from. He's one of the good guys by the end.

Optimus finds more Autobots, kills lots of bad guys, kills the evil bounty hunter, and the true villain, Galvatron, slinks off into the distance instead of attending the climactic battle, leaving him safe for the sequel. Steve Jobs learns that nuclear weapons are bad, but other weapons are good, and Cade finds a man manly enough to be allowed to sleep with his daughter. Everyone's warm and happy, and Optimus Prime ignites his turbo boosters, grabs a nuke, and rockets off into space to meet God, and either punch him or blow him up in the next film. These are just a few of the nutty, nutty things to happen in the amazing odyssey of Optimus and Cade.

The plot doesn't really matter. It's a series of belches and bombs meant to get our heroes from one fight/chase to the next, and it does so excruciatingly slowly. What matters are the individual scenes within the plot, even when they're seemingly disconnected from anything else.

Raising the Dead: Optimus Prime, Slasher Villain

In 1986's Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives, a gravedigger turns to the camera and asks, "Why'd they have to go and dig up Jason? Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment." The film is self-aware of the fact that it's trash and questions its own existence. From its very inception Jason Lives is a dumb idea that isn't worth watching, and everyone there knows it and decides to have as much fun as they can. Age of Extinction follows the same train of thought, and both films are about a murderous psychopath rising from the dead. When Cade wakes Optimus from his death-sleep, the first thing the hero robot does is scream KILL over and over again and then slap Cade's hippie partner across the forehead with a giant gun before explaining that he took an oath to harm no humans

When Cade first finds Optimus's lifeless husk, it's in a rundown movie theater covered in garbage. Cade goes to the theater hoping to buy some scrap to repair, and encounters its founder, a bitter old man who fills the role played by Jason Lives' gravedigger. The old man laments movies these days, talking about how everything's just junk, nothing but sequels and remakes. Through this man's eyes, as he sifts through literal trash, Bay looks out at the audience and thinks, "you're still here?" This man isn't played as a caricature to laugh at; the film does not disagree with him, and neither does Cade. Instead, we're introduced to the man's limp-wristed, lispy grandson, who has inherited the property. THIS guy, standing in for Liberal Hollywood Politics, is the one the film sticks its tongue out at, as he attempts to wave off his grandpa's ramblings about the good old days. There's a self-loathing for the film and an outward loathing for the audience on display here that's pretty amazing to watch.

Once Optimus is back in fighting shape, he finds some of the last surviving Autobots hiding in the desert away from the peering eyes of the CIA, who remains desperate to find and deport/murder/consume them. The four Autobots are Bumblebee, the only surviving hero of the previous three films aside from Optimus himself, and three newcomers, Hound (John Goodman), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio), and Drift (Ken Watanabe). These four make up the last remnants of the heroic resistance, and when we meet them they're desperately looking for excuses to kill each other, and nearly do so before Optimus intervenes. Again, these are the good guys here.

Optimus stirs up their fighting spirit and unites the remaining Autobots to go forth and maim the opposition. As the Autobots fight the CIA, alien bounty hunter Lockdown, and man-made Chinese knockoff Transformers manufactured by Tucci's Steve Jobs analogue, Optimus continues to bellow KILL, KILL. To turn the ancient Dinobots to his side, Optimus beats them into submission. After, Crosshairs says to Drift, "Now THAT's leadership. Or brainwashing."

The Gospel According to Optimus Prime

Ridley Scott's campy/brilliant 2012 Alien prequel, Prometheus, opens with aliens in disc-shaped ships arriving at a gorgeous waterfall on prehistoric Earth and planting the first seeds of life. Creation comes from the sacrifice of one of these alien Engineers, who drinks an Elixir of Life that causes his own body to breakdown while infusing his DNA with Earth's early lifeforms. Evidence of the ancient visitors is found in our future, when a team of true-believer scientists led by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) find a sign in a remote part of the world. Her benefactor provides her with resources to further her exploration. Dr. Shaw devotes her life to finding God through the evidence left behind by the Engineers and goes through hell for it, emerging at the end with her faith unshaken. She plays the Biblical role of Job in Prometheus.

Age of Extinction opens with aliens in disc-shape ships arriving at a gorgeous waterfall on prehistoric Earth and planting weaponized capsules called Seeds. These devices annihilate Earth's lifeforms, breaking them down into raw material that the unseen Creators can consume and use to feed/produce Transformers. This scene, and much of the film, serves as a perversion of Prometheus. While the Engineers use one act of self-sacrifice to create life, the Creators sacrifice millions of already living things to create their own.  Evidence of the ancient visitors is found in our future, when true-believer scientist Dr. Darcy Tyril (Sophia Myles) finds a sign in a remote part of the world. Her benefactor laughs and literally rips her photographic proof to shreds before ranting about the future being Transformium, a newly discovered element that can turn into anything we desire. He uses it to turn a pile of black goo into a Beats by Dre speaker. Dr. Tyril is largely forced out of the film after this.

Tyril is the one character in the film who has the most potential to be a positive figure. She's a dedicated researcher willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of the truth, and values the origins of the species above making money off of an element made by melting down a sentient race. She shows none of the cruelty or crassness that most of the cast (both human and Autobot) shows, and for her efforts is forced into the role of chauffeur. She never gets to seek her God. Instead, Optimus takes up that mission.

The alien visitor Lockdown aids the CIA in its extermination of the Autobots because it serves his purpose; he was sent by the Creators to find, capture, and return Optimus Prime. In exchange for helping him, the CIA asks for only one thing: The biggest, scariest bomb Lockdown can get his hands on, a Seed. Kelsey Grammar's CIA chief essentially makes a deal with Lockdown, saying that if the CIA and the aliens work together to eliminate the Autobot race, the humans will be rewarded with a really big explosive, something we see there's clearly no shortage of already. "Please help us kill ourselves better," the humans ask, as they help Lockdown hunt a being who has saved the planet on more than one occasion.

Prometheus ends with Dr. Shaw's faith renewed as she blasts off into space in further pursuit of the Engineer homeworld. Age of Extinction ends with Optimus Prime picking up the Seed bomb like a football and blasting off into space in pursuit of the Creators. Shaw's (likely doomed) pursuit is one of faith, while Prime's is one of vengeance. We'll have to tune in next time to see if he befriends, murders or supplants his God, though it's safe to say he'll be hollering KILL, KILL as he does it.

Freedom isn't Free: Political Discourse via Baseball Bat

As someone who makes a living digging through trash and making poor robot dogs that catch fire, it's no surprise that Cade Yeager is behind on his house payments. When a real estate agent brings a nice couple around to look at the foreclosed property, Cade busts out of his barn with a baseball bat and threatens to kill them, joking about burying the bodies of the last people who messed with his property. He may not be joking. Cade chases them off, hurling his bat at their windshield. Cade has no need for the law. Here, Cade is Cliven Bundy, conservative hero fighting off the tentacles of Big Government.

Shortly after, Cade retreats to the barn to try to fix Optimus Prime. His assistant Lucas asks if they could please just call the CIA and turn Optimus in and collect a reward, and that since his money was used to excavate the theater where Optimus was found, he should have some voice in the decision. Cade erupts into a tirade about how everything that happens in this barn is property of Yeager Robotics, and that his employee's thoughts are Cade's property. Cade bellows that Lucas belongs to him, leading to Lucas making a slavery joke. Turns out Cade's not really all about freedom after all; like Cliven Bundy in real life, Cade is quickly shown to be a cartoonish buffoon and a hypocrite. Cade's politics aren't conservative, liberal, or libertarian; he wants to be the undisputed leader of his own fascist kingdom, even if it consists only of himself, Lucas, and his daughter Tessa.

The film's politics are one of its most interesting parts. While the original 2007 film glorified the US army, Age of Extinction portrays the American government in an almost entirely negative light. Everything from warmongering to profiteering to drone strikes are criticized. The CIA operates violently with no federal oversight, shunning the president's requests. Weapons of mass destruction are shown as a bad thing, while at the same time, Cade gleefully picks through an alien weapons locker looking for something his size to kill with. The Transformers themselves are essentially living weapons.

In these ways, the film feels like it's satirizing conservative politics, but at the same time, the more liberal characters are shown as flaccid figures who are easily waved out of the picture. Age of Extinction is not saying "the answer is somewhere in the middle," but rather, that America as a whole is so rotten to its core that politics really make no difference; we're all driving towards death either way. After showing us how corrupt America is, we're treated to a scene in which the Chinese government gives a bold speech about protecting poor Hong Kong from the alien/robot threat that America has unintentionally unleashed upon it. Bizarrely, they're the only authority figures shown as purely good. I understand that the cynical purpose of this scene is to boost sales in China's massively expanding film market, but in the context of the film, it feels like it's saying, "America's done, move to China. Evolve or die. This is your Age of Extinction."

Sex is Death; Gun is Life

When he's not busy threatening real estate agents or screaming for his gun after crashing an alien craft into the car of an innocent man who asks if he has insurance (and then chugging a Budweiser and then smashing it into the man's broken car), Cade's primary hobby is getting in the way of his daughter's sex life. We're told repeatedly that the 17 year old Tessa is too young for sex, even though Cade impregnated her absent mother when he was the same age and claims that this was the best thing that ever happened to him. Cade reprimands his buddy Lucas for creeping on her and then flips out when he finds out that Tessa has a secret, 20 year old boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor). The boyfriend carries a pamphlet on age of consent laws in his front pocket at all times, just in case he needs to reassure an angry dad/cop that it's OK for him to have sex with teenagers. All the while the camera leers over Tessa's short shorts.

All of the men in Tessa's life are creepy dudes, from her leering "uncle" Lucas to her Purity Ball dad to her boyfriend who seriously actually does carry age of consent pamphlets everywhere he goes. Her relationship with Shane seems normal enough until that reveal, which sends him down a permanent train to creepytown. Tessa knows that, at the very least, her dad's screwed up, and for the first hour constantly reminds him that she needs to live her own life, and that his complete failure's not exactly the best example. Her agency mostly disappears after the Transformers arrive on the scene, causing her to spend most of the remaining run time running and screaming. She's the "brains" of the family, but Cade quickly realizes that they don't need brains; they need guns. Once Shane proves that he's a capable fighter and manly enough to earn Cade's respect, he allows him to have his daughter.

Age of Extinction is fixated on its characters' death drive. Cade tells Tessa on a few occasions that she was the best thing he ever made (continuing to objectify her as property) but fights violently against the idea of her having any kind of sexual freedom of her own. He doesn't want her to go off and start a family; he wants her to stay on the farm and take care of him until he dies, ending the family line. And, like her father, Tessa's got her own death drive, as she and her boyfriend get their kicks driving stunt cars off the top of parking garages.

In the bluntest, grossest moment of "sex bad, gun good" in the film, the Autobot Hound is exploring Lockdown's alien ship. In it, he finds a caged monster that looks like a pair of human legs with a giant, vertical mouth in the middle. I've seen a lot of creatures with sexual imagery in scifi (especially if we want to discuss the Alien films), but this is definitely the single most yonic thing I've ever seen on film in my life. Hound approaches it, curiously, and it spewed a sticky but harmless goo into his face. Hound mutters, "you're too ugly to live" and shoots it to death. The scene adds nothing to the actual plot, and serves only to further the sex = bad subtext in the most bizarre way imaginable. It's so grossly insane that it's hard to even call it simply misogynistic and leave it at that.

Another blunt sex and death equivalency comes from the name of the nuclear weapon that threatens to destroy Hong Kong/did destroy life on prehistoric Earth: The Seed. Seeds are, logically, associated with life imagery, with grown and with renewal. In a sane world, a seed is planted so that something new may grow. In the insane nightmare universe of the Transformers films, the Seed brings only death. A life-giving symbol is perverted into a perfect killing device, one that once burned the planet. Here, it's implied that humans are dooming themselves to extinction by embracing a seed.

I know from his films that Michael Bay is not a prude who's against sex, but the Strong Men in this film absolutely are. I see this as an open assault on American attitudes towards sex and violence, rather than a reinforcement of its main characters' attitudes. It's no mistake that Hound, the most All-American, Guns and Cigars Autobot, is the one to go kill-crazy on the giant vagina monster. The film presents an "America is nothing but death-driven gun nuts" attitude, but at the same time, it's still a big budget summer blockbuster with thousands of explosions in it. I've got no doubt in my mind that it's satirical, but there's an unpleasant disconnect between what's being shown and what's implied.

My two favorite shots in the film both involve consumption and guns. The first, mentioned earlier, is when Not Steve Jobs uses the Black Goo to transform dead matter into Beats by Dre. What follows is what makes the scene truly amazing; to show just how great Transformium is, he then transforms the speaker into a pistol, and everyone laughs. He's saying, look here, we can build anything, and then use it to kill ourselves. This scene continues much later in the film, when a lab assistant uses the Black Goo to form a giant My Little Pony doll for him to hug. He hugs his Rainbow Dash and giggles. The pony then transforms into an assault rifle, which he continues to embrace as he giggles even harder. If this isn't a blunt "consumerism will kill us all" message, I don't know what is. It's just hard to appreciate in a billion dollar action movie franchise.

Final Thoughts

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a satirical film that is nowhere near as dumb as its detractors make it out to be. At the same time, it's still an overly long, often boring film with a few perfectly insane moments, but not really enough for me to recommend watching without a dozen caveats. It's a huge improvement over the first Transformers film nonetheless.

Whether it's aiming the camera at Tessa's legs and butt while characters talk about how wrong it is to think of her sexually or having Optimus talk about peace before screaming KILL and cutting his enemy in half, there's a lot of judgment of the audience going on here. The film tells us what we want to hear while showing the opposite. Yes, it's creepy to leer at teenagers. Yes, peace and swearing to do no harm is good. The film says these things, but it's said with sarcasm. It's the end of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, in which we watch a horrifying home invasion and murder and then have the murderer smile at the camera and wink; it's Russel Crowe yelling, "Are you not entertained?" in Gladiator; it's the mission gone wrong in Spec Ops: The Line.

In the end, I see Age of Extinction as a bitter indictment of summer blockbusters and America audiences, while keeping things just subtle enough to keep the money flowing. It's tasteless and gross, but in its own way a sort of genius product. Bay's following film, Pain & Gain, takes things a step further as a blatantly dark comedy about The American Way. Unlike this film, Pain & Gain is on point and masterfully made from start to finish, without a dull moment, and serves as Bay's masterpiece. There are certainly satirical elements and criticisms to be found in the 2007 Transformers film, but Age of Extinction takes it to a whole new level and I kind of love the bitter, furious undertones, even when I don't agree with them.

All that said: It's not a great piece of entertainment, but the robot fighting's not too bad.

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