Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) Michael Bay

I came into this movie looking for spectacle, and that's what I got.  Shit explodes everywhere.  Shit gets wrecked.  There's an alien bounty hunter robot who can transform his face into a gun and sometimes he transforms into a lamborghini.  My only problem with the spectacle portion of this movie was that the action scenes just seemed flat and uninteresting.  It's always exciting to watch these big fights with tremendous collateral damage, but the fights are mostly gun battles and things being thrown at other things.  I think a big part of the reason is that the movie just wasn't loud enough?  Big action stuff happens and all of the sounds you typically associate with big action (explosions, metal scraping against metal, twisted steel tearing apart, shattering glass, smoldering fire, etc.) are muffled under this boring-ass score that I guess is played to make it all seem more epic and emotional?  The movie is about giant alien robots fighting each other.  That's not typically a topic that needs a score to manipulate us into gawking at the screen in awe like idiots, and as far as emotion goes in those cases, really the only emotion is something along the lines of "I hope X character survives this."  The score was boring and unnecessary, but it hurts the movie when it's actually holding back that visceral terror and excitement that you come to this sort of movie for.

Here's another thing that bugged me: that boyfriend character.  Wow that boyfriend character was a dipshit, wasn't he?  And just confusing tonally, I think.  In one scene he's arrogantly explaining to his girlfriend's father about how it's legally okay for him, a 20 year old man, to be in a relationship with a 17 year old girl because of this weird Texas law, and in another scene he's freaked out and surrendering to the bad guys.  I understand that people can experience all sorts of complex changes in emotion/character, but this was not one of them.  And on top of all that, we're meant to root for this asshole who's openly talking about fucking Mark Wahlberg's daughter right to his face.  The whole relationship dynamic of Wahlberg trying to protect his daughter while her boyfriend is trying to surpass her father as a protector/provider is a Michael Bay movie theme that's pretty gross and about as opposite of a feminist viewpoint as you can get, so here are some ideas I had about fixing this problem:

1) Boyfriend and TJ Miller get firebombed by the bounty hunter.  This allows Wahlberg and daughter to go through some guilt and come out of it with a stronger father-daughter relationship, and they can carry on with whatever bullshit they get up to while tagging along with the Transformers.  This also rids us of two annoying, unnecessary characters.

2) Make the boyfriend just another shitty 17 year old.  There is no reason for anybody in this movie, or in life, to be 20 years old.

3)  Replace boyfriend character with some other Autobot.  You get another shiny robot to look at with none of the concerns about statutory rape!

The other supporting characters weren't that much better either.  All of the Transformers who weren't Optimus Prime or Lockdown were these sort of two-dimensional, vaguely racist things that are pretty much just quipping over every scene they're in.  It's kind of like how Mystery Science Theater 3000 works, but with the actual characters of the movie, and it's not very funny.  Oh, also are we supposed to give a shit about Bumblebee?  That guy sucks.  Every Transformer in this movie has this short fuse and they're always hitting each other or yelling at each other.  And, I mean, I get team dynamics in these sorts of movies: not everyone gets along.  Fine.  But the way the Autobots are always fucking around, it makes them seem like a bunch of hyped up fiver year olds.  It's annoying, and again I think I'm gonna partially blame the sound mixing.  Everything sounds like it was added in after, and yes I know that that was probably the case, but it shouldn't sound like that.  My understanding of sound mixing is that you try to make it sound as natural as you can, as if these are actually people talking to each other or yelling from across a space, not like they just dropped in the recordings of people doing these voices in the same sound booth or whatever.

The human characters are fine (with the exception of the boyfriend who is human garbage).  It's typical Michael Bay big action, government coverup roles: Mark Wahlberg is the working class dad, Nicola Peltz is the daughter whom everyone insists is smarter/more charismatic than what we actually see, Stanley Tucci is the whacked-out genius, and Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver are the tireless government hounds tasked with standing in the way of our heroes.  They're all likable enough, but I think Wahlberg and Tucci really steal the show here.  Wahlberg hasn't lost any of the muscle from his role in Pain and Gain and it makes it pretty enjoyable to watch him cast as a sort of meathead scientist inventor with a dream.  That extra muscle gives him a little more credibility when you throw him into action scenes where he's zipping around in a little spaceship or getting chased down the side of a Hong Kong apartment building, leaping from air conditioner to air conditioner.  Tucci's character is interesting for a couple of reasons.  One: it's Tucci, and that guy is great at inhabiting a role while still clearly having fun with it.  Two: I read his character as a logical endpoint of a Steve Jobs-type of executive.  He's created a facade of someone who is improving the world by creating ubiquitous technology, but inside he's a greedy control freak, ready to take over every industry in the world with evil technology.  And it is evil technology, as one of the plot points is how the programming for this new transforming tech is infused with Megatron's evil personality.  It's an interesting thing seeing Bay ham-fistedly sneak in a tech industry critique into a movie that more easily approaches new technology as a facet of the military industrial complex.

That being said, this still feels like a post-9/11 movie.  And I mean that in the sense that this movie could have fit right in with anything that was coming out most any time during the George W. Bush administration.  The movie takes place after a devastating tragedy that's changed the face of America.  In the previous movie Chicago is destroyed, resulting in a changed landscape of human-alien (read: Transformers) relations.  All Transformers, including the good guys, are hunted down and killed, while the rest of the world mournfully remembers the tragedy of Chicago.  We see billboards and notices everywhere to be a good American and report any alien activity.

Though I do admit, a good majority of the plot is contingent on a distrust of shadowy government figures, so maybe I'm thinking it's operating more under that conservative viewpoint that big government is not to be trusted and that a real American is one who lives by his own rules, on his own land, creating and working with his hands, and providing for his family however he can.  Mark Wahlberg's character is kind of a modern conservative dream; an inventor standing up for himself and not letting the government get the best of him.  Bay plays into this with shots of a pastoral Texas landscape and a scene where Wahlberg is literally using a baseball bat to defend his land from a big city realtor.  Bay has always had a tendency to include grand, sweeping shots of American landscapes or small town folk and carefully placed American flags.  His are the kinds of movies that are unabashedly American and unable to function as anything else.

The other side of the coin of Bay's American vision is its direct relationship with consumerism.  Product placement in this movie is pretty blatant, from Beats speakers to a bus covered in a giant Victoria's Secret ad to a pretty funny instance of Mark Wahlberg crashing a spaceship into the Chicago streets and destroying a Bud Light delivery truck.  Tucci's character is the figurehead of American consumerism in 2014.  He runs a company not unlike Apple that provides sleek, stylish technology products for the average consumer that humanity has come to depend on.  I'm not entirely sure about whether Tucci's character acts as an indictment of the modern tech industry.  I don't think it's wrong to label Bay as a capitalist, so maybe Tucci's character and his company isn't so much an indictment as it is a sort of morality lesson about greed and a reminder to be true to yourself and your products and branding?

Speaking of branding, I've learned that a lot of people who don't care for Bay's take on the Transformers characters are partly upset about how these characters don't act like the characters from the beloved cartoon and comics.  In the case of the Transformers that have the misfortune of not being Optimus Prime or Lockdown, we have robot characters who are at worst walking racist stereotypes played for laughs, and at best catch-phrase spewing action pieces.  I understand the frustration there if your favorite character outside of the movies was one of these guys, but I don't really get all the hate that this version of Optimus Prime gets (at least from the corners of the internet that I've been privy to).  I was never that into the cartoon or comics as a kid, but from what I gather Optimus Prime is pretty much the infallible leader, always doing the right thing.  For the most part, he is exactly this in this movie, with a difference that I found to be the most interesting part of his character: Optimus Prime is fed up with humanity.  And I don't know, maybe I'm missing some key part of being a Transformers scholar and fan here, but it made sense to me, and it was the thing I liked most about his character.  He's a good guy who does the right thing, but he's fed up and going to complain about it.  He has every right to, considering a whole lot of his friends were killed in an all out war, and also after the war his surviving friends were hunted down and killed by the people he was trying to save.  I'd be upset too.  I probably wouldn't even bother helping humanity after something like that, but Optimus Prime helps out anyway because he's a better guy than all of us.  I think we can allow him to grumble about it.

This movie was a good way to spend a part of an afternoon, and I'm glad I saw it, but I don't need to put myself through any of that again.  At least not until the next movie where it looks like Optimus Prime is out to fight God.

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