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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
There is no more divisive a director than Michael Bay. Whether he makes films that are legitimately good (Bad Boys, Pain and Gain, The Rock) or films that are horrifyingly bad (Pearl Harbor, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Armageddon), Bay is, generally speaking, an Internet whipping boy. He gets flack for having brainless, explosion-laden films. His movies make hundreds of millions of dollars despite rarely finding critical acclaim. He works with some of the most hated and controversial, fairly or unfairly, actors out there (Martin Lawrence, Nicolas Cage, Shia Labeouf, and Megan Fox have all drawn the ire of audiences at some point in their careers). But I actually really like Michael Bay. He’s not pretentious. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a middle-aged man who constantly feels the need satiate his inner twelve-year-old. And I can appreciate that.
Bay’s Transformers series of films have always been incredibly silly. Featuring farting robots, humping robots, and jive-talking robots, it would actually be quite fair to ask Mr. Bay if he even knows what a robot is. The films are also incredibly loud, filled with nonsensical plots, and largely a collective excuse for violence and crude sex jokes. But again, I actually kind of like them. I kind of like the awful second one as well, which for all of its faults features a genuinely rousing third act (Devastator was worth the price of admission alone). For these reasons, I kind of liked Age of Extinction, the latest film in the series, as well. It is just as loud and just as dumb, but it is also really glorious in its horrifying PG-13 violence and headache-inducing special effects. At least in Bay’s films you can actually see where the enormous budget went. Age of Extinction is not a subtle film at all.
Picking up five years after the events of the third film (for those who don’t remember: Chicago is essentially destroyed in an all-out assault by Megatron and Sentinel Prime), Age of Extinction follows Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, who gives a genuinely good performance), an inventor who accidentally buys Optimus Prime, who he mistakes for a wrecked semi-truck. Upon reactivating Prime, Yeager learns of a sinister plot where the CIA, headed by the corrupt Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, perfectly cast a smarmy government goon) will, with the cooperation of corporate head honcho Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, who is also legitimately good), eliminate the Transformers (both Decepticon and Autobot) and create their own versions, which they can perfect, patent, and sell to various countries as military hardware. It is now up to Optimus, Cade and his daughter and her boyfriend (Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor), and a small band of Autobot heroes (with voices by John Goodman and Ken Watanabe!) to stop Attinger and Joyce and save the day.
The plots in these films are overly complicated and, as noted earlier, largely just an excuse for special effects and violence. Age of Extinction is no different, and it is probably the most violent in the series yet. Characters are horribly and brutally murdered, both human and robot. Perhaps the most disturbing scene involves the evil Transformer Lockdown (who is neither Autobot nor Decepticon) essentially napalming a character to death, until that character is nothing but an ash statue. I was pretty shocked at this brutality. Other instances of horrifying acts of violence include several spacecrafts crashing into Chicago and wanton mass destruction of the city of Hong Kong, where Lockdown makes brutal use of his alien technology. Last year, much ballyhoo was made about the mass devastation in films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. Age of Extinction isn’t quite as bad as those, but it’s notable nonetheless.
Though the film has been critically panned, there are actually quite a few positive aspects of Age of Extinction. These films have featured a surprising number of strong actors (Jon Voight, Jon Turturro, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand), and that trend continues here. Much was made about the replacing of Shia Labeouf, and while I am not a Labeouf hater the way most of the Internet is, casting Mark Wahlberg in the lead was a good choice. He gives a good performance here. As noted earlier, both Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci are good in their roles as well. Tucci ended up being one of the best parts of the entire movie I thought. He really gave what could have been a nothing role some real depth. The absolute best part of the film, however, has to be the addition of the Dinobots, particularly Grimlock. Seeing Optimus riding Grimlock into battle was actually all kinds of awesome. I kept waiting for the Dinobots to show up in the film, and when they do it is definitely worth it.
The film, however, has an enormous amount of flaws. Age of Extinction runs a butt-numbing 165 minutes, which is the longest film in the series thus far. Though I enjoy a good action scene as much as the next person (and the film has no shortage of action scenes I assure you), I also found them to be somewhat repetitive. A few of them lacked the stakes of the earlier films (I never thought any of the main Autobots were in much danger) as well. Additionally, I was about this close to getting a massive headache because of all the on-screen carnage. The film also tries to dupe its audience into caring at all about the budding onscreen love between Cade’s daughter Tessa and her love interest, daredevil racecar driver Shane, whose name I had to look up because he’s so bland. The film also had the opportunity to go really dark in tone (the plot basically involves corrupt, violent federal agents strong-arming and terrorizing innocent Americans), but it instead chooses to forgo a dark tone in favor of mostly lighter fare, much like the previous Transformers films.
Look, these aren’t great films. They are incredibly entertaining, however. They are event films designed to play well over the fourth of July holiday time frame and entertain people, mostly twelve-year-olds, on summer vacation. I don’t have a problem with that. A whole lot of people online like to make fun of Michael Bay because he chooses to mostly make big, stupid motion pictures and his movies make a lot of money (the guy has only one flop on his resume, 2005’s The Island). I don’t have any problem with the career path Bay has chosen. I thought his 2013 effort, Pain and Gain, was one of the best films of the year in all honesty. Though Age of Extinction won’t win any awards and probably won’t convert any new fans to this long-running movie franchise, I mostly enjoyed what was on screen, even if the 165-minute running time exhausted me. There are some genuinely cool moments in Age of Extinction, like Optimus charging into battle on the back of Grimlock, that were worth the price of admission for me. I have no regrets.