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A Paternity Leave Review of "Transformers 4: Age of Extinction"

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I... I'm baffled.  What were these strange emotions I was feeling just now?  Did I just kinda sorta almost enjoy a Transformers movie?

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Part Where I'm Amazed

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you had to know that something like this was coming, right?  I'm the guy who wrote a positive review of Movie 43, for Christ's sake.  How could I post something so angry like my review of Transformers 2 without having some kind of "everything is awesome" postscript?

The truth is, it's actually total kismet.  I was not planning on watching Transformers: Age of Extinction.  (If you read my post on Wednesday, you'd completely understand why.)  I previously stated that I knew it would happen one day and I was dreading it, but I had no expectation or desire to do a positive write-up in November.  But then my wife got it from Redbox...

...and I knew I had to cap off the month with this one.  It's perfect.  I just had a story arc in my blog, guys.  Wasn't it riveting?

Now I Summarize the Plot

You know how I know this is a better movie than the other ones?  I was drinking copiously throughout and I could still understand the plot.  To this day, I cannot parse the story of the first three without consulting Wikipedia for a synopsis, and even then I'm confused.

Transformers 4 opens in the aftermath of the Battle of Chicago from Part 3, which has left public opinion divided on what policies should be put into place regarding the Transformers.  The military has set up a new anti-Transformer outfit, Cemetery Wind, that is out to hunt down any surviving robots and destroy them, thus purging the planet and restoring us to a pre-Transformer peace.

The Autobots are all understandably in hiding, so the movie cuts to Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg), resident Average Man.  Yeager is a down-on-his-luck inventor / robotics expert (yeah, sure, why not) who lives in Texas and tinkers with things for fun.  He is over-protective of his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), but otherwise an easygoing and kind-natured dude.

While looking for parts for his projects, Yeager stumbles onto a rusted, broken-down 18-wheeled truck.  He buys it with the intent of stripping it down and selling off its pieces for scrap.  Of course, the rest of us can easily figure out that the truck is actually Optimus Prime.

Yeager repairs / reboots Optimus, who is grateful for his assistance, but distrustful of humans now due to the fact that Cemetery Wind has been killing all of the Autobots.  Despite that, he and Yeager form a quick truce.  Unfortunately, Cemetery Wind has just learned of Optimus's location, and villainous men in black suits sweep down on Yeager's farm and blow it all to hell.

Optimus and Yeager escape capture and go into hiding.  Optimus assembles the few remaining Autobots that survive - including a Japanese stereotype, which is one of the movie's worst mistakes.  Why would an alien robot be Japanese?  Not like this is new to the franchise we've had black stereotypes, a Scottish robot, etc.  It's like if a commander in some '80s action movie assembles his team, and one of them is a big beefy dude who keeps saying, "Beep boop I am kill-bot beep boop" in monotone.  They'd all think that was weird, right?  (PS - Do you ever get the feeling that the Autobots are all mentally ill?)

Anyway, Yeager decodes some footage from a military drone that he grabbed when they were being chased.  They learn about KSI, a robotics / technology company that has been paying Cemetery Wind for the remains of every Transformer that they kill.  Yeager and the Autobots team up to investigate KSI and find out what their motives are.

A few spy scenes and exposition dumps later, and we learn that KSI, led by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), has found a way to replicate Transformer technology.  The only catch is that they need raw materials from dead Transformers.  They can generate a shitload of this material if they get a device called a "Seed" from The Creators, a shadowy group that invented the Transformers in the first place.

(Insert your own stupid jokes here about calling your MacGuffin a "seed.")

So... conspiracy time.  KSI is paying Cemetery Wind to get raw materials.  Cemetery Wind, in turn, is gathering robot corpses.  The Creators want to arrest / kill the Transformers on Earth.  Cemetery Wind makes contact with Lockdown, a bounty hunter working for the Creators, to make a deal.  Cemetery Wind will give Lockdown full access to Earth to do his business in exchange for a Seed, which Cemetery Wind will then give to KSI to set off in the Mongolian Desert to get raw materials to produce new knock-off Transformers, which they can then sell back to Cemetery Wind for political dominance of the planet.  Makes sense?

No, not really.  But even that is a hell of a lot more coherent than whatever bullshit was happening before, so let's go with it.

Yeager, realizing that his life cannot go back to the way it was, joins forces with Optimus to convince Joyce that Cemetery Wind is up to no good and to end the conspiracy before any more damage is done.

Now I Complain About the Bad Stuff (i.e., the Length)

Obviously if you saw my rating, then you know that despite thinking this is better than its predecessors, I still thought this was a crap movie.  I've definitely got some complaints.

First of all, even though the direction is dramatically improved - I can actually see what's happening now - I still don't like the design of the Transformers.  They still do that weird "destruction of matter" thing where their components magically vanish into nothing anytime they transform into a vehicle.

And there's a lot of dumb moments where characters act like idiots for no goddamned reason.  Like the scene where Bumblebee is supposed to be surreptitiously breaking into KSI's high-security facility and he gets so outraged by a commercial that he decides to start punching shit.  (Again: mentally ill robots.)

And there are some characters who are largely pointless and exist primarily as plot devices, like Yeager's daughter, who doesn't really do a whole lot except make out with her boyfriend and get kidnapped / endangered.

And there are moments where the dialogue is just awful - like a scene where Titus Welliver says, "We have guns!  Shoot them!" and then the camera cuts to some bad guys shooting guns and then it cuts to TJ Miller saying, "The scary guys are shooting at us!"  C'mon.  What kind of idiot are you trying to write this for?  Even the lowest common denominator understands how guns work.

(Can you imagine that same scene playing out in something like, say, The Godfather Part II?  Michael goes to Sonny at the New Year's Party and says, "I'm really bummed that you betrayed me. Now I'm going to kill you."  And then Sonny pouts to the camera and asks, "Do you think Michael is going to try to kill me?")

But the movie's worst crime by far is simply its length.  This is a two hour and forty-five minute film.  That's inexcusable.  Atrocious.

As with past entries, this really would have benefited from massive amounts of culling.  Ditch the stereotypes, cut out the creepy pedophile-light boyfriend stuff, get rid of Megatron, maybe pare down the opening, cut out some of the gratuitous comic relief here and there, and maybe make that conspiracy like two or three steps simpler.  Hell, you don't even have to get it under two hours - I'd even accept a 2:15 runtime at this point.

It's for this reason primarily that I can't bring myself to give the movie a higher rating.  (I mean, don't get me wrong, it's still extremely stupid - but it's a decipherable stupid.)  If it was a half hour less, I could have given this a 3 / 5, maybe even up to a 4 if I was in a really good mood.  As it is, both Stephanie and I had to pause the Blu-ray about 30 minutes from the end because we just couldn't go any longer without taking a pit stop.  That's how you can tell when your movie is too long, you guys.

The Part Where I Praise the Script

My complaints aside, I really have to give major kudos to Bay for being more selective with the screenplay this time around.

I touched on this a bit in my last review, but my complaints with the Transformers movies are not limited only to Part 2.  The franchise has recurring problems with disconnected story threads, too many minor characters who don't add anything of value, and just too much stuff in general.

For example, the first movie had a solid 15-20 minutes dedicated to Anthony Anderson, who literally did nothing.  Go back and cut him out of that movie in his entirety and you'll see that nothing changes - he and the blonde Australian actually manage to exist in a movie without having any impact on its universe.  They're kind of like a Nietzschean comment on the meaning of life.

The second movie?  Jesus... look, I already complained about that one.  It just got even worse.  The second one was so bad that I'm not sure any of the characters actually contributed to story progression.

The third movie?  Sam Witwicky was useless.  The film's central protagonist had no reason to be involved in the conflict, and once he did get involved, he added nothing of value to the resolution.  And up until now, I thought it was the best movie in the franchise.

Orci and Kurtzman must have really stepped up their game and taken some basic creative writing classes or something, because....

...oh.  Well, that makes perfect sense.

Okay, now I'm just going to be a dick about Orci / Kurtzman.  The truth is that Ehren Kruger has been writing the Transformers movies ever since part 2, so it's not like he's some brilliant, fresh new voice.  But I do think there's a noticeable improvement once you take Orci / Kurtzman out of the equation.  Part 3, which was the first one written only by Kruger, was much, much better than the first two, and Part 4 feels almost like a completely different movie.  Add to this the fact that Kruger has written a couple of other movies that I thought were pretty well-constructed (like Arlington Road) whereas Orci / Kurtzman just wrote a bunch of bullshit, and I think it's pretty clear what happened:

For the first time, Kruger was able to just write a fresh story from the ground up.  And it worked. Sorta.

The most notable thing to me this time around was that it actually felt like things mattered.  When the story opens, we focus primarily on Yeager and his daughter trying to make ends meet.  It's a cliche, sure, but it at least works: down-on-his-luck single father stumbles onto a mystery that could make some money, and he gets the plot moving.  Okay, I'm on board so far.

But then the movie did something incredible: it stayed focused on Yeager.  We occasionally cut to the bad guys being mysteriously evil, sure, but the movie didn't keep adding a bunch of useless characters and subplots.  No, we just followed Yeager around for awhile and showed how he, as an ordinary person, would perceive and interact with the Autobots.

Even when the movie feels like it's about to suddenly bloat up to unnecessary proportions, it manages to keep a (comparatively) tight focus on a (comparatively) small band of characters.  The result is that I had more time to grow attached to the protagonists.  Hell, by the end of it, I actually had empathy for Yeager.  Whether or not he succeeded seemed like it would have consequence.  Contrast this with the cast of fucking losers in the first three movies and you're talking about night and day.

The movie does get pretty shaky with its introduction of villains; there's one too many.  Even so, I feel like if you have to make a choice between too many villains or too many heroes, you'll always want to go with the villains.  That's where your body count lies, anyway.

I'm not going to pretend that this was a great screenplay.  There were problems.  There were characters that didn't get enough attention.  There were pointless moments.  But if I'm grading the Transformers franchise on a curve, then Part 4 just threw it completely off and flunked all those other turds.

Now With 50% Less Fascism

One of my biggest complaints with the franchise up to this point is that I've never had a good sense that the Autobots really are "good" or that the Decepticons really are "bad."  It's just felt like they're a bunch of interchangeable jerks fighting for unknown ideologies.  Age of Extinction takes a few extra steps to help with that.

We aren't given the full details of the Transformers' origins, but we get enough to actually empathize with the Autobots for once.  Optimus and his fellow robots were created by some nebulous entities to be tools of their government; the Autobots, desiring independence, left.  Simple as that.

You see how fucking easy that was, guys?!  Four fucking movies and all you had to do was say, "The Autobots want freedom," and suddenly I'm on board with you!  WHY THE FUCK DID IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO DO THIS, ASSHOLES?!

Sorry, I'm trying to be positive here.  My point is just that Optimus's motivation is actually clear now, and even though it's a cliche, it's at least believable and sympathetic.  Instead of coming across as a murderous death machine that's being used by a fascistic military regime to unquestioningly kill things, Optimus is more of a self-aware soldier without a country who desires peace and a home where he can rest.  I actually like him and want him to win now.

The movie also downplays its military boner for the first time, which does wonders for the end product.  It's like Bay and company realized that an unrelenting love for the military combined with passionate hatred for the government leads to some awful policies... so this time around, the shadowy, oppressive military outfit are the bad guys.

In Conclusion...

I won't argue that this was a brilliant movie.  Nor will I even try to argue that it's especially great.  What I will say is that I think the critics are wrong.  Age of Extinction racked up a piddling 32 on Metacritic, which makes it the worst-rated film in the franchise so far.

That's just bullshit, guys.

I know we're all tired of these movies.  I know there's plenty of better films to be watching.  I know that it's easy to make fun of Michael Bay (who, incidentally, did a great job on this one; I really need to reiterate that it's much better directed and easier to follow than previous entries).

But no matter how cranky you are about sequels, you have to be willing to evaluate a movie fairly.  You can't bitch about how badly a movie dropped the ball in one aspect and then turn a cold shoulder when a sequel doesn't drop that same ball.  You know, since I'm talking about the Transformers movies, maybe I shouldn't keep talking about dropping balls.

My point is that critics can be just as fickle as audiences.  It's easy to hop on a bandwagon or set your opinions in stone before you watch something.  It's easy to be a dickhead and write something off.  Especially when you've been burned before.

I was wrong about Age of Extinction going into it.  I was prepared to write it off, but what I actually got was a (comparatively) decent experience.  That kind of fun is exactly what we should always be ready to accept, regardless of what kind of day we've been having or what our opinions of the actors and director might be.  It's why we keep watching movies, isn't it?