Transformers: Age of Extinction might be the most cinematically daring film of this decade, if not this century. It's a genuinely rare pleasure to be cognizant of film history being made as you watch celluloid (figuratively) unspool before you, but Michael Bay has never been a conventional fillmmaker. With T:AOE, this Picasso of Pyro has produced a potent film as subversive and singular as anything one might find from John Waters or Michael Haneke.
“It would be nice to not have to do effects and big car crashes. I’m waiting for the great written word.”
This is a quote from Michael Bay, fifteen years ago. By then, he was already famous for Bad Boys, The Rock, numerous music videos and was on the cusp of Armageddon's release. Many dismissed him as a surface-level filmmaker, an ironic attack as that charge could only be deemed plausible if those who subscribed to it limited their gaze to the flashy exterior that coats Bay's films like glaze on a donut, or baby oil on a desirable woman.
Much like The Beatles, whose pop exterior were merely the delivery method through which more complex and profound ideas were smuggled, Bay was always planting deeper themes for those willing to look for them. Anyone who appreciated his masterful reworking of the Beauty & The Beast tale in music video form could understand that, when a singularly-beautiful creature wins the love of desire incarnate... at the price of trading in their unique appearance for the grotesque visage of Meat Loaf.
Alas, Bay's work more often was appreciated (and derided) for its facile charms by those not in on the joke. Accordingly, Bay exaggerated their scale with each subsequent film, in the futile hope that taking the material increasingly over-the-top would expose it as satire and criticism of the values so many erroneously assume those works endorse. And still the call went unheeded. It's impossible to think of any peer in his field who has been so aggressively deconstructive of his own work within the films he has helmed.
It was during this film that clarity finally dawned on me - Michael Bay is Daniel Clamp, the billionaire developer played with aplomb by John Glover in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. In that film, Clamp was responsible not only for a pending modernized redevelopment of Chinatown, but a fully automated building that was more often a source of consternation for those using it. It also proved to be the perfect romping ground for the Gremlins to destroy. Having survived that chaos, at the end of the film, Clamp looks at his achievement with new eyes, saying, "Maybe it wasn't a place for people anyway. It was a place for things. You make a place for things... things come."
At some point, Michael Bay looked at the summer movies that arrived in the wake of his films, and realized he had turned summer into a place for things. Armageddon and Pearl Harbor are the sound and fury that made films like G.I. Joe, Battleship and White House Down possible. With Age of Extinction, Bay has finally reached the point where he's stopped being subtle about trying to implode the automated building he forged.
The most meta line of dialogue this summer is uttered by Kelsey Grammer's character, the true hero of the film as he states, "A new era has begun. The age of Transformers is over..."
Taken together, the Transformers Tetralogy are the most intensely self-aware criticism of the MTV-style, explosion-happy, titilation-soaked style of filmmaking. For the last several Transformers films, Bay sought to make this motivation more obvious by recruiting Ehren Kruger for screenplay duties. One of the leading voices in film, Kruger is clearly of a like mind when it comes to making audiences confront the superficial nature of the works they submit their intelligence to.
Artists and critics often talk about "emotional truth" versus "logical truth." This is the justification by which a film doesn't have to make logical sense - or even adhere to its own stated logic - so long as it feels right. Does it makes sense, or is it even historically accurate, when President Roosevelt defies the odds to rise out of his wheelchair in Pearl Harbor? Absolutely not. But it provokes that sort of "never give up spirit" that is essential to the film. The genius of Kruger is that he carries this further.
Consider the ending of Arlington Road, where Jeff Bridges is played for a fool by terrorists who manipulate circumstances with god-like precision. No less than the great Roger Ebert once misread this film:
"'Arlington Road' is a conspiracy thriller that begins well and makes good points, but it flies off the rails in the last 30 minutes. The climax is so implausible we stop caring and start scratching our heads. Later, thinking back through the film, we realize it's not just the ending that's cuckoo. Given the logic of the ending, the entire film has to be rethought; this is one of those movies where the characters only seem to be living their own lives, when in fact they're strapped to the wheels of a labyrinthine hidden plot...
"But leave the plot details aside for a second. What about the major physical details of the final thriller scenes? How can anyone, even skilled conspirators, predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a car crash? How can they know in advance that a man will go to a certain pay phone at a certain time, so that he can see a particular truck he needs to see? How can the actions of security guards be accurately anticipated? Isn't it risky to hinge an entire plan of action on the hope that the police won't stop a car speeding recklessly through a downtown area? It's here that the movie completely breaks down."
With respect to Mr. Ebert, this is the entire point. Kruger wasn't attempting to write a brilliant thriller, he was writing a brilliant criticism of brainless thrillers and attempting to provoke the audience into recognizing the smoke and mirrors behind them. For a film to tell you that it's climactic twist was ironic or impressive should not be enough. "It doesn't make sense!" the film screams. "And you lemmings lap it up every time!" When that moral failed to land, Kruger repeated the trick with The Ring - a film that ends with a moment that feels shocking and dangerous ("You didn't let her out, did you?") before reminding us that freeing Samara doesn't make things worse. She still only can kill those who have watched her cursed tape.
Thus, it's impossible not to interpret AGE OF EXTINCTION as two brilliant deconstructionists jam-banding on an action movie specifically designed to burn the house down. This is Kruger and Bay as Bialystock and Bloom, dropping "Springtime for Hitler" on an unsuspecting crowd like it's an atom bomb. And appropriately, the soundtrack of the damned can only be provided by Imagine Dragons.
With the fourth Transformers, Michael Bay finally accomplishes what the three previous films tried so hard to do - turn the Transformers into bad guys, the enemies of all mankind. The first film is idealistic and Spielberg-like for the first hour. It's the story of a teenage boy advancing into manhood by pursuing the desirable girl. It's a story as old as time and one gets the sense that were there no killer robots, Sam might win Mikaela's heart easily. But then the killer robots smash into Sam's narrative and from then on, the simple joys of independence from one's parents and pleasures of the flesh are cast aside.
Mayhem reigns and eventually casts a swath of destruction through Sam's life across two sequels. It's no accident that the romance Sam sought in the first film is destroyed by the third one. We should not want these Transformers, Bay is telling us. We should not want these films. This lead to his most audiacious move in the third film, replacing Megan Fox with a lingerie model. Bay must have wondered what more he had to do to let the audience know he's in on the joke. It was a move that should have provoked outrage, and then the realization that the action genre is so superficial that it simply doesn't matter who runs around screaming "Optimus!" Alas, the film was successful enough that Bay's clever intentions seem to have been lost.
Accordingly, that has led Bay and Kruger to up the ante in this latest outing. The theme of the Transformers being destructive to mankind has been taken from subtext to text. Even the ostensible "good guys," the Autobots are not heroes. They despise mankind and are currently hunted by them. Optimus Prime's first speech in the film is a violent threat directed at all humans. He's flabbergasted that humans would "betray" them after all they've done.
And what have the Autobots done except bring an interstellar war to the doorstep of a race that has no stakes in the battle? What has mankind done except have the audacity to build cities where the "good" and "bad" robots alike do immense battle without any concern for collateral damage? Optimus Prime is the herald for Armageddon and he and his disciples regard mankind as ungrateful because the Transformers haven't been greeted as liberators for a conflict for which they are completely responsible. Sure, they always justify it as trying to stop a hidden weapon, or to vanquish a greater evil, but at the end of the day it remains their fight and their fight alone.
And that's when it hits you - Transformers: Age of Extinction is all about the Iraq War.
It is as pointed and liberal a criticism of neoconservative policy as you will find in a modern action film. Suddenly it no longer seems quite so inexplicable that this is the first Transformers film to not feature extensive cooperation from the U.S. military.
The subtext of the film is clear - Transformers are evil. Thus, Transformers movies are also evil and destructive to film. The Earth depicted in this series of films is justified in wanting all Transformers, good and bad, vanquished forever. The same goes for the soulless films that bring their exploits to the screen. Michael Bay must have smiled as he concocted this plot with his screenwriter, certain that if making Optimus Prime the villain wouldn't at last destroy this franchise and set him free, taking on a hot button topic like the Iraq War would.
“I'm, like, a true American.”- Michael Bay, from a GQ interview.
Let's not mistake that criticism for anti-American sentiment, because Bay's other masterstroke is that the real hero of this film is a true patriot through and through. Kelsey Grammer plays a CIA agent who's made a secret pact with one faction of Transformers. With this, he gets their cooperation in hunting down all remaining Transformers - Autobot and Decepticon - and then mining them for spare parts to build machines that mankind will control themselves. Grammer's character has more common sense than any human featured in these films yet.
It's here that Bay and Kruger again confront the audience with the superficial filmic conventions they are used to embracing. In any other film, Grammer's character would be a sinister badguy, someone whose death we cheer. Instead, time and again, he's the only character with any sense at all. He's mobilized a task force to hunt a dangerous insurgent (Optimus Prime) and was savvy enough to make this other race of Transformers realize the contract benefits both of them. He's hunting Optimus Prime because he knows that the longer he's out there, the worse it will be for national security, heck, even global security.
The movie proves him right. From the time Optimus is turned back on, all he does is cause carnage and destruction while he and his cohorts regroup to be better effective at causing mayhem and chaos. Two entire cities are lain to waste needlessly, a point driven home at the end of the film. One might try to justify all of the carnage as the work of the badguys coming after Optimus, but the movie's final shot makes it clear that Optimus could have flown off of the planet unaided at any time he wanted. Everything terrible that happens in this film is on Optimus Prime's shoulders.
Doubters of this theory might retort, "But if he's the hero, how does one rationalize him seemingly selling out for a stake in Stanley Tucci's billionaire character's company?" Is it "selling out" to earn a living by utilizing your assets in return for compensation? Grammer's character Attinger is a sly meta-commentary on the parade of classy actors (John Malkovich, Jon Voight, Frances McDormand and Tucci and Grammer themselves for that matter) often mocked and derided for appearing in films like this. Attinger has devoted his life to his country. His passion is patriotism, but that unfortunately doesn't pay the bills. It's no different for actors who are artistically fulfilled by the rich independent films that pay little. No one in Hollywood would begrudge any of those fine performers the compensation of a paycheck role, and thus, Attinger's "paycheck role" should not be treated as an indictment against him. We do not judge Grammer and Tucci for lending gravitas to this film for a fair price, nor do we condemn Attinger for his deal with Tucci's billionaire.
It's telling that when Grammer's character dies, it's not in a confrontation with a human protagonist, such as the one played by Mark Wahlberg. His end comes from a cold-blooded shot from Optimus Prime that takes him out of commission. Tucked amid the total destruction of Hong Kong, it could have been a tiny act of violence, but the human scale of the brutality here at last brings into focus what a monster Optimus Prime is, acting above the law and summarily executing a man whose only true crime was trying to protect his nation from a proven threat.
Optimus Prime is a false god, unworthy of being cheered as a liberator, or worshiped via the ubiquitous toys found in every store. This is a film designed to make every patriotic American want to burn their Optimus Prime toys in solidarity, then buy more to burn them again. For a while, it seemed that Bay was content just to destroy the genre of superficial blockbusters, but three movies clearly taught him that the merchandising will keep this series going forever. How does one defeat that? By destroying the symbol that fuels the legend.
What Bay and Kruger do here, they do for the good of future generations of film. Alan Moore in his prime could not have achieved such a pointed deconstruction of the toy-to-movie form of entertainment.
The treatment of women is different this time out too. One of the most uncomfortably leering scenes in a PG-13 film was the "check under the hood" scene in the first Transformers where the camera oogled Megan Fox with such force it's a wonder her clothes didn't melt. Her abs and cleavage were so prominently featured throughout the film that it was possible to draw them from memory. Her entrance in the second film was perhaps even more sexist, and her Victoria's Secret replacement fared little better.
By comparison AOE's Nicola Peltz, is practically covered in a burka. There are no bare middrifs, barely any cleavage, no bending-over shots and perhaps only a fleeting moment or two where Bay's camera admires her from behind. Moreover, she's time and again pretty much the only character with any real common sense. Her father, Cade, likes to think he's laying down the law, but for the all the overprotective vibes he puts out, it's pretty obvious if he was left without her, he'd starve within a week. Cade makes such terrible decisions from his first moment on screen that the movie seems to be testing how far it can push it before you realize your sexist impulses and star worship have led you to embrace the wrong character as the "hero."
The story between Cade and his daughter can't help but evoke Armageddon. The girl has been secretly dating an older guy against her father's "no boys" rule. It starts off seeming like a replay of Bruce Willis's Harry Stamper and his rage at finding out one of his workers (Ben Affleck) is dating his daughter (Liv Tyler.) By the end of the film, Harry sacrifices himself so that Affleck's character can live and look after his girl.
Towards the end of Age of Extinction, Bay gives us a moment designed to evoke that same passing of the baton, with Cade diving back into battle after telling his girl he loves her and telling her boyfriend to take care of her. The boyfriend (the wussiest alpha male ever to wander into a Bay film) raises no objection. But Peltz's character doesn't take this shit. She immediately tells her boyfriend and Bumblebee that they're going back for Cade. Much is made of this, for when Bumblebee returns to battle, Optimus Prime shouts "I gave you an order!"
Not only does Wahlberg's lunkhead Cade not have to sacrifice himself, but he's saved entirely by the only person who's given good advice the entire film, his daughter. The connection couldn't be more clear. Peltz is essentially Penny and Wahlberg is Inspector Gadget, the hapless fool who thinks he knows what he's doing while the person he's technically responsible for is the one who really knows the score.
Who knew Michael Bay was a feminist? Or maybe he just likes Inspector Gadget. Either way, there's no other conclusion to draw than this film being an apology for Armageddon. Michael, consider your contrition accepted.
To return to the film as a whole, the excess isn't cranked to 11 here, it's spun all the way up to 22. Of course the movie verges on three hours - it's supposed to be a relentless assault on our senses. The only way the comparison between this film and Alex DeLarge's reconditioning could be more pointed was if the Imagine Dragons soundtrack included Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Bay stuffs us full of pixels and pyrotechnics like a disciplinarian father forcing his son to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes after catching him smoking.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is anarchist filmmaking at its finest and the most subversive studio film released in decades. Every moment necessary, each scene part of a rich tapestry that film scholars will be analyzing and debating for centuries. I give this film four thumbs up, because in true Bay-like excess, why only give two thumbs when you can give four?