Silver Screen: Transformers: Age of Extinction 1/2*
I saw Transformers: Age of Extinction in Appleton, Wisconsin, at an outlet of the Marcus Theater chain, which is perfectly representative of the standard movie-theater conglomerates. (Marcus is sort of the AMC of the upper Midwest). Prior to the screening, in addition to the usual handful of previews for upcoming shows, there was a series of commercials. Dale Earnhardt Jr., decked out in an oversized Diet Mountain Dew sweatshirt and matching cap, urged moviegoers to buy popcorn and soda before sneaking a mention of going to NASCAR races. After that, Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, seated in one of those hotel suites used for media-junket marathons, pimped the Marcus Theaters movie-rewards card, and slipped in a plug for their upcoming romantic comedy, the poster for which looms in the background.
Then the movie starts— although it’s difficult to tell exactly when. The credits rolled, but the commercials continued. Beyond the obvious fetish shots of new car makes and models, audiences are treated to a series of embedded advertisements. One Transformer prototype is decked out in Oreo cookie logos and, just for good measure, positioned next to an Oreo billboard. A scientist uses the newly discovered and absurdly named element “transformium,” which can become any object the user desires, to spontaneously turn a lump of metal into the new Pill speakers by Beats, which he proudly pushes toward the camera like a father showing off his newborn child. A Victoria’s Secret truck passes by slowly enough that we can linger on the logo, although that’s nothing compared to the Budweiser truck, which is destroyed in an explosion that scatters beer bottles like dandelions; star Mark Wahlberg picks one up, takes a long, foamy drink, then tosses it away. There’s even advertisements for ethanol (two characters have a long conversation behind a screen-wide sign that reads “Corn Oil for Fuel”) and the Chinese government, whose tax-haven participation in and underwriting of the movie buys them some good public relations: When the Transformer attack goes overseas, China’s president makes a phone call in which he nobly insists that the safety and well-being of the people of Hong Kong is his first priority.
Perhaps it’s only true to the Transformers’ roots that the movie’s primary concern is marketing. The Transformers cartoon on which the movies are based was a genius scheme cooked up by toy company Hasbro to create a half-hour commercial for their action figures that the network would pay them for, rather than the other way around. If you buy a ticket to Transformers, you’re paying $8 for the privilege of being sold something else. Even the movie itself is essentially a protracted advertisement for its own sequel.
As for the content of the movie itself? It’s a secondary concern, both for director Michael Bay and for our purposes here, but suffice it to say that to call it hot garbage would be an insult both to heat and to trash. It’s a rambling, unstructured, barely coherent mess that inadvertently stretches the definition of storytelling as much as any avant-garde Andy Warhol film. The endless, inscrutable robot fights are nearly impossible to distinguish from one another, or from those of any previous entry in the series. If Bay simply digitally replaced prior leading man Shia LaBeouf with Wahlberg, would anyone really know the difference between parts three and four?
The plot— such as it is, and not that it matters— involves the good-guy Transformers, the Autobots, hunting down yet another MacGuffin before the Decepticons can get their hands on it. This world-ending device, kinda like the last three, will cause the extinction of life as we know it. It’s what caused the dinosaurs to die off, we learn in the opening sequence, when pink-clawed aliens fire molten metal bombs at herds of badly animated dinosaurs.
A few million years later, in “Texas, U.S.A.,” as the film helpfully points out, down-on-his-luck inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) stumbles across a dilapidated old truck that turns out to be the injured body of Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime and the other Autobots are in hiding from the government, which under the orders of a nefarious and apparently totally unaccountable bureaucrat (Kelsey Grammer) has begun hunting them down following the near total destruction of Chicago in the last movie.
The government’s true purpose is to melt down the Transformers to access the transformium that makes up their bodies. With the help of a vaguely Steve Jobsian scientist (Stanley Tucci), the American government is hoping to use transformium to create their own line of next-wave Transformers they can control as their private army. The data and source codes for the new Transformers all come from the severed head of the evil Decepticon leader Megatron, which obviously won’t be a problem, so stop asking about it.
Grammer’s hammy villain dispatches a team of assassins to storm Cade’s failing farmland and bring in Optimus Prime, which is how Cade, his daughter (Nicola Peltz), and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) wind up with ringside seats to yet another series of scrums between the robots. Cade’s daughter, even when spending the day with her dad on a dusty farm, dresses like an American Apparel model, and Peltz has the approximate acting range of an American Apparel catalogue. It’s no less plausible than the buff Wahlberg, né Marky Mark, playing an eccentric scientist, which he validates by slipping on a pair of eyeglasses.
Pointless as it all is, Age of Extinction had at least the potential to be dumb blockbuster fun, but Bay’s grandiosity turns it into popcorn torture. The first Transformers film was two hours and twenty-four minutes long. Each sequel has added to the running time, so Age of Extinction clocks in at a solid two hours and forty-five minutes, which, if you’re counting, is just five minutes shorter than The Godfather. It’s an interminable slog that has no consistency or connection from scene to scene, each of which become a repetitive, relentless riot of flashing lights, loud noises, and digitally enhanced car crashes.
The ultimate effect is the bizarre sensation of being simultaneously bored and overstimulated. After three hours of bombardment from advertisements, fireballs, and digitized bleeps and bloops, my brain felt numb and stripped bare. Perhaps that’s the real marketing hook of Transformers: Bay launches a blitzkrieg of stimulus on the viewer until the eyes can’t parse the commercials from their context, and the marketing message slips through the guard of a mind rendered defenseless by a barrage of cacophonous, chaotic stupidity.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.