“Transformers”: Robot Warriors of the Tea Party Attack
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There’s a general feeling of distress and bewilderment to “Transformers: Age of Extinction,”Michael Bay’s latest inflated, interminable and incoherent 3-D saga of robot warfare. At least some of that distress is political: The “Transformers” franchise has gradually become alienated from its Bush-era roots in gung-ho, pro-military, “Mission Accomplished” jingoism. It now partakes of a free-floating, ill-defined, Ted Cruz-style paranoia that is both psychically dispirited and distressingly low in testosterone. (There are nearly no gratuitous shots of female pulchritude in this movie, and the only suggestion of actual sexuality is a disturbing interspecies attempted rape.) I’m halfway surprised that the script for “Age of Extinction” didn’t drag in a Benghazi reference somehow. Maybe it did and I missed it; you can’t sit through a 166-minute robot-warfare movie without occasionally slipping into a fugue state. I’m going to say that again: ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SIX MINUTES. That’s exactly one minute longer than the re-edited version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s medieval odyssey “Andrei Rublev,” perhaps the most legendarily arduous art film of all time. Coincidence? I think not.
If it sounds dumb to describe “Age of Extinction” as bewildering and pointless, given that it’s the fourth installment in a franchise that has concocted an arcane mythological back-story out of a line of toys popular with 10-year-old boys in the 1980s, all I can say is welcome to the world Bay has made, where we are all measurably stupider than we were before. Also revealed on our show today: The sky is blue (unless it’s raining) and the Catholic Church may have issues with human sexuality! There are many reasons that “Age of Extinction” is a total mess, even when we move past the fact that it’s a mess because it’s a Michael Bay movie. And although it has become patently obvious that Bay is kind of a right-winger, his movies are more about servicing the stunted psychologies of teenage boys than about any coherent ideology. Believing that military hardware is awesome, and blowing stuff up is even better, does not really qualify as a political position.
This time around, Hollywood’s master of excess finally seems exhausted, in both formal and narrative terms, by the stupefying idiocy of this franchise. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s actually a new state of affairs: You can accuse Bay of many things, but never before of being bored with his own work. When you reach the decadent phase of the “Transformers” series, which was designed in the first place as the epitome of id-fueled overkill — my friends, that is some serious decadence. That’s Louis XIV in the recliner with a pile of thong-clad honeys and five boxes of donut holes from Dunkin, watching a highlight reel of Best Reality Show Catfights. There’s an entire scene in this movie in which the protagonists hide out from evil government forces and evil Decepticons and evil whoever-else by sleeping in an abandoned mid-century passenger train. During that scene I woke up enough to think: Wait, what? Where are these people, and why are they doing this, and what relevance or resonance does this have to the so-called plot? No answers.
There’s an earlier scene when one shot shows us the setting sun, a melting glob of orange sherbet descending behind a flat Texas landscape – one of about five “magic moment” sunset shots milked for nebulous non-meaning in this movie — and then in the next shot (and for the rest of the scene) it’s clearly the middle of the afternoon. One of the things that’s impossible to decipher about Bay is whether or not he’s basically been punking us the whole time. He clearly possesses some awareness of his own tics and tricks and obsessions, some meta-consciousness about the manipulative character of his work and his relationship to the audience, but not enough to simply throw it all away and go study the Hindu scriptures or something. (He may make movies aimed at notional heartland teens, but in real life Bay was an English major at Wesleyan, and a favored student of film historian Jeanine Basinger.) So I partly suspect that he’s pulling our leg in making a $165 million action spectacle that features elementary continuity errors, product placement for Chinese soft drinks and a running time – did I tell you this already? – of 166 minutes, at least 40 or 50 or 60 of which are not strictly necessary. OK, duh, I get it: None of itis necessary, and Bay is playing out some kind of sadomasochistic power exercise.