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I wish the whole movie was basically Analyze That with fucking Optimus De Niro and Mark Wahlberg just like psychoanalyzing this ridiculously unhinged robot.

I no longer have a solid grasp of what the consensus on the Transformers movies is. I used to think people understood that these are Bad Movies, all their redeeming qualities diminished with each successive entry in what has to be the most cynical, belligerent, and surreal movie franchise of all time. That said, I also understood that people enjoyed this, that the Transformers movies, despite being Bad Movies, were never to be missed. To not see one in theaters? Unthinkable. If only because it’s so fun to talk about them afterward. Now, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea of course, but I really thought that’s where most thinking people were at about this shit.

Then I heard the audience I saw this movie with unironically, I believe, applauding it at the end. That’s when my moorings came loose and reality became a cold, dark place.

Well, not really. I’m usually the first person to extoll those virtues that Michael Bay brings to the table, and those virtues are all present in Age of Extinction. That said, it’s also got most of his usual penchant for dizzying displays of heightened, self-important nonsense. There’s a lot of people who are going to walk out of this movie going “Remember that bit from x Transformers movie? At least they didn’t do that this time.” as if we’re focus grouping this shit. As if the entirety of Western Civilization is just a bunch of beta testers to help Bay et al get this dysfunctional shit to a point where just watching it doesn’t make us feel dirty.

But what do I know. My audience laughed uproariously at TJ Miller being unable to throw a football. As if they’ve never seen this before. I laughed uproariously at Mark Wahlberg, still beefy from Pain & Gain (the kind of movie Bay should always be making), running around in spectacles and a white lab coat.

And that’s when shit got awkward.

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Mark Wahlberg tries his ass off to make this work. Alas.

Five years after the events of Dark of the Moon, the government has decided that all transformers are jihadists. Or at least the Decepticons are. A CIA task force called Cemetery Wind has been hunting down all transformers regardless of affiliation. We’re treated to a scene of Ratchet, of all robotic people, being killed in a pretty horrifying manner. Just so we know how real shit has got.

The task force is led by Frasier, who is tired of serving the country for a government salary, and Titus Welliver who just hates transformers because his sister lived in Chicago and is implied to be dead. Okay then.

Optimus Prime is hiding out and everyone is looking for him. This is because Lockdown, a transformer with contempt for everything, has been paid to hunt him down and bring him back into the fold. Whatever that means. The movie has very little time for the lore it uses like a dirty rag, simply to make some overture of mopping up its sloppy plotting. We’ll get to that a little later.

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Titus Welliver don’t got time for your shit.

Because the transformers are never really treated as people, all of these movies are filled with human characters. Okay, fair enough. I’ve always understood why Bay and Ehren Kruger (who is committing crimes against humanity writing these movies) make humans the emotional heart. These guys just can’t bring themselves to have CG animated robots as “people” with character arcs, emotionality, etc. None of these guys have seen Wall-E. C-3P0 and R2D2? Pffft. Gay.

The problem is that these human characters are almost always extraneous, dopey, and barely have character arcs themselves. And when the transformers do get to talk or have emotions, it’s this weirdly pared down “I’ll kill you!” snarling and false “badassery” that makes a badass-respecting motherfucker like me just cringe. I mean, Michael Bay knows from badassery. You ever see The Rock? Bad Boys? What in fuck happened.

Age of Extinction is maybe the weirdest of the franchise, but certainly follows the formula set out by the earlier movies. At the center of this one is unlikely Texan inventor Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) who just wants to make robots but kind of sucks at it and so can’t make ends meet. His daughter, played by an oompa loompa (some call her Nicola Peltz) for diversity reasons, insists that she wants a normal life where she can date boys and keep her house. Fair enough, but Cade’s defining characteristic is contrariness, which I guess is Bay’s characterization of Texas. He is also all about turning “mistakes”, which is how they frequently refer to his orange-toned spawn, into something a notch or two above that.

This is why he helps Optimus Prime. That and, I guess, scientific curiosity? For a movie that literally ends on an anti-scientific note, I guess we were off to a good start.

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This robot dinosaur basically scares Steve Jobs into submission. I don’t know how to explain this to you.

Because two CIA bad guys, Buff Yaeger and Orange Yaeger, and Irish Boyfriend (Shane Dyson or some kind of sexy Seth Rogen clone) aren’t enough human characters (they have a quota I guess), there’s also Steve Jobs (Stanley Tucci) who is a futurist technomogul that is benefiting directly from the work of Cemetary Wind, his ex-girlfriend, Chinese assistant, and poor TJ Miller who really deserves better than this. The movie therefore euthanizes him early on.

Because Bay can take criticism, he decided to push the art department to better differentiate the designs of the different transformers. Apparently this also means removing any and all subtlety. John Goodman’s Hound is a fat, cigar-chomping sergeant who sheds bullets and grenades like fleas. Ken Watanabe’s Drift (for fuck’s sake) is literally a samurai. It’s not offensive the way Skid and Mudflaps were, but it’s still (in the case of Drift at the very least) racist as shit. I mean, this is a movie where any Chinese person on screen for more than a minute gets to have a martial arts scene.  So, you know, there’s that also.

I’m serious about that. It’s as if this very “American” movie, which is kind of America: The Movie, can’t help but recycle these stereotypes. It’s like the only real question is, if you’re going to have Chinese characters… how can they not know Kung Fu? There’s a kind of twelve year old innocence to that, I guess, which I wish was more present behind some of the other shit going on in this movie. And that twelve year old thinks America is best thought of as draping one’s naked and pasty white body with the stars and stripes whilst shotgunning beers, and shotguns, and swinging one’s dick at foreigners whilst laughing uproariously (which I can sort of sympathize with) at everything and everything.

In other words, this movie is like Spider Jerusalem (or just plain Warren Ellis) wrote the script as a joke. It feels like it should be satire, man. But it’s oh so serious. Which is just confusing.

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Couldn’t find a better picture of Drift or Hound. Maybe it means someone is embarrassed about it?

Take, for instance, the weird dynamics between Cade, Irish Boyfriend, and Fabutanna Yaeger. It’s understandable, on a thematic level, that Cade has been the most important man in his daughter’s life and he has trouble letting go. I get that, being the father of a young (too close to teenaged already) girl. But instead of nurturing that idea and letting it be as simple and human as it could be, the movie milks it into this weird, creepy engine of shame. Shame for everyone. Irish Boyfriend is so ready for shame that he carries a card outlining his legal right to date a daughter in Texas. That’s correct, folks. You read that right. In this movie, ostensibly for kids, you have a character who proudly displays his documentation proving he can commit is usually considered statutory rape (but only by assholes, he’s 20 and she’s 17 so it’s not the end of the world folks).

You can’t make this shit up.

Speaking of Irish Boyfriend, he has to be one of the most wasted characters in Transformers history, which is really rife with this sort of shit. He shows up for a random hail mary save, waxes testosterone over the virtue of young, nubile Nectarine, and then does absolutely sweet fuck all for the rest of the movie. At least Cade has a character arc, going from well-meaning but shitty inventor to gun-toting anti-science Texan, but in a 2.5 hour movie they just couldn’t spare that kind of attention to anyone or anything else.

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Lockdown is kind of cool, I guess.

Which brings me to the lore. One on level, the concept artists and VFX people are the only winners in the whole Transformers franchise. On another, their work is in service to one of the shallowest, most strip-mined IPs this side of Star Wars. This movie is so lazy that it has robot dogs, so someone somewhere is getting it wrong. There’s also the fucking KSI transformers and their ridiculously bad looking transformation effect. But more generally, there’s a bunch of garbled backstory and lore in this movie that is just pared down, as if Bay cut several longer expository scenes because they bored him and he just wants to get back to another Magic Hour shot of Wahlberg staring pensively at the American Flag.

What I’m saying is, there was time to explain what a “Knight of Terminus” is and why that matters. There was time to get a bit more into this idea that transformers were created, a total retcon of the established lore thus far by the way, and so on. The aliens we briefly see blowing up the dinosaurs in the opening of the film? Sequelbait. As goes Prometheus, so goes the great nation of monster trucks, Bud Lite, and alien gun swords.

My point here isn’t that I’m mad because Bay and Kruger misadapted or otherwise mangled the Tranformers IP. I personally could give a shit about that. My issue is that these guys should care about the internal consistency, logic, and salience of their own shit. This stuff is so thoughtless and throwaway in the movie that it saps everything that happens of any meaning or larger mythos it could have and should have had, being the kind of movie it is.

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Easily the worst of the new Autobots. Statham-Bot.

Unlike the previous movies, Bay cares more here about the geography of his action scenes, the audience’s ability to decipher what’s happening on screen, and the logical necessities of the threadbare plot. There are few, if any, outrageously WTF moments in this movie on par with stuff like Optimus disappearing for 20 minutes or Bumblee teleporting around Chicago (both in Dark of the Moon) and Decpticons being copy/pasted around battle scenes (Revenge of the Fallen). The WTF is simultaneously more suppressed and more surreal this time.

This is also where the “at least this one didn’t…” comes in. Really, though, it’s like trying to decide which Justin Bieber song you like better. If you’re comparing the asshole of one dog to the asshole of another, you pretty much have to acknowledge at some level that what you’re talking about are dogs’ assholes.

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You can dress it up, guys, but it is what it fucking is.

One of the most surreal things about Transformers: Age of Extinction is how political it is. I haven’t fully given up on the idea that Bay is a highly intelligent sociopath who perversely enjoys raking in untold riches by reflecting ‘Merica back on itself, but this movie really could have been workshopped by the Tea Party and/or the NRA. There’s so much belligerent, anti-intellectual Americana here that it bleeds red, white, and blue. It blows confetti across the very planet and rains down on you with Redbull and Creatine.

In many ways, Age of Extinction is remarkable for its ability to condense and express a kind of stereotypical American texture that should be at once recognizable to just about anyone in the world. Except there’s no shame here. There’s no “fuck we’re a bunch of assholes”. No way, sir. This is proud to be loud. This is no truer a representation of the United States than it is of China or Japan, and yet it embraces those shards of deep fried culture like it’s coming out of a food truck at lunch time.

I mean, everything from drone warfare to deep mistrust in government is here and playing on the same stage. Compare this to the first movie, where one of the main heroes is the Secretary of Defense backed by American GIs.

As a result of all these elements I describe, the Transformers franchise remains a deeply fascinating and utterly deplorable pop culture artifact. It’s the kind of stuff academics will only begin to process years from now. The kind of thing that makes us redefine what Bad Movie means and how to deal with it. Some think the Transformers movies should just be ignored, but those same people will and do pay to see them in theaters. For nerds, this is the equivalent of reading trashy celebrity magazines.

We just want to see the fucking carnage.

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