Less than meets the eye

If you grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s you might have a special place in your heart for the Transformers brand. Just say “Autobots” and I guarantee a part of your inner self is hearing that beep boop bop sound of a big rig truck shifting into a towering robot warrior. If not, then we might not understand each other very well. I remember Christmas Eve as a kid and seeing my father struggling for what seemed like forever attempting to find the trick of those frustrating action toys – the intricate engineering of a Transformer was notoriously difficult to discover. My brother, on the other hand, could hold that 12 inch Optimus Prime toy and have it transforming in a heartbeat. He just got it. Watching the fourth installment of the Transformers films Age of Extinction, it is very clear producer and director Michael Bay also gets it. He has demonstrated the golden touch when it comes to summer blockbusters. With the previous Transformers movies, recent big budget action flicks like Pain and Gain, and modern classics like The Rock and Armageddon all on his resume, it is obvious Bay knows how to move the movie-going masses into the Cineplex, preferably with popcorn and 3-D glasses in hand. Does the success of Michael Bay’s style of big-budget, explosion-y, thrill ride movie mean that Transformers: Age of Extinction is an especially good film? Not really. Was it fun to watch? Of course it was; that’s the entire point!

While there are several competing strands of story-line in the film, the basic plot of Transformers is that the protagonist Autobots are being targeted and destroyed by a cynical CIA operative, with the help of a Transformer assassin named LockDown, who is working on behalf of the shadowy alien “Creators” of the Transformers. The murdered Autobots are given over to a research and development firm to create homemade versions in exchange for weapons and technology needed to hunt the alien warriors and protect America. At the same time, a stalwart Texan father must fight against the powers arrayed against him to protect his teenage daughter from being caught by the renegade CIA outfit. If you feel like that might be too much story to jam into one movie, don’t worry too much. This is a summer Blockbuster directed by Michael Bay. The formula for such a movie is loosely underdog versus almost unstoppable adversary, guns and explosions at every turn, sex-appeal wherever possible, stock characters like the “stoner surfer,” product placement, and American flags fluttering in the background. Oh, and aliens. Well-rounded storytelling isn’t a real priority, but, again, don’t worry about it because – explosions!

In order to make this iteration of the Transformers films easily accessible, new star power and currently popular actors have been brought in to carry the dramatic load. Action movie veteran and sometime-Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg replaces troublesome Shia LeBeouf as a more masculine male lead with tested box-office credibility. Never asked for much thespian range in this film, Wahlberg provides a familiar face to relate to if not much emotional depth. Kelsey Grammer plays the underhanded CIA agent with the requisite amount of smugness. The true scene-stealer in this film is Stanley Tucci, otherwise known as Caesar Flickerman to all Hunger Games fans. He plays R&D executive Joshua Joyce and is at all times irritating, enthralling, funny and charming – which is feat to pull off in a film not concerned with character development.

This movie is not going to garner Academy attention in any category but it is still fun to watch. Seeing sleek modern vehicles and stunning muscle cars transform into 40-foot tall fighting robots is always thrilling and the spectacle of these gigantic gladiators duking it out with one another makes the little boy with the action-figures in me grin with glee. Still, there’s the unnecessary inclusion of swearing on the part of the Transformers themselves, oddly childish dialogue from the robots with frequent references to “killing” each other, and more guns and bullets than I would imagine alien super warriors would require. Morality amounts to shooting your enemy before he shoots you; even Optimus Prime, the paragon of leadership and honour in this universe, discards his oath to never hurt a human when he has the chance to finish off a particular enemy. Call me old-fashioned, but I want the white-hats in these modern western gun-fight movies to keep their promises and be able to walk off into the sunset (or fly off into outer-space) with their dignity intact.  

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a summer blockbuster to its core and, ostensibly, its only job is to make you pay for your ticket and receive a few thrills in return. Having parsed out the shortcomings of such a film here in brief I can’t heartily recommend it. Nostalgia may colour this somewhat, but playing with those Transformer action figures with my brother back in the 80s, my father overseeing our good, clean fun, provided us with more wholesome storytelling than any of today’s popcorn flicks can provide. A movie may have a big budget, film stars and an enthusiastic audience, but if it doesn’t use all these to raise the bar of our entertainment it’s better to stick with the kids’ toys.

  • Tom Smith is a teacher living in Barrie, Ont. with his wife Sarah and son Jakeb.

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