Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Extinction?  We Should Be So Lucky
Review by Ken Burke   Transformers: Age of Extinction      
Those shape-shifting-robots (No! We’re more than that!) are back again, battling each other and anything else that moves in this continuation of a loud, long war story.
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Let me say at the outset that I’m no fan of the whole Transformers concept and having previously seen only 1 of this current 4-part-screen-series (not even considering here the animated TV versions of this concept and the toy line that serves as the inspiration for all of it), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009), which I felt I needed to do purely out of cultural curiosity, given how monetarily successful this series had been at the time and continues to be (Currently, it’s the 12th highest-grossing film series of all time with the individual units also responsible for a huge amount of cash [see the current tally for more details, but the present series champs in order down to our alien-metal-men—with most of them still generating intended further sequels—are the ones involving Harry Potter (well over $7.5 billion worldwide); the Marvel characters connected to The Avengers concept; James Bond; the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings saga; the Star Wars Skywalker family biography; the variations on Spider-Man; the voyages of the Pirates of the Caribbean (not bad for something that started off as a theme-park-ride); Batman; Shrek; the teenage world of romance, vampirism, and lycanthropy in the Twilight movies; Marvel again with their many X-Men; and the 5 Transformer stories (including the negligible animated beginning, The Transformers: The Movie [Nelson Shin, 1986])].  Individually, the Transformer movies have done quite well also, with respective rankings on the All-Time Domestic and Worldwide lists for the previous 3 [all directed by Bay] being as follows:  Transformers [2007]—#33 and #64, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—#18 and #38, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon [2011]—#27 and #7 [slight updates on the Worldwide rankings from the source cited above are based on most recent info from Box Office Mojo]), I wasn’t overly anxious to see what the newest installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay), had to offer, although I’m clearly in the minority of that opinion given its substantial opening last weekend (just over $100 million in the domestic market, plus over $200 million internationally [including a record-setting $90 million opening in China, site of some of the filming—for more details on the opening numbers go here, then here to see that it’s now drawing in more money in China than in the U.S.-Canada houses, set to become the all-time-champ there over Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]), but the opportunity presented itself to attend a critics’ screening so off I went.  My opinion of the uselessness of these loud, long explorations of special-effects-technology hasn’t changed a bit; however, if you’re willing to pay extra to see the IMAX 3-D rendition I’ll admit that it’s sensuous in its stimulation (not sensual, unless you get turned on by watching transportation vehicles shift identities into giant fighting machines—which probably is the case for some of the younger members of the testosterone-fuelled-target-audience) purely because of the well-orchestrated action.

That said, a half-hour-demo-reel of such spectacular effects would satisfy me just as well rather than having to sit through another overlong destruction-derby of this type, which gets further distracting to a non-series-fan such as myself when I find that I’m not only not interested in the complex mythology behind these mechanical-based-aliens (and the problems that come with not having seen 2 of the 3 previous offerings, thereby adding to my cognitive confusion) but I’m also a bit put off by the usual human-Autobot alliance—led by Optimus Prime on the Transformer side and now Mark Walberg (replacing the rapidly-deteriorating Shia LaBeouf; check any celebrity gossip site for his latest idiocy) leading the human charge—having to go up against 2 separate antagonist tribes, one led by a human-engineered-Transformer and the other by a new alien villain who offers insights into where the original Transformers—the Autobots and the Decepticons (the ongoing combatants of the previous episodes)—originated, along with clarifying for us that these giant machines aren’t just A.I.-enhanced robots after all but actually contain what we’d call an organic life-force, or, in what some would say in another context, a soul.  However, the end result of all this for me is just weariness as to who’s battling whom for what purposes, with plot devices that seem all too familiar from some of those other high-grossing-series noted above.  Even given my unfamiliarity with this sci-fi-series, I still felt that I'd seen too much of it before with little creative extension being developed in this current episode (a common complaint, it seems).

For those of you who have been warned away from Wikipedia because of the charges of insufficient research or accuracy, I will say in their defense that many of the sources I use from them for these reviews are highly detailed along with being heavily augmented with appropriate references including the link in the first paragraph of this review and this summary of Transformer movies, which might be helpful for readers who share my situation and aren’t very Transformer-savvy in guiding you to the larger context that contains information you’d likely find useful (those who are already Autobot-inclined can likely skim much of the rest of this paragraph) such as that our savior Autobots came to Earth eons ago after their own planet of Cybertron was destroyed in order to protect their AllSpark life-source (look it up if need be, as I’ve gone long enough on backstory already) as well as protect us from their equally-metal-based-enemies, the evil, power-hungry Decepticons, led by Megatron (who answered to an even higher power, The Fallen, from that one episode I saw—I think there are allusions to Lucifer/Satan here, which ought to please Hollywood-bashing-conservative Christians, given that he’s killed by the frequently-resurrecting Optimus Prime).  Megatron also seems to have bitten the dust—or rust—by the time Age of Extinction rolls around, but despite their protective actions on the part of humanity over those 3 previous movies now we have a rabid-homeland-security-CIA-fanatic, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), head of the Cemetery Wind unit (I just report it, I don’t screenwrite it) who’s determined to finally terminate all of these invading aliens, Autobots included, so that Earth’s societies—especially the U.S.—won’t have to face any further outside-invader-destruction, as was the case with Chicago being attacked (with Roger Ebert no longer there to offer defense against inferior cinema) in the previous Dark Side of the Moon alien-clash. (If, by now like me, you’re beginning to note a lot of familiar strands—both from real-world-political-news about securing borders/thwarting terrorists and from movie plots such as the relatively-hostile-reception Superman faces from humans as a destabilizing outside force in Man of Steel [Zack Snyder, 2013; review in our June 19, 2013 posting], the anti-mutant-societal-actions against heroes and villains alike in the X-Men movies, and the anti-vigilante-attitude now emerging toward superheroes who become a paramilitary force in The Avengers series [despite being accepted in this role by the public at large] you wouldn’t be off-base at all, although I’ll admit that as a Transformers novice I can’t really trace how well these themes might have been established in a franchise that harks back to its earliest incarnations in 1984 as a joint Japanese [Takara Tomy]-American [Hasbro] toy company followed by the expansion into comic books, TV animation, video games, and movies, so I’ll leave it to the larger sci-fi/fantasy-fandom to illuminate me on who’s borrowing from whom, but let’s just say that I saw enough familiar themes to make me wonder what point there is in being an intellectual-property-lawyer if your company’s concepts are so open to easy acquisition.)

However, if you care at all about what’s going on here in addition to heavy-metal-morphing and constant bashing-smashing-battles, the human element this time is primarily focused on: Attinger and his alliance with yet another metal-man-alien, Lockdown (voice of Mark Ryan), who wants Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) as a prisoner to return to their mutual Creators (an entity seemingly unknown to the Autobots); Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a wicked industrialist who runs KSI and wants a Seed device from Lockdown so that he can help Attinger generate more of the Transformers’ foundational molecular element of transformium (right next to aluminumfoilium on the Periodic Table of Elements) in order to build a huge, unstoppable army of human-produced Transformers to serve as the U.S.A.’s front-line-of-protection; and seemingly the only decent (or at least unbamboozled) humans left on the planet, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a gifted-but-unsuccessful-inventor located near Paris, Texas (where my Dad was born, but they forgot to make mention of that in the script), Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), his teenage daughter who’s frustrated with being the adult in her family structure (she also returns us to the level of high-school-age-babealiciousness that begin with Megan Fox, helping anchor this series with its primary-target-audience), and Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor), Tessa‘s newly-emerged-boyfriend who’ll have to go a long way to prove himself to Cade, a parent desperate to keep his daughter totally isolated from anything that might create problems for them given that he’s basically making up this whole parenting thing as he goes along anyway.  Much to Tessa’s dismay, Cade buys an old beat-up truck that he thinks might be a Transformer that he can turn in for a hearty government bounty; he’s right in what he brought home, but it turns out to be not just any Transformer but the wounded Optimus Prime, which encourages Cade to repair his injuries although that sets off sentinels that lead Lockdown straight to North Texas where the first of many destructive collisions occur between Optimus with his 4 other remaining Autobots on one side vs. Lockdown’s overpoweringly-destructive-forces some of the time but whenever we get a break from that we find the hero-bots also having to deal with Joyce’s army, led by Galvatron (voice of Frank Welker), who’s actually channeling data input from the not-fully-dead Megatron so that these killer destructos intend to use Lockdown's Seed to create many more of themselves, then destroy humankind, much to the horror of those humans who created them.  Obviously, even 5 metallic-freedom-fighters are outmatched by this many opponents so Optimus sneaks onto Lockdown’s massive spaceship, frees 4 massive Dinobot former enemies, then convinces them to join in the good fight, at which point they covert into other forms including the T-Rex that Optimus is riding in a good bit of Age of Extinction’s promotional materials until such time as the combined forces of the Autobots, their Dinobot allies, and our intrepid humans have managed to kill Lockdown, send Galvatron into hiding, and restore stability to our once-again-ravaged-planet, ending (you think so, huh?) with Optimus Prime flying off into the void in search of his mysterious Creators.

By the time you’ve sat through 165 min. of this you have every right to wonder why $210 million worth of budget and likely billions in ticket-sales (Dark of the Moon pushed into that stratospheric realm worldwide; this sequel is "primed" to do the same) should be invested in all of this exploitative, noxious noise when there drought-stricken-farmers, long-time-jobless-workers, and hungry schoolchildren desperate for such funds; however, in the industrialized world most of us live in (basing my readership understanding on what’s reported to me by Google—hey, Russia, welcome back!) this is often how we set our priorities with the cash in circulation so if you haven’t seen enough wanton destruction already this cinematic season from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo; review in our April 10, 2014 posting), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb; review in our May 8, 2014 posting), the remake of Godzilla (Gareth Edwards; review in our May 15, 2014  posting), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer; review in our June 6, 2014 posting)—all of which to me are superior, even with their own heavy doses of borrowed and repetitive concepts (although I think the newest Spider-Man is the best of this bunch)then you might well find satisfaction with Transformers: Age of Extinction, which obviously many viewers already have, given that this well-promoted-movie quickly became #15 on the 2014 top domestic grosses list despite having been in release less than 1 week.

I’ll finish up this I’ve-said-enough-review (largely because I’ve about run out of things to say about this overly-loud, overly-long, under-conceptualized, disgustingly-monetarily-based-sequel-with-no-real-purpose-to-exist-beyond-fattening-the-bottom-line-at-Paramount; but wait, there's more in my diatribe as I go academic on you—like I did in my last posting [June 27, 2014] in discussing the marvelous Third Person [Paul Haggis]—by noting that successful genre films, at least from a theoretical/critical standpoint, manage to combine aspects of familiarity and originality, a concept developed nicely by Edward Buscombe in his article, "The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema" [found in Film Genre Reader IV, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 2012, pp. 12-26], which Transformers: Age of Extinction does decently with the former but not nearly enough with the latter) by showing this photo of a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette C7 Stingray.  Why?  For one thing, it’s a cool-looking-car that I’d love to own (not accounting for insurance costs, highway patrol predators, and constantly-lurking-thieves—but, still, I've wanted one of these ever since I first saw the car and heard the Beach Boys singing "Shut Down"[from the 1963 albums Surfin' U.S.A. and Little Deuce Coupe; this is a ragged video, although you get a sense of their early live shows when Carl and Denny were alive and Brian and Al were on stage, none of which exists in the group's current in"car"nation) but for another, given that its only purpose in this new Transformers movie is to be the vehicle that Autobot Crosshairs (voice of John DiMaggio) morphs into in order to speed around to needed locations I find it very interesting that the marketing team has chosen to feature it (along with other Autobot-transformed-cars) in the publicity stills as if it were an actual character (in this form all it does is zip about as a car, with no battle abilities) when all it exists for is eye-candy for the hormonally-charged-up-target-audience-boys who need something else to excite them when Tessa is off-screen.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that because as a marketing strategy it plays very well to the “optimally-prime” demographic but it also illustrates very nicely why none of these Transformers outings are likely to be taken seriously as cinematic experiences except as they serve as substitutions for body-flinging-roller-coasters at an upscale-amusement park.

So, why do I go as high as 2 ½ of my 5 stars in rating this souped-up-funny-car-extravaganza?  Mainly because the computer graphics, visual stagings, and overall production values are exceedingly well-presented, especially in the overpowering images available in the 3-D and IMAX formats.  How well this will work on a normal size screen (or less, given the growing tendency for this same target audience to watch movies on computer tablets and telephones—does anyone actually use them to make calls anymore in this age of a blending of “global village”-electronics-technology that has ironically prioritized a simplistic form of text-print over voice communication [except in the old-school-world of TV ads where relentless audio still calls out for your attention—if you want to know more about these media-analysis-concepts I refer you to the great scholar of such hidden persuaders, Marshall McLuhan]) without the depth-illusion-enhancements I can’t say (and am not going back to find out), but if you’re just looking for a lot of active diversion in a dark, cool location on a hot summer day Transformers: Age of Extinction may perform just fine for you, although I'm glad I didn't pay for it.  (Still, I encourage you to not get bogged down in logical confusions such as Why did the Creators cruise past Earth millions of years ago, spraying their metallic dust over our landscape, eliminating all life on our planet? and How did life revive after that fatal dusting-storm, leaving no traces of the type of machine-like-creatures that have now visited us from deep space? and Why do these Creators now want some of their creations back, but, more importantly, why do they have to send a bounty-hunter such as Lockdown to do their gathering when they would seem to be powerful enough to do the dirty work on their own?  I guess you’ll just have to keep buying tickets to find out in coming years because the cash flow of these movies will surely keep the franchise active no matter what we pesky-insect-critics may think [with my generous 50% decision far outranking the paltry 17% positive remarks from Rotten Tomatoes and 31% score from Metacritic—details far below if you like].)

However, I think I’ve made my point by now so I’ll finally close out (I’m as bad as this silly movie where needed endings are concerned, but that's what qualitatively sets me apart in such a marvelous manner, don't you agree?) with an appropriate Musical Metaphor for Transformers: Age of Extinction by turning to The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (from the 1969 Abbey Road album, their last studio venture even though the previously-recorded Let It Be album wasn’t released until 1970) which weighs in at 7:48 at, with a repetitious ending movement that seems to go on intolerably long enough as it is but I remember a friend from grad school telling me about some campus-oriented-radio-station in Florida during that era making that closing drone into a tape loop that just keep playing until the audience became mesmerized/hypnotized/ narcotized waiting for the song to finally stop.  That’s kinda how I felt after seeing Bay's blaring Transformers: Age of Extinction, wondering when the Creators were going to return to zap us again, finally bringing this expensive piece of performance art to its needed closure.  Given the choice, I’d take repeat listenings of Abbey Road over any of these Transformer movies any day, but, obviously, Autobot-enthusiasts say otherwise and will surely continue to do so, no matter what the critics may think of this frantic franchise.

That’s it for me right now but I’ll be back very soon with notes on the upcoming documentary tribute to famed cinephile Roger Ebert, Life Itself.
If you’d like to know more about Transformers: Age of Extinction here are some suggested sources: (the official Transformer site on YouTube with dozens of videos and much more for those of you interested in such intensity)

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  1. Personally I think these films exist because they release them in the Summer when little else appeals to anyone, therefore giving the audiences something to do at the cineplex.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the comment which I agree with. Fortunately, for those of us who have access to more independent and foreign cinema there are other worthy choices. But if you're just looking for an indoor amusement park the Transformer movies are as good a diversion as any, well produced and long enough to keep you in the air conditioning for quite awhile. Ken