July 3, 2014

Unnerving Violence & False Freedom (Transformers: AoE Review)


As we all know, this past weekend brought the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction upon us. Despite all of the hype, I failed to find the motivation to venture out to see it myself. Upon discussing the film's interesting early reception, my pal GogDog, whom many of you should know from his impressive toy photography and former WTF@TFW Podcast hosting duties, offered to be Castle Geek-Skull's surrogate moviegoer. It would appear the experience left quite an impression, because he came back with quite a tale. Even if you've already had your fill of AoE reviews, trust me, this one is well worth checking out. (Please be warned: the review does contain spoilers)

Alright Gog, take it away:

"I was fairly apathetic in my desire to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. Having seen the previous three films in the series (all directed by Michael Bay) several times each, I knew what to expect. The Transformers film franchise is widely known for its over the top robot action with beautiful, state of the art computer-rendered effects and well-choreographed battle scenes, as well as two-dimensional, unbelievable characters, and confusing, jarring editing.

My interest piqued when the film began to screen. I saw such widely varying opinions from people I know quite well. Their general takes on the film ranged from calling it a noticeable, marked improvement over the previously well-known problems in the series' production, to declaring it “an utterly awful bewildering film” and giving it a score two points lower than the scale even bottomed out at. At this point, I wanted to absorb every bit of my friends' opinions that I could. I wanted to know, in every detail, without spoilers, how and why they felt the film was enjoyable or not, and in what ways it was successful or a failure. Then I would watch the film and experience just why it was pulling people in such widely different directions. I thought I knew what to expect. Let me tell you — I did not. This film managed to shock me in several different ways and for very, very different reasons.

Let me begin with how unexpectedly pleased I was with just how much this film improved over the previous three on a technical level in regards to the editing process and its ability to give the audience an understandable story. One of my biggest complaints with Michael Bay's Transformers films is how they appear, more often than not, to be seemingly random scenes connected by a fast and loose script and haphazard, unthoughtful editing. I recently watched Dark of the Moon (the third and previous TF film) again on disc and the flow of the film...I don't know how else to say it. The flow of the film just made me uncomfortable. Scenes do not transition naturally and at its worst the film is a quagmire of sensory overload with nothing to cleanse one's palate in between shots.

Age of Extinction, much to my surprise, eliminated most every issue I had in that regard. I felt that from beginning to end, I understood why characters were where they were, and they got there in ways that made sense. Scenes transitioned in ways that didn't leave me wondering how we got there. Every scene wasn't shot like one of Bay's early-career music videos as his past films were, with every scene photographed at dramatic angles while the nonstop camera pans in sweeping motions as if manic.

mark wahlberg the touch
The "human element" of these movies can been a bit...touchy. Ahem. How'd it pan out this time?

Also of note is how much more tolerable the human characters were in this film over the previous ones. The way they have been portrayed in the series thus far is perhaps my largest complaint with the series overall, with most of the lead and supporting cast filling odd roles as extreme caricatures of very specific personality types. Nearly every human performance has been dialed up to eleven to the point that you can't believe such a person exists, rending one unable to forget they are watching an actor act out horribly written lines of script dialogue. Age of Extinction, for perhaps the first time since some of the better moments of the original 2007 film, had the actors performing in mostly believable roles with subtle humor mixed throughout.

There are some exceptions to this, notably when the character Joshua Joyce, the CEO of the villainous KSI corporation (played by Stanley Tucci) is introduced by having several beautiful women, adorned in their mini-dresses and high heels, greet him in his lobby as he arrives. He then goes on to argue the musical tone that ones hears as they enter the building, in a scene that took me square out of the story.

There is also a very strange scene where Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) argues with his daughter's boyfriend, who justifies having sex with the underage girl using loopholes in the state laws. Why this scene was written into a film based on children's toys is beyond understanding, especially with most of the merchandise being marketed to a youthful demographic. How it made it past the Hasbro censors is even more astonishing, assuming they care about the film beyond the money it brings them.

Overall, though, it seemed like Michael Bay took all of the criticism he has received since 2007 and actually listened. If only that were the case.

Let me state this in no uncertain terms: while Age of Extinction represents a significant technical improvement over the previous two films (and is able to present its story in a more focused, comprehensive way from the editing room), it also represents a near exponential amplification in the hyper-violent, immoral portrayal of the “heroic” Optimus Prime and his Autobots to the point of being absolutely disturbing. Cade has an emotional and sympathetic epiphany during the course of the film: “Transformers are just like us. They have souls.” What follows is an attempt to undermine any remote chance that could be possible or believable.

Heads up.

Beginning with the second Transformers film, 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen, the audience began to get glimpses as to what the team behind these films believed a hero was. In the opening scenes of RotF, we see Optimus Prime and the Autobots hunting down rogue Decepticons around the world. Soon after, Optimus incapacitates one, and upon rendering him unable to move, asks him if he has any last words. He then fires his gun, point blank, leaving only a smoldering hole in the head of his crippled enemy.

This scene would set the tone for the rest of franchise to come, which would go on to show Optimus, in slow motion, ripping the heads and faces off of his enemies, observing his teammates pull an incapacitated, downed enemy pilot from his cockpit before pulling his limbs and head off with their bare hands and finally playing with the body parts like trophies, and massacring enemy leaders (plural, and within seconds of each other) who lay down their arms and offer a truce. What makes these violent moments even more puzzling and near incomprehensible is that nearly every one of them is preceded or followed by a speech from Optimus declaring his love for freedom — his love for the good of all.

One could argue that at the very least, those enemies to the Autobots, the Decepticons, whom they violently tear to pieces like animals, are still just that: their oppressive sworn enemies for whom millions of years or so of battle have developed into such a hatred that there is no room left for discussion, only genocide for the greater good. This is where Age of Extinction comes in. There is very little of the Autobots finding new ways to sadistically flay the Decepticons. In fact, for the most part, there isn’t a single Decepticon to be seen. Instead, the target of the Autobots' violence is practically everything else in the film, including each other.

A new Autobot named Hound brags in the film about just how badly he's been itching to kill something. It shows through and through how literal and true that statement is for the Autobots as a whole. Early in the movie when the Autobots all reunite with Optimus for the first time, one wonders how there's more than one of them left functioning at all. Another newcomer to the Autobots, Drift, rattles off a haiku, the poetry causing Hound to instantly grab him in anger. Drift retaliates by pulling his swords out and pushing them against Hound's chest, who begs him to “Please, do it. Please, do it!”

Hound, Drift, and Crosshairs: "Heroic" Autobots.

Moments later, Drift makes a comment about how poor of a leader Bumblebee has been in the absence of Optimus, which begins an argument over who should have actually been in charge during Prime's downtime, with Drift denouncing Bumblebee because of his “youthful inexperience.” Bumblebee becomes angry, beginning a physical altercation that results in Drift’s swords being drawn and held so closely at Bee's neck as to dig through and create sparks.

All the while, Crosshairs, another new Autobot, is cheering for them to finish themselves off so he can advance up in the chain of command. It's such a jarringly odd yet telling scene. They are, indeed, itching to kill something, even if it's each other. They are so predisposed to killing as their first choice in any conflict, even internal ones, that they crave it. They talk about it. They are itching for it. And given enough time, they would fatally turn on one another.

Later, when the Autobots have infiltrated Lockdown's starship (Lockdown being the robotic bad guy of the film, loyal to neither Autobot nor Decepticon) in order to rescue a captured Optimus, they encounter several different caged creatures who are Lockdown's living trophies. When Hound peeks into a cage, a startled creature, whom Hound notes couldn't possibly be dangerous while caged, spits on his face, causing Hound to roll around in fear as he gets the goo off his face. Embarrassed and realizing that the spit was totally harmless to him, he gets angry, walks back to the cage, and executes the imprisoned creature, declaring, “You're dead, bitch.”

Now, I’m not ignorant. I feel quite confident that the above scenes were written and shot as pieces of comedy. The war torn bots are tired, angry that their teammates have died, and they want off the planet Earth for good. Given just how little we have ever seen an Autobot deal with a situation without violence however, finding a way to express any emotion at all without death threats, drawing weapons, and attacking each other shows just how one-sided these characters are. Violence is their only response to practically any situation during the course of the entire series.

Killing things. Until they die.

The most shocking moment of all, though, was saved for near the end of the film. And let me tell you — it's a doozie.

Deciding he needs more firepower to win the final battle of the film, Optimus Prime — having just crash landed a portion of Lockdown's aforementioned trophy ship — believes that some of the living trophies on board can be of use to him. He then releases the newly introduced Dinobots (previously referred to by Lockdown as galactic explorers) from their cages and walks them out to meet the rest of the Autobots.

Without discussion — without appealing to them in any other way — Optimus issues his ultimatum: “Stand with with me, or stand against me.” He then battles their understandably defensive leader Grimlock, shouting, “We're giving you freedom!” as he begins punching the living hell out of him. Grimlock, a Transformer who had been imprisoned for who knows how long against his will and a noncombatant in most any sense of the word in the modern Transformers' battles on Earth, is freed by Optimus, who within moments declares that he must battle for them or be fought like an enemy.

After incapacitating the warrior, Optimus raises his sword to the fallen Grimlock’s head, and utters the following words: “You will defend my family or die.” Optimus conscripts the just freed Dinobots into temporary slavery at the threat of their own lives.

The violence of Bay's Optimus Prime became something of an inside joke to many Transformers fans after the previous films, getting ironic enjoyment from them for reasons much unintended by those making them. Nicknames like 'Murderous Prime' humorously refer to this modern day version of the classic 80's cartoon character that many my age grew up watching.

Hold me.

Many find it impossible to take seriously and at face value a character that could preach several times a film about the right of freedom for all beings one minute and lose himself in heartless, violent killing massacres the next. No longer content with targeting its violence and aggression towards its villains, Age of Extinction pushes the Transformers film franchise away from being a guilty pleasure and more into the realm of being just plain unnerving.

As a story of two warring factions battling for millions of years, to say that there is no place for extreme violence in Transformers fiction would be, simply put, unrealistic. Where the films fall apart is how they demonstrate such atrocities without consequence. The horrible acts Prime and his team commit are never shown to be anything other than heroic, with their allies praising and supporting them at every turn, rarely demonstrating anything other than devotion and appreciation.

On the other hand, the current Transformers comic books, published by IDW, often demonstrate the dark repercussions of the Cybertronian war. The mini-series The Last Stand of the Wreckers deals directly with such issues, making the consequences of unchecked, emotional killing in war the core of its back story. The films unfortunately show no desire to address these horrible acts of war in any way other than glorifying them.

In many ways, this is the best Transformers film yet. Its humans are mostly believable, its story is able to be followed more easily than the previous films, and its editing is a huge improvement, not leaving one with a headache trying to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, Transformers: Age of Extinction is also the worst Transformers film yet, dishing out cold, apathetic violence in unprecedented levels and expecting the audience to cheer it on with fist pumps and mouths full of popcorn all the while. When it was all over, the film seemed to expect me to feel exhilarated and hungry for more. Instead, I left feeling slightly sick to my stomach and disappointed that it could triumph so greatly yet fail so wretchedly."

Phew. That is some heavy stuff. I feel like even I need to lie down. I'd like to give a hearty thanks to GogDog for providing the vicarious AoE experience. His Twitter profile is always full of intriguing reports on whatever particular media he's currently invested in, so be sure to give him a "follow" if you enjoyed the review!


  1. The "creative" choices with these characters reflects a) a lack of caring by the filmmakers and b) Hasbro's complete surrender of this property in the film series. I don't mind robot violence, heck the entire point of Transformers is to see large robots do damage, but the lack of any sympathetic robot characters basically changes the whole point of this property. We joked in 2007 about how the first movie was "TINO" but now that phrase actually means something. Bay had it right when he said of the first Transformers film: "It's about a boy and his car." Now, it's about misery wrought by widespread anger. *YAWN* No thanks.

  2. I think people are forgetting how terrible TF2 was when calling TF4 the worst film ever. At least Bay attempted to bring some sort of story in TF3. Whether people understand history or not is their problem. And TF4 was not that bad at all. I think people must have wanted the dumbed down G1 dinobots. I think TF4 was more realistic. The Autobots were disgruntled at the humans, as they should have been. You had big corporates manipulating the situation (I'm not anti corporate, but it's happened before), and we finally get Frank Welker as the real bad guy. I think instead of whining so much people just need to chill out and watch the movie. You Millennials are so negative and you all thing you're the first person to question critically or bash anything. Look around you're all doing the same thing. The 90s called, they want their boring cynicism back.

  3. I read through this post wondering how the potential satire of the Autobots being "heroes" was lost on you despite recognizing the Autobots continually indulge in hideous over the top hypocritical war crimes from ROTF onward, until I got to the part where you like IDW, and then I realized.
    IDW doesn't show the "dark repercussions" so much as it shows a bunch of older fans of the original show wanting to cram in "moral gray" and then not actually act on it (hence Optimus being a cop and supporting a very corrupt system, never apologizing for that or reforming for it, and portraying the suppressed poverty stricken decepticons as wrong for violently uprising, but not the autobots as wrong for violently putting them down). That's not very morally nuanced, but James Roberts seems to bank on his obscure transformer cameos and queerbaiting to pull him through).
    For the record though, neither Cade nor Optimus (nor, in fact, Sam, nor Lennox) are meant to be likeable protagonist characters. They are out of touch, reactively angry, lying, hypermasculine (not just hyper-violent) aggressors who are frequently the architects of their own downfalls. The films consistently put the women, Maggie, Mikaela, Carly, Tessa, Su Yueming, in more sympathetic and understandable positions, whether they fight for their survival or not.
    Consider that Optimus Prime claimed Megatron was on Earth to access the cube, way back in the first movie, ostensibly in order to "activate all Earth's technology and enslave humanity."
    Now consider when Megatron crashed on Earth, and the origin, within that universe, of Earth's technology (as Simmons says, reverse-engineered from Megatron).
    That is one hell of a plan that is absolutely fictional, ain't it, Optimus?
    Now rewatch the movies with Optimus in mind as a villain, not just an exceptionally brutal hero, and they'll make more sense to you.

  4. dude i am a big fan can you email me about tranformers my email lane142557@gmail.com