Monday, June 30, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

As a fan of the Transformers franchise, I have seen each of the live-action movies as they came out in order to keep up with the brand. While I have been excited for each of them, only two of them have fulfilled that excitement and continue to do so after multiple viewings (Revenge of the Fallen is the one I consider a bust, and as such I have not watched it as much as the original 2007 movie or Dark of the Moon). When I first heard about the new movie, Age of Extinction, I decided I may as well see it since it’s related to Transformers and the third in the series exceeded my expectations (those being “being better than Revenge of the Fallen”). However, the more I learned about the fourth installment, based on pre-release info and trailers, the more my excitement grew, though I tried to retain a sort of cautious optimism. Recently, I got the chance to view Age of Extinction through a free screening at Paramount Pictures, and in 3D no less. So, do I think the hype is worth it? My answer: Yes.

This Bumblebee statue was also in attendance
at the screening.

On pre-historic Earth, 65 million years BCE, during the time of the dinosaurs, a group of alien ships drops a number of bombs on the planet, presumably causing the dinosaurs to go extinct. Cut to the present day in Arctic, where a scientist named Darcy Tyril (Sophia Myles) sees the result of an operation that uncovered a dinosaur covered in an unknown material, declaring that the find will change history. Four years after the events of Dark of the Moon, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his employee, Lucas Flannery (T. J. Miller), arrive at a run down theater to purchase junk that can be salvaged. As the two look around, Cade spies an old-looking truck riddled with bullet holes and decides to buy it, albeit with Lucas’ money. Later, Cade’s daughter, Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), is dropped off at home by her friends, finding out that while preparing for College, she has been denied financial aid; we find out that this is because Cade spends a lot of his time and money fixing things for people and trying to create new inventions, thus the Yeagers are low on cash to the point where they are at least 6 months behind on Mortgage payments (which makes the financial aid bit a little odd, but whatever). Meanwhile, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) is in a conference with the head of the CIA and the President's Chief of Staff, where he declares the age of the Transformers to be over, and that night leads a group called “Cemetery Wind” to hunt down the Autobot Ratchet (Robert Foxworth) with the aid of Lockdown (Mark Ryan), while also attempting to get information on the whereabouts of Optimus Prime. The next day, when Lucas and Tessa discover and eviction notice on the Yeagers’ front door, they attempt to tell Cade before he shows them something about the truck, believing to have found a Transformer. While working on it, a missile is accidentally fired, at which the truck changes shape to reveal itself as Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who is initially angered but eventually calms down. As Cade tries to help Optimus recover, the government arrives due to a call that had been placed by Lucas (with the promise of money), at which point Cade becomes involved in something much bigger, including a conspiracy that threatens humanity’s very existence.

The story of Age of Extinction is much better written this time around, though what helps is not only the further characterization of the Transformers themselves, but also the handling of the human characters. In past live-action installments, save for characters from the army, most of the human cast seemed to drag down the story a bit, often forcing it into a complete stop, due to how they were written. In this movie, the human characters are much more tolerable and believable, particularly the relationship between the Cade Yeager and his daughter Tessa, as well as Tessa's involvement with an Irish Texas racecar driver (naturally) named Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor), and how the issues between the three of them get resolved over the course of the movie. Said relationship between Tessa and Shane also replaces the ones between Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes/Carly Spencer in the last three movies, but the Tessa/Shane one seems better handled since it felt like it had more depth to it, especially with the way Tessa's father Cade reacts to the whole thing. The human actors certainly help this, with Mark Wahlberg being more than a suitable replacement for Shia LaBeouf in the main human role, due to his character feeling more actively involved with the Autobot/Decepticon war, and Kelsey Grammer seeming to give it his all as the primary human villain, Harold Attinger. Some of the antagonists, especially Lockdown, are actually pretty intimidating, though in Lockdown’s case it may involve his ability to turn his face into a giant (and awesome) gun.

The Autobot Crosshairs (voiced by John DiMaggio) in a moment of badassery.

As usual for a live-action Transformers film, the visual effects are very impressive, though it seems here that they’ve been taken a few steps further. The general redesigns of the returning robot characters are welcome as the Transformers generally look more streamlined, but there is still an incredible amount of detail in their character models, as well as anything Cybertronian, that easily provide a feast for the eyes. The Dinobots, who are heavily shown in promotional material, don’t exactly follow this streamlining, but their designs also show how advanced the effects for these movies have gotten, to the point where you may end up half-distracted by just seeing small parts moving and interacting seamlessly with each other and their environment.

The voice acting for the robots is also very good, with Optimus Prime once again being played by Peter Cullen, who sounds as great as ever and displays his experience with the character well (although the character himself seems a little more blood-thirsty in this movie than in previous ones). While the robot characters’ voices were very well-cast, perhaps one of the more surprising ones is John Goodman playing the Autobot Hound, though he still does a good job with his portrayal of the character. Similarly, I found it surprising to see Kelsey Grammer involved in a Transformers production, not to mention Stanley Tucci, but they each give strong and believable performances in their roles. Titus Welliver also did a good job as James Savoy, Harold Attinger's assistant in the movie; it was a fairly small role, but Welliver does well enough with the character to make him memorable.

The music is good as well, with an amazing score by Steve Jablonsky (with some additional music by Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex) that helps set the tone of each scene really well. Other artists have songs in the movie, but a more well-known song would probably be “Battle Cry” by Imagine Dragons; in general though, the soundtrack for this movie is really good (and no Linkin Park in sight).

How is this not awesome?

One thing I will bring up though is how obvious some of the product placement is. In one scene is a rather obvious placement for Beats by Dr. Dre and another later on features noticeable advertising for Bud Light. As previous films have shown, even the robots themselves are not immune to this, as there is one shown briefly that evidently turns into an Oreo truck. While this wasn’t too distracting in the long run and could have been worse, this can be a distraction for some, especially since the advertising of car brands like Chevrolet are a bit more subtle by comparison. Overall, this isn’t too bad, since it doesn’t take too much away from the story, but it still deserves mention.

Another thing to mention is how China is involved in the movie, being where much of the third act takes place. There seems to be a recent trend in Hollywood blockbusters where special attention is given to China in order to appeal to a Chinese audience, not that it's necessarily a bad thing, which includes Iron Man 3 having special footage made for its Chinese release. This might also explain why Chinese actress Bingbing Li was cast in one of the main roles and why there was a reality show in China (called Transformers 4 Chinese Actors Talent Search Reality Show) for contestants to appear in the movie, as well as why this movie had its world premiere in Hong Kong. While this may be one of the biggest examples of this trend, due to how much of a presence China has in the climax, the action present wasn't altered in any significant way by this and, admittedly, at least provides a change in scenery for the climactic battle (as each movie seems to have said fight in a new location each time, with the first being in Mission City and the second in Egypt) and allowed it to avoid becoming a total repeat of Dark of the Moon's battle in Chicago. Hopefully, the next movie will have its climactic fight take place somewhere other than China in order to keep the action fresh.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is an improvement over Dark of the Moon, but I honestly also found it to be the best of the live-action Transformers movies. The Transformers themselves get more development with a well-written human cast that doesn’t get in the way, the special effects are even more impressive than before, and the movie really knows how to deliver on the action. Overall, the movie also takes itself a bit more seriously, which also definitely helps with its overall quality. Fans of the live-action movies and Transformers in general will definitely get some enjoyment out of this movie, though those who aren’t big fans of the series should weigh their options. Even with a running time just shy of 3 hours, I ended up really enjoying this movie and I can’t wait to see it again (and again).

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