Friday, July 4, 2014

Second Opinion - Transformers: Age of Extinction

Of all of the franchises to have been born from the eighties, it seems that few have had an enduring legacy or lasting impression quite like Transformers. Beginning with 1984’s The Transformers comic from Marvel Comics and cartoon from Sunbow Productions, the franchise has had several incarnations spanning a rich history and complex multiverse that few can fully wrap their head around, with a new series every few years and continuity so dense that TF Wiki has even had to designate continuity families to keep track of it all (because, officially, everything is canon in some way, even if it’s so incompatible that it becomes a micro-continuity all on its own). Like Beast Wars, Robots in Disguise, the Unicron Trilogy (Armada, Energon and Cybertron) and countless Japanese-only sequel anime before it, the 2007 live-action movie marked the creation of a new continuity, the Movie continuity, which has gone on to include two sequels, Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon, and inspire the creation of Transformers Animated along with Hasbro’s new Aligned Continuity (Prime, Rescue Bots, High Moon’s Cybertron games and the upcoming 2015 Robots in Disguise cartoon) due to renewed public interest generated by the original 2007 film (interestingly, the Movie continuity also has its own share of micro-continuities).

Now, in 2014, the movies have received their fourth entry/third sequel, Age of Extinction, which also has the honor of representing 30 years of the Transformers brand. Since I’m a fan of the franchise, though not to the same extent as my brother, I’ve witnessed a lot of the aforementioned continuities, as well as all three of the previous live-action films (I’ve actually seen each movie multiple times for one reason or another). To briefly address my opinions of those movies, I enjoyed Transformers (2007), really didn’t like Revenge of the Fallen and found Dark of the Moon to be a major improvement compared to ROTF. When I heard about Age of Extinction, I figured I would see it anyway, but, as with my brother, I became more genuinely interested when I saw more information and trailers roll in. This will probably spoil this second opinion a little, but when I saw a free screening at Paramount, I found myself to actually like Age of Extinction to the point where I no longer simply liked parts of it, but rather I liked it as a movie; I’d never hail it as one of the all-time greats, but as a Transformers movie (that is, a movie associated with the 30-year-old brand), it felt like a real step in the right direction. This week, I got to see it again in 3D, but this time in IMAX as well, which I feel has only enhanced the overall experience.

With IMAX, you can see all of the details of each individual ship.

There’s not much I can really say about the movie itself that hasn’t already been covered extensively in the earlier spoiler-free review, especially since I actually agree with all of it. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t give a quick recap on what Age of Extinction does right. The story is written solidly, with a greater emphasis on storytelling and striking the right balance between the humans and the robots. This time around, the Autobots not only receive more screen time, but have more developed and well-defined personalities that make them more memorable. Lockdown (Mark Ryan), a bounty hunter hell-bent on capturing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and eradicating the remaining Autobots, is actually a pretty intimidating villain since he not only has clear motives and goals, but is also savvy and relentless in his pursuit of those goals. Granted, Optimus has more anger towards humans in this film, but it’s also a little understandable considering that he and the Autobots saved Earth from destruction three times and they’re repaid by being mercilessly killed (plus he’s been betrayed a few times already).

The humans are also written in a way that they don’t get in the way of the film’s enjoyment, with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) as a fun protagonist who is overprotective of his daughter, Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), and not very approving of her relationship with Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor). As the movie goes on, the three of them resolve their differences in a way that is very realistic, including the smart decision of not talking things over in the middle of a war zone. Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci also give strong performances respectively as Harold Attinger and Joshua Joyce, two humans who are clearly defined and understood in their end goals. Age of Extinction also benefits from having a strong supporting cast, featuring the likes of Bingbing Li and Titus Welliver. Even the voice actors for the robots give great performances, with John Goodman, John DiMaggio and Ken Watanabe respectively voicing Hound, Crosshairs and Drift in ways that only enhance their personalities.

Mark Wahlberg turns out a good performance as Cade Yeager.

As for the script, the more serious approach, combined with inspiration from multiple incarnations of the brand, makes for a more enjoyable experience, since the stakes are more clearly defined (noticing a pattern?) and the plot is much easier to follow, in fact flowing at a pretty quick pace in spite of the 165-minute runtime. The humor is also much smarter, throwing away all of the vulgar humor in favor of jokes that are funny in their own right and relate more to the situation at hand. Action scenes are handled better this time around as well, with a few smaller skirmishes, as opposed to one really big fight at the end, that are easy to follow thanks to the improved robot designs along with one substantial difference: the humans, rather than being reactionary, are more action-oriented. The protagonists actually contribute to the fights, especially Cade, who manages to fight pretty well in his own right against the antagonists, human and robot alike.

Having said all of that, the film was also better to watch a second time in IMAX. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have done some really incredible work over the course of the live-action films and Age of Extinction is no exception, in fact providing what may be the best effects seen thus far in a Transformers film (barring a couple extremely brief moments). When viewed in IMAX, one can see a lot more, perhaps previously unseen, detail on the robots that is easy to get lost in. I spent a lot of this viewing doing just that and found it mind-blowing just what the studio is capable of. Several shots are also much crisper and many 3D shots are enhanced by the uptick in visual quality, helped by the fact that the screen appeared to cover my entire vision as though it were immediately in front of me (in a good way). However, while I did enjoy the IMAX version more, I also noticed that the aspect ratio would sometimes change in a slightly jarring way, as well as the film quality (but only very slightly), making it pretty obvious which shots were filmed with IMAX cameras. Perhaps the print would have benefitted from having a more seamless transition between the two types.

So, is Age of Extinction an improvement over the previous movies? Yes, and though it’s not exactly perfect (what with the heavy sequel bait and all), it takes several steps in the right direction that make it likable not just as a Transformers movie, but also as a movie in general. Fans of Transformers should give this a shot and I would encourage those who have seen even one of the previous films to check it out and form their own opinion on it (the same applies to those who are on the fence). However, if you only plan to view it once, I would highly recommend viewing it in 3D IMAX due to the superior sound and film quality, the latter of which can let you see even the tiniest details and just what ILM is capable of. While the first three films are very debatable in terms of their quality, Age of Extinction is a worthy representative of the thirtieth anniversary of Transformers and, as the first in a new trilogy with an overarching plot, has me very intrigued for the first time about just where the Movie continuity will go.

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