I begrudgingly admire Michael Bay. I don’t like the Transformers movies, which he directed from scripts by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci and Ehren Kruger, and I’m not convinced anyone else does either, but they look shiny, make loud noises and generate obscene amounts of revenue. With no incentive other than to reap billions of dollars from the box office, he’s hit upon the most impressive of magic formulas, directing enormously profitable blockbusters that no one can muster enough enthusiasm to admit they don’t really enjoy.
I’ve only seen the first two Transformers movies, and you couldn’t pay me enough to see any more. The first one has its moments, but by the second, all traces of fun and coherence have been tossed out in favor of some of the most technically complex, structurally massive, emotionally bankrupt action sequences ever realized on film. These films are immense achievements in technological fortitude – the battles are pitched at a scale worthy of the size of the title characters. Bay shoots these movies as spectacles of war, forgetting that genuinely satisfying war movies deal with people or ideas first and spectacle second, even if the two are fundamentally linked. Done right, substance-free spectacle can be as stirring as cinema gets. But as impressive as it is that Bay managed to construct “realistic” robots that convincingly appear to emerge from everyday machinery, this achievement means nothing without a sense of proportion, or narrative consequence, or emotional weight, or comedic skill, or even visual beauty.
Transformers and particularly Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have none of these things. Characters? Nah. Does anyone remember a single thing about Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the unsuspecting team who became the human center of the Transformers enterprise in the first movie and rejoined the team in the second movie because…that’s what the script told him to do, I guess? LaBeouf had appealing charisma in those days, before he careened off the deep end wearing a paper bag on his head. But the character never made an impression, and his disposability ultimately proved a virtue. When LaBeouf made it clear that being the star of a popular franchise was no longer on his bucket list, Bay swapped him out for Mark Wahlberg, who was apparently jonesing to do a movie his kids would enjoy. I can’t imagine a worse punishment for two children than sitting them down to watch their father get swallowed up in the gaping maw of a Michael Bay movie, but I can’t fault Wahlberg for wanting to make a quick load of bucks.
But I don’t have to support his quest for riches, or anyone else’s. I’m not sure there’s ever been a movie that has appealed to me less than Transformers: Age of Extinction, which clocks in at an utterly absurd 165 minutes and doesn’t appear to have radically improved upon the original “trilogy.” I’ve never walked out of a theater in the middle of a movie, but I came close approximately 20% (or three hours) through Revenge of the Fallen, which revels in the obliteration and features obnoxiously overcaffeinated actors shouting their lines for no apparent reason from beginning to end. The presence of Stanley Tucci, Titus Welliver, the voice of John Goodman and even a star turn from Wahlberg, who can be quite likable in the right context, won’t be enough to get me to pay for a ticket to Age of Extinction, just as Frances McDormand and John Malkovich couldn’t pull me into the previous installment. I only wish the title of this one were more literal. Alas, the series will likely continue, if early box-office returns are any indication. My only hope is that the people who go recognize these for what they are: expensive, cynical time sucks that looks like a million bucks and feels like a thousand pounds.
(Instead of spending four hours of your time trekking out to the theater to see Transformers: Age of Extinction this weekend, spend a few minutes reading Roger Ebert’s perfect review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.)