'Transformium,' remember that word, it will become more important shortly. You have to say this in the preview voice over guy's voice: 'Just when you thought that Michael Bay couldn't out 'Michael Bay' Michael Bay, Michael Bay did it.' Transformers: Age of Extinction is Bay and writer Ehren Kruger playing 'will it blend' with decades of blockbuster spectacle.
65 Million years ago the Earth was shaken by an extinction event, the cause though was a superior robotic waste using their technology to turn living organisms into 'Transformium.' Fast forward to present day and research group KSI have found metal dinosaur fossils in the Artic that could reshape our perspective of history. After the Battle of Chicago (that coincidentally no one remembers as a cohesive 'something' but rather as a series of fragments of metal, crumbling buildings and Shia LeBouf) humanity has taken somewhat drastic measures with robots in disguise. CIA black ops teams are cutting a swathe through Autobots and Decepticons alike with the help of a mysterious robotic assassin hell bent on getting Optimus Prime but he's nowhere to be found. That is until Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and Lucas (T.J Miller) find an old husk of a mack truck that's more than meets the eye.
You're going to be surprised to hear this but there are actually a number of things that Transformers: Age of Extinction does extremely well. Increasingly throughout the first three films the human characters where dwarfed by mutating masses of metal bending and contorting into each other in some of the most inconceivable and emotionally inconsequential fight scenes. Bay instead has the action, especially robot fighting happening with our characters in the thick of the fray. Debris flying, flames licking and crashing in and around the boom crash opera of these behemoths keeps you immersed in the action far more than before. Despite the fact that you're seeing it wielded for evil, the Transformers can be taken down by humans; we're not simply insects scuttling beneath them.
There are hints of self-reflexivity and awareness in Bay and Kruger in the introduction of engineer Cade (Wahlberg) and Lucas (Miller). They're being hired to repair a projection system in a dilapidated theatre, rendered useless in an age where robots exist. During a conversation with the owner he cites the age of sequels and remakes as signalling the death knell on getting along to the movies, just as he points out his love for Howard Hawks' El Dorado. You can feel Bay tipping his cap to the audience, getting them back to the theatre once again and instead of his forebears using the American West as their sandbox, the entire world (and beyond) is his domain for his shape-shifting Hasbro toys.
One has to acknowledge that he's got such an identifiably conflicted but mesmerising aesthetic. He lavishes his subjects with glorious adoration. Watching him play out his 'drama' on the world's biggest IMAX screen (IMAX Sydney) is something to behold. Everything's framed to cast them as symbols for good and evil in the grandest terms. Even though you know you're being manipulated by his visual power struggle, it's fun to getting taken along with.
Transformium. What is it? Stanley Tucci's tech genius and CEO of KSI Joshua tells us it's the metal that makes up Transformers. Why is it important? Well, resident bad guy Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has been using his black ops team 'Cemetery Wind' and his asset - a Transformer Boba Fett - to catch and kill autobots and decepticons alike to break them down into this element. Joshua is quick to explain that we don't need Transformers any more if we control their element. We can make new and better versions. It's in this moment that Bay shows us what this entire project is; he's using this shape-shifter to re-write the history of blockbusters through his very unique prism.
You can see the impressions of countless films in every fabric of Transformers: Age of Extinction. It's mind boggling. Cade's barn laboratory feels like Tony Stark's from Iron Man; the enhanced 'Transformium' technology mutating and swirling like liquid is Terminator 2: Judgement Day's T-1000 by way of J.J Abrams' Super 8 alien ship; the alien bounty hunter and his revelations of creators in time before the existence of the Autobots and decpeticons is half way between Star Wars' Boba Fett and Prometheus' 'creators,'; speaking of Boba, he also flies a ship that looks straight from the Alien-verse and the mind of H.R Giger; the opening of the film plays like the opening of Jurassic Park if someone strapped it to a table and injected Wolverine's adamantium into it; Stanley Tucci's tech company is called KSI, a short stretch to think that he's riffing on the found of SKYNET (KSI - SKY) Miles Bennet Dyson from Terminator 2: Judgement Day; also more references to Coen Brothers films including casting frequent collaborator John Goodman to voice Hound. The one final indignation is cannibalising central trio of Armageddon. It's part homage, part desecration. Bay's style is to idolise and destroy and whether that's the literal destruction or just stupification it feels like you're looking at the charred remains of the films you love.
Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011) may be the only other film with product placement so overt that it's magnificent. Of course there's the car porn, which the Fast and Furious franchise has been doing its best to trump, but when it's the Bud Light that Walhberg's Cade drinks with defiance after surviving a crash landing in a space ship; or a transformer tumbling through a double decker bus only leave standing the Victoria's Secret advertisement hanging on the back it's so good you're almost expecting all the characters to be wearing formula one drivers suits to ensure that they become the walking ads they've been reduced to.
All this and I haven't yet mentioned the performers. Wahlberg perfectly compliments and reflects the range of emotions of his robotic co stars. Peltz's Tessa is the perfect blue eyed, blonde that Bay's lens loves to gawk at in situations of near death. She's a damsel, a very beautiful one, but a screaming, bad decision making, lack of situational awareness, damsel. T.J Miller walked off of the set of Silicon Valley, into a near identical role as Lucas. Jack Reynor's Shane is mostly in the picture to stoke the fires of Cade's infuriation, with a hard to place Irish brogue.
To say that Transformers: Age of Extinction is the Frankenstein's monster of blockbusters and Bay is the mad scientist, would be doing a disservice to the Frankenstein story. Imagine a little boy, playing with his Transformers in front of a mural that he's created from clippings of his favourite films. Now give that boy a couple of hundred million dollars; voilà.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Michael Bay Written by: Ehren Kruger Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, John Goodman (voice), T.J. Miller, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Jack Reynor, Peter Cullen (voice), Ken Watanabe (voice), Thomas Lennon, Bingbing Li, John DiMaggio (voice), Titus Welliver