Transformers 4 is a tricky film to review. What to say? Judging by the general responses I've seen, three options present themselves. One is simply to note that it is a bad movie. And it is. It is a very bad movie: noisy, shallow, incoherent at both surface and deeper levels, dreadfully overlong. It is sound and fury signifying less than zero. The acting is perfunctory; the action sequences are muddled and jarring and lack rhythm; the story is nonsense; the whole is a charmless bust. Quite apart from anything else: the film is staggeringly monotonous and unengaging. It commits the worst sin of an action blockbuster. It's boring.
But that doesn't get us very far, review-wise. So a second approach has emerged, which is to treat the whole thing as a kind of postmodern joke—to write articles like this io9 piece arguing it's an avant-garde critique of patriarchy cunningly draped in the lineaments of multiplex idiocy. Now I love me some ludic postmodern deconstructive fun, really I do. But this kind of thing doesn't seem to me to capture the essence of the movie I have just (my ears are still humming; my brain is still wincing) sat through. So we turn to option three: the meta-commentary. Sure, say reviewers, this is a dumb and rubbish movie; but it is a dumb movie symptomatic of some fascinating shifts in culture more broadly. Did you know, for instance, that it's done really really well in China?
Well all right. But to write an account of that aspect of the film (in the first weeks after its opening it made $200 million in the States but $450 million in other territories, the largest tranche of which was East Asian; its global launch took place in Hong Kong; it stages its climactic beat-em-, shoot-em-, robot-em-up on Chinese soil in a patent attempt to ingratiate itself with that particular audience . . . and so on) without encountering the text itself, Bay's actual movie, seems to me an abdication of responsibility. There's something else going on here.
What, though? A concept whose main strength used to be its merchandizable simplicity is here compacted and confused with several new layers. It used to be that there were good metal aliens called Autobots who transform from automobiles into gigantic robots, and they fought bad metal aliens called Decepticons who similarly transform. Now things are more complex, with various new players in the game. First, there are human-built giant machines that transform from cars into swarms of flying mah-jong tiles and then into giant robots. But the twist is: these turn out, via some scriptwriterly hand waving, actually to be resurrected evil zombie versions of the Decepticons. Then there's a sort of giant intergalactic bounty hunter robot, buzzing about the galaxy in his spaceship collecting and imprisoning giant robot dinosaurs, slime-spitting aliens, and myriad others, and who wants Optimus Prime to complete his collection. Or something. And then there are the mysterious "Makers," the original creators of all the Transformers; an element the filmmakers appear to have lifted from Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012). If highly paid teams of suits sitting in air-conditioned rooms in LA have really decided that the best way to make new movies is to rip off Prometheus, of all films, then something has gone very wrong somewhere.
Against this hurling metal backdrop we get our human-scale story. Mark "I Still Think Of Him As Marky Mark" Wahlberg plays a wacky inventor single dad with the deeply improbable name of Cade Yeager. Perhaps we’re supposed to go: "right, like the giant robots in Pacific Rim . . ." That's certainly the level on which the film's allusiveness works. Now, once upon a time "eccentric inventor father" characters would have been played by a white-haired wrinkled energetic man in glasses. Not here. Wahlberg still sports the heavily upholstered body he acquired for Bay's last movie, the body-builder comedy thriller Pain & Gain (2013); and so he plays the character as a musclebound, boyish-faced, and rather breathless action man. Yeager is raising his toothsome seventeen-year-old daughter Tessa alone on a farm in the middle of Middle America somewhere. He has forbidden Tessa from dating; but she of course has disobeyed him and is seeing a hunky professional racer called, I think (it was dark in the cinema and my notes aren't clear) Dyson Airblade. This geezer was raised in Texas, and has been dating Tessa since they met at school; but his father—who abandoned him when he was five—was Irish; so Dyson speaks throughout with a thick Waterford brogue. I don't know why. There's a deeply strange interlude in the story in which Yeager points out that Tessa is under the legal age of consent, and threatens to call the police; whereupon the boyfriend flashes a permit he has somehow acquired under the Texas "Romeo and Juliet" laws that licenses the relationship. Is that a thing? Do Texas courts actually issue permits to allow twentysomething men to have sex with underage girls? The fact that Tessa is so young adds nothing else to the storyline, so this weird detour left me scratching my head as to why the scriptwriters thought it merited inclusion in the first place.
Anyway, Yeager, rummaging through a derelict cinema for junk he can use in his inventions, discovers Optimus Prime, in truck form. How a huge truck ended up parked inside a derelict cinema (how did they even get it through the doors?) is not only not explained, it's not even treated as weird; a fact which speaks volumes about the logical coherence of the Transformerverse as a whole.
Yeager takes Optimus home and mends him. Then a secret Government task force turns up at his farm in force, pursuant to their orders to find and destroy all robots, good and evil. "Cemetery Wind" this group is called, a name more flatulent than sinister. Their head of operations is a nasty CIA officer played with hammy verve by Kelsey Grammer—a sort of CIAed-Show Bob, evil through and through. Why does Bob wants to destroy all robots? To, he insists, keep humanity safe. Though it later turns out he wants to destroy the robots in order to collect a secret $5 billion reward from Stanley Tucci's Tony-Stark-lite playboy businessman. Or something. Tucci is a pretty good actor, actually, capable of performance of nuance and dignity. Not here, though; here he's all gurning and shrieking and mugging, all the time. I assume having looked at the script he tucci da money and ran.
Tucci's labs have uncovered the secret of the Transformers' ability to transform. Transformers, it seems, are made out of "Transformium," in much the same way that Michael Bay movies are made out of "Boredium." But there's not enough Transformium for Tucci's manufacturing process. This is why the Cemetery Wind black ops CIA operation has been hunting down old Autobots to harvest the magic metal out of their bodies. But it's still not enough; so Sideshow Bob struck a deal with the Intergalactic Bounty Hunter robot to deliver him Optimus Prime in return for the "seed," a surfboard-sized alien technology part nuclear bomb, part Star Trek Wrath of Khan Genesis device. It turns whole planets into wastelands of Transformium, which can then be harvested. The movie's pre-credit sequence shows the Makers destroying the dinosaurs—our own, blameless Earthly dinosaurs—with this very weapon, in the backward and abysm of time. Why they did this, indeed why we are even shown this, is not vouchsafed. It has no bearing on the rest of the story.
Anyhow, Tucci and Bob plan to detonate the weapon in a desert somewhere. Or something. But one of the human-built simulacra Transformers has somehow absorbed the soul of Chief Decepticon Megatron, and he plans to explode the seed in Hong Kong, killing millions, and possibly (hence the movie's subtitle? is it?) destroying the entire planet. Or something.
These are the pieces in play. At this point I'm guessing the writers jotted a sequence of random things down on cards (with the budget Bay had to play with, I daresay these cards were professionally printed and laminated), which were then shuffled and dealt out in random order, including:
- A scene in a derivatively Giger-style alien spaceship interior.
- A James Bond Die Another Day-style motorcycle/car chase through narrow Hong Kong streets.
- A gigantic fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex robot being ridden by Optimus Prime waving a sword almost as big as he is.
- A surfer dude character getting literally turned to stone.
- Two guys duking it out whilst clinging precariously to the side of a really tall apartment block.
- A giant metal sky anus that floats over cities magnetically sucking up cars, ships and buildings, before shitting them back down onto said city.
- A bunch of giant robots coming together in the Grand Canyon like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s gang meeting in their "hole in the wall."
- Our heroes chased by giant robot dogs along really high-up cables, like cable-car cables perhaps, or anchor chains in the sky, or something.
- Assorted motorway chases, corridor chases, cornfield chases, sky chases.
It's all aggregated to create the impression of one of those slightly feverish dreams you have after over-indulging in beer and spicy curry. That's your movie.
The majority of the film, by mass, is action sequences; and these are exactly what you'd expect. The descriptor "Bay-esque" gives you the gist: cacophonous and visually rather puzzling set-pieces that outstay their welcome by between five and ten minutes. Crashing cars, explosions, guns going off, mammoth-scale punchings and sword-stabbings and so on all punctuated with drawn-out slow-mo sequences, usually of giant robots performing improbable Nijinski leaps over lorries or over one another.
The other thing Bay essays is "comedy." I clamp that word inside scare-quotes advisedly. Bay cannot do comedy. Watching his scenes of "banter" between the main characters is a strange and rather unsettling experience. It only dawns on you belatedly: oh, wait, this is supposed to be funny. In places it achieves an almost Beckettian estrangement. Not really, of course. Not even in Beckett's little-known late "trampsformers" play Waiting For Godotron do we see dialogue as inconsequential as that of Age of Extinction.
And then it struck me, like lightning from a clear blue sky. The key. This isn't really a movie about giant fighting robots, or about special effects and explosions, or even about cracking the lucrative Chinese market. This is a movie about obviousness.
At one point in the story our heroes are inside a car, trying to drive the "bomb" out of Hong Kong. They end up inside a building. To be honest, I can't remember how they do; but there they are. Then the gigantic magnetic sky-anus floats overhead and draws the car and the bomb up to the ceiling of their room. Our heroes scrabble out of the car, all except the muscular handsome Irish professional-race-car driver Dyson, who can't undo his seatbelt in time. Finally he does, and tumbles from the car, just before the magnetic sky anus yanks it through the bursting ceiling and high into the air. Then the sky anus switches from suck-up to shit-down, and the car starts to fall. Mark Wahlberg's Yeager character, lying on the debris-strewn floor, looks up through the hole in the ceiling at the plummeting vehicle and yells: "That's the car!"
Well. If we gathered together the twelve cleverest men and women in the country and sequestered them in a closed room for the weekend with the job of deciding the most obvious thing a person might say under those circumstances, I don't think they would do a better job than the scriptwriters have here.
But that's the whole film. Everything about it is not only obvious, it is in some sense about obviousness. The whole premise is robots tall as houses that "hide" by disguising as cars and lorries. But they don't really hide. They could hardly be more obvious. We cannot even describe them as "hidden in plain sight," because they are simply not hidden. Everyone can see them. How could they not, when they are so big? They figure, in other words, as externalizations of the core truth of Michael Bay's vision of the world. It's obvious. It's unmissable. That's why Marky Mark is so improbably muscled, because that's what Schwarzeneggering yourself over multiple visits to the gym does to a man's body. It makes it more obvious. If there's a hero-heroine kiss in the Bayiverse, it must happen so that their lips meet right in front of the setting sun—obviously. If there is a notionally secret CIA black ops operation, it has to involve freeways being exploded and absolutely enormous alien spaceships floating over our skyscrapers ("That's my asset," says Evil CIA Dr Frasier Crane, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world). A human-scale fight might be missed; so Bay works to make his fights much bigger, and to draw attention to them with literal fireworks and explosions and that shuddering ear-dinning vibrating bass-note wuhw-wuhw-wuhw-wuhw-wuhw sound effect that is the sonic shorthand for gigantic metal creatures in motion. Hence the painfully literal-minded dialogue, the exposition, the repetition. To make it all obvious to everyone.
And in this inheres what is interesting in Michael Bay's vision as a director. He is a kind of anti Henry James. Instead of seeing the social world as one of buried significance and secret yearning, of passion occluded by social niceties, the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendos—instead of that Bay really thinks the world is obvious. Fighting is gigantic boxers pummelling one another. War is explosions and buildings collapsing and air superiority. Love is the kiss between the stick-thin supermodel in hot pants and a handsome young body-builder whose job is racing race-cars. There's nothing else. All that other stuff is just us trying to fool ourselves, is us clinging to the notion that nuance and complexity and not-judging-on-appearances can save us from our ontological monotony. It can't, says Bay. This is what the world is. The world is obvious. And he shows us. In Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the main character has a hideous epiphany in which she sees God as a gigantic, evil-faced, rapist spider. Bay's dark glass reflects a more nihilistic vision: everything is in motion; everything is expensive; everything is obvious. The cosmos is defined by its clunking, crashing, pugilistic, monotonous obviousness.
God: what if he's right?
One other thing, which might be considered a spoiler in a film with a more coherent or linear plotline. Towards the end of this movie Optimus Prime fires rockets out of his feet and shoots into space. Was he always able to do that? To fly, I mean? If so, why was he noodling around on the freeways as a haulage truck? Maybe I haven’t been paying attention.