Hitchcock often times compared the movies to rollercoasters. Director Michael Bay has all but forgotten that there’s a movie at the end of that analogy. On the other hand, Bay has proven that his films are critic proof with Transformer: Age of Extinction being the worst reviewed movie in the series with an 18% out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, yet still making however many millions of dollars at the box office and receiving applause upon the credits rolling.
With the release of a new Bay movie, comes the inevitable backlash of critics and film snobs against the ad populum argument for a series whose polarizing reception unintentionally suggests that we’re not experiencing the same product. For those shelling out 20 bucks to enjoy a Saturday evening, the film is comparable to spending an afternoon at Six Flags. For those who treat films as a storytelling art with all the responsibility that demands, Age of Extinction is a stupid, convoluted piece of content marketing without a spark of narrative energy.
Story, not unlike in an action game, is here for contextual grounding. Narrative in Age of Extinction is thematic dressing like in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, explaining the bare minimum – why there are boats, why there are pirates, why there are splashes. The plot consists of three acts of events leading to explosions. Imagine a rollercoaster with a track that only consisted of a single drop. Now imagine that drop lasted for 165 minutes. That’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. Bay films are notorious for their lack of pacing and this one is no different. Spectacle takes precedence over character, story, or dialogue.
Best lines of the film?
Generic Hero: You don’t have a warrant!
Generic Villain: My face is my warrant.
Yes, that really happened.
Speaking of generic characters, Bay and writer, Ehren Kruger, have this bad habit of confusing character with racist stereotypes. The samurai transformer in traditional Japanese armor with a broken accent is particularly cringe-worthy. Like wtf, how do you not realize that your out-of-nowhere depiction of a transformer as Japanese is thoroughly offensive? Moreover, the fact is that the inclusion of this character has nothing to do with anything.
Why do robot cars have a nationality anyway? He’s not even a Japanese car. He’s a Bugatti. This is blatant laziness. Instead of shaping a personality through clever exposition, Bay and Kruger say what’s the obvious way to make a character distinct? Race, duh bro! The insistence that the character keep speaking in faux-ancient Chinese proverbs for the purpose of generating laughs in insensitive American audiences doesn’t help Bay’s case either. Bonus racism: All Asian people know martial arts.
I’m not even going to go into the objectification of Nicola Peltz’s character, framing whole shots between the legs of a diagetically 17 year old girl.
The unfortunate truth about Age of Extinction is that it’s constructed on an audience call-to-action model. In marketing, buying funnels are specifically designed to get a customer down buyers’ journeys and to partake in certain behavior, the call-to-action, like get you to click the “put in shopping cart” button. Ultimately, the call-to-action is about selling you something.
You’ve “decided” to go watch a Transformer‘s movie way before you’re waiting in line at the box office. There’s a well designed and persistent trail of content that leads you there. Trailers, print adverts, talk show interviews, etc. Each is timed with precision and intent, edging you closer to “two tickets for the 7 o’clock, please.”
Age of Extinction is constructed in that very manner. Action scenes, comedic relief, romances, moody silhouetted sundown shots backed by some melancholy rock jam are all calculated to produce certain viewer behaviors. Art many times is, of course, about audience responses, but the motives here are to get an audience to agree that what they watched is actually good.
Why do theme parks exist? To make a profit from people’s enjoyment, right? But what aspect do you think is given priority and what is the lasting quality of that enjoyment? A casino is quite effective at entertaining people, but you wouldn’t hear anyone arguing that Las Vegas’s entertainment is first and foremost for the people. There’s a reason the saying goes “the house always wins.”
Now, Mr. Bay, a film made with the intent of telling a great story, of making people empathize with real characters or causes, a visual narrative that places people before explosions – we call that a film with a soul.