Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Less is More than Meets the Eye

One city shall stand, one shall fall.
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Much has been said about Michael Bay and the Transformers franchise under his watch, and I’m certainly no stranger to opining about the writers that normally are in charge of these films. Fortunately Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have gone on to ruin somebody else’s franchise, and Ehren Kruger who previously played third fiddle to them has taken the reigns. With them gone, we finally get to see how much the dreaded duo influenced the direction of these movies, and how much stemmed from Michael Bay just wanting to blow stuff up.

At the core of Transformers: Age of Extinction there’s a really great movie about an altruistic alien race of transforming robots whose spirit has been broken by the willingness of humans to screw them over, and the single dad who restores that spirit after a chance encounter with their leader. Or there’s a story about a cynical government bureaucrat stuck in an “us or them” mentality and exemplifying the axiom “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Or it’s an action packed take on the “should” vs. “could” of technological development. Or…well you get the picture.

Maybe Bay & Co. just got tired of hearing how there’s no plot to these movies and decided to give us every plot they could possibly think up, because this one is stuffed to the gills. That is not to say these plot threads are raised and forgotten as they were in the Orci/Kurtzman scripts, but they are developed at the expense of one another. Subplots and scenes that would normally be chopped out in the interest of time/sequels simply stay in the movie as though the first cut got canned and shipped without ever going through the editing process. It becomes a veritable round robin of story arcs that eventually meet up with some robotic dinosaurs for Bay’s patented CGI Explosion Fiesta.

And as much as I love me some epic dinobot action, they’re really not relevant to any of the story arcs in this movie. They’re just an attempt to up the ante in a franchise that can’t really get any more filled with things going boom. It’s unfortunate because, well, giant transforming dinosaurs are perhaps the one thing we haven’t seen before in these movies, and it’s a shame to waste them.

At the same time, Bay leaves out the smaller, transitional scenes that could glue those cool sequences together rather than cut the redundant action bits. It would take a few scant moments to show us the relative positions of characters and their travel routes to alleviate the feeling that everyone conveniently teleports to where they need to be, but then we wouldn’t have time for Optimus Prime riding a mechanical firebreathing T-Rex. At least not without officially crossing the three hour mark this movie sneaks under.

The action sequences drag on forever as a result, even more so than what I previously complained about in Man of Steel. Funnily enough, a truck riding a dinosaur to fight a small army of walking cars while being harassed by a spaceship trying to vacuum them all up still caused less devastation than the new Superman.

There is one good thing about the movie being overlong, and that’s getting to hear Steve Jablonsky do his thing. He handles the score once again, and he’s pretty much the only guy who has done his job perfectly every time so far.

Despite the editing problems, Bay & Co. did learn some lessons from the prior movies. The transformers themselves are more starkly and solidly colored this time, and the use of shaky cam and hypercutting was lessened, although not eliminated. In any case, it’s much easier to tell which robots are fighting which, and they’re given considerably more personality this time around, not that it’s a high bar to clear.

The toilet humor departed with OrciKurtz and has been replaced by mostly witty banter, which is something right up Mark Wahlberg’s alley. He leads an entirely new cast that includes Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci, both of whom never disappoint. All three of their characters were interesting in their own way, with Tucci’s even breaking a long overdone trope, but they’re unfortunately all handicapped by the spinning wheel of subplots I mentioned earlier. With something like five villains vying for the title of Big Bad and a dozen good guys running around, nobody can retain focus long enough to feel like a fleshed out character.

That’s really the bottom line with this one: the clutter turns what could’ve been a remarkably interesting summer popcorn flick into too much of a mess to shine. It’s not as ridiculous as Revenge of the Fallen, nor as irritating as Dark of the Moon, but even the original Transformers was more coherent. Too disappointing to recommend outright, I can only say that nobody does over-the-top action better than Michael Bay and there’s no better place for it than in a theater. So if that’s your thing, go ahead and add to Age of Extinction’s $300 million worldwide gross.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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