Some movies, we see to be entertained. Some, we see for a transcendent experience, to challenge our intellect, to learn new things about the human condition, to gain perspective. And then some movies are like cancerous tissue; they perform none of these functions but sustain to sustain, drawing resources from product placement and heavily stipulated investments to ensure a profit over the budget required to pay actors who don't care about the project and bloated special effects studios. 2014's Transformers: The Age of Extinction is such a movie, and yet it's also the highest grossing movie of the year. Does this mean movie goers like cancer? Maybe.
The film's supposed popularity is somewhat mystifying, actually. I've never heard anyone talk about it--I don't know anyone who's seen it. When I google fans of Transformers, I come across rather fringe feeling fandoms, with wikis that are a fraction of the size of most other fandoms. I've always had the impression that Transformers enjoyed about a tenth of the popularity of Star Trek and I don't see anything to change that impression. So who are all these people filling the seats?
The movie isn't dumb fun. It's not even really dumb, despite scenes like a helicopter shooting missiles at a semi-trailer driving in a straight line and missing, or a scene where a guy gets off an elevator because four people are too heavy for it to operate--and visible in the background is a sign reading "Maximum Capacity: 9 People". It's not dumb because it's not really trying. There's never a moment where I felt like--here's a concept or an idea the filmmakers wanted to come across. Dialogue hangs in odd ADR over slapdash jump cuts. People speak exposition at each other, explaining things both participants are obviously both aware of and very little of it makes sense.
The Autobots (the good Transformers) are being hunted down by the CIA (headed by Kelsey Grammer), backed by evil Transformers who work for the extraterrestrial creators of the Transformers. Apparently "cyberforming", creating the Transformers on Earth, is responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs but it's never explained how or why. They talk about melting all the cities on Earth for metal to make new Transformers but what that had to do with the dinosaurs is anyone's guess.
Mark Wahlberg shows up in what looks like a clip from a country music video or a Republican political ad. This isn't ass kicking, The Departed Mark Wahlberg, this is weird, breathy The Happening Mark Wahlberg, who explains to his daughter, the Megan Fox replacement, that she hasn't been allowed to date for years, as she knows.
But she's secretly dating an Irish drag racer who ends up saving their lives when the CIA track down Optimus Prime to Wahlberg's garage using the evil Transformers' ability to track Transformers core energy. They come with helicopters and several vans but the heavily injured and unarmed Optimus Prime drives away with the humans and the helicopter can't hit them and won't follow them so then the CIA has no idea what to do. To make matters worse for the CIA, Wahlberg and Optimus and company hide in an abandoned gas station, its opaque walls obscuring them from passersby and so too, I guess, the alien tracker and destroying the will of the helicopter pilot to even pursue.
The heavily injured Optimus magically gets better when he scans a new semi--and he gets a new paint job. We meet a Japanese Samurai stereotype Transformer voiced by Ken Watanabe and a fat one voiced by John Goodman, who plays it like Walter from The Big Lebowski if Walter's self-image was completely accurate.
They all break into a big lab for some reason run by Stanley Tucci. Tucci gives the best performance and I actually even enjoyed some of his business later in the film as he's protected on the streets of Hong Kong by his beautiful and talented bodyguard.
The film goes to China because a lot of the budget came from a Chinese company. Even some of the product placement is Chinese products from then on.
The Transformers have bold paint jobs (and Chevrolet logos), maybe in response to the criticism of the first film that they were all kind of an unintelligible, muddy grey before. It is a little easier to distinguish individuals in the cgi noise but the action is still generally unimaginative and the nonsensical writing completely negates any sense of danger.
Incredibly, this movie is two hours and forty five minutes. There's not enough material to fill twenty. The score sounds ripped wholesale from Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight scores. The story with Wahlberg never feels like more than a rough draft, he has no chemistry with the toneless actress playing his daughter or the toneless actor playing her boyfriend. All the characters are exactly at the point of vapidity at the end that they were at in the beginning--Wahlberg doesn't want his daughter to date but kind of likes the boyfriend in spite of himself, the daughter and the boyfriend still like each other and they hug at one point . . .
I thought Man of Steel was the most artificial success I've ever seen but maybe Age of Extinction surpasses it. I still don't quite understand the voodoo at work to push this one over--the product placement doesn't quite explain it. I expect some books have been cooked but--could that really account for it? Something about the fact that this was a beloved toy line from the 80s makes it feel all the more sinister--when you've sold your soul, isn't it appropriate that your childhood dreams come back, scraped hollow, filled with fuck all?