The Transformers movies present an eternal conundrum for me, one I’ve grappled with three times before and return again for a fourth. Rarely has criticism been more irrelevant that it has with this franchise. Look at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page if you don’t believe me. It’s a tableaux of sputtering, impotent rage, and I won’t lie: there are good reasons for that. The film goes well beyond “big dumb loud robot fighting” territory into fundamental failures that seriously question the filmmakers’ competence. Few blockbusters this big display such abject ignorance of basic technique. Scenes start and end with no rhyme or reason, featuring random camera placement and editing seemingly performed by a tribe of deranged chimps. Action scenes suddenly jump to new sequences without bothering to wrap up, while the emotional tone goes from “flatline” to “wildly inappropriate” without notice. And I’m not talking about sophisticated dramatic notions like familial estrangement or the first blush of true love. I mean things like “I really hope Optimus Prime beats up that other robot.” If we don’t know what’s going on in the fight or it ends before we’ve figured it out, it’s hard to care about who wins. And considering that’s the only real purpose to the exercise, the failure becomes absolute.
I could go on for hours listing all of its problems. The racism. The misogyny. The criminal waste of actors like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer. The abject, offensive inability to deliver even the veneer of the gloriously stupid fun it promises. I’ll give props to the visual effects, which have always been top-notch in this series, and to the brilliant sound design. The Dinobots have some appeal too, though the 1980s animated series handled their introduction with infinitely more grace than Age of Extinction does. Everything else about this movie is garbage. Absolute, unredeemable garbage. On an objective level. In ways that can’t hide amid the vagaries of opinion. Even director Michael Bay seems bored with it all, going through the motions because it’s expected rather than unleashing his adolescent fantasies with his usual fetishistic glee.
And you know what? That doesn’t matter one little bit. My fellow critics currently working themselves into apoplectic fits are probably right – I certainly agree with their sentiments if not their fervor – but it won’t change a thing. Do you tell a tornado to stop knocking over those buildings? Do you rampage against the Big Mac for clogging up your arteries? We can scream and moan and throw histrionic fits, and audiences will show up anyway. The film will make a mint and Michael Bay will start production on Part 5, and three years from now, we’ll all go through the same pointless dance again. Bay isn’t exactly subtle in his intentions and even when he bungles the basic fundaments, people will happily stand in line and pay for their tickets. (For a lot of fans, it’s probably enough just to hear Peter Cullen say “I am Optimus Prime” and stab something with that big-ass sword. The other 165 minutes can be chalked up to part of the cost, with the Dinobots’ climactic rampage an unexpected bonus.)
Ironically, a lot of critics respond to Bay with the same overblown, bombastic tones that they so loathe in his work. (The death of cinema? Really? I’ll tell Darren Aronofsky to clean out his locker.) This movie isn’t the end of the world, no matter how much money it makes. It won’t change anything that hasn’t already been changed, and the cultural mores it represents were already in place long ago. It’s big, dumb and ugly, but you can also avoid it pretty readily if you want. For the remainder – the crowds who will flock to it this weekend and once again justify Paramount’s faith in their director – there’s no point in telling them that it sucks. They know what they’re getting, and they’re probably going to enjoy it no matter what you say. Save your energy for a debate worth having. Age of Extinction is a done deal, and somehow, the sun’s still going to come up tomorrow morning.