In 2007 I walked out of Transformers. I was gobsmacked at how racist, sexist and exploitational the film was, and how readily everyone around me was hoovering it up. Nuts to this, I like proper cinema! I'm out of here! Michael Bay, I concluded, was the devil incarnate. From the sidelines I watched as Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon fuelled the series' critical reputation as the epitome of everything that's despicable and wrong with the Hollywood blockbuster.
Then I saw Pain & Gain, which I adored. Maybe I was wrong about Bay. Maybe all these years I've been missing the point. Maybe Michael Bay is actually kind of a genius? And so I find myself, for the first time since I self righteously marched from the cinema all those years ago, faced with Optimus Prime and chums. By 2014 either these films have changed or I've changed, because by god I had a good time.
First up, the plot, script and characters are irrelevant to enjoying Age of Extinction. Do your best to compartmentalise them far away during any viewing of the movie, as they're objectively pretty atrocious. Dialogue is a fountain of inane exposition and meaningless tough guy blather, the plot is an excuse to ferry the audience from one set piece to another and the human characters are as artificial as the CGI monstrosities that they clatter around with.
It's best you ignore them, as what Bay has constructed is a numbingly intense cinematic world crammed to the brim with fascinating, disturbing, dynamic imagery. The world of Transformers is a nightmare; an insanely violent, pornographic portrait of dehumanisation with an utter shamelessness about trying to sell you shit you don't need. Bay's hyper-kinetic style, famously described by him as "fucking the frame", is taken to extremes. At its most intense Age of Extinction engenders the same reaction as staring at a Hieronymous Bosch triptych: a thousand tiny atrocities all occurring simultaneously, the audience's eyes and ears under the same kind of assault the cityscapes of Chicago and Hong Kong suffer as they're rent like soggy paper by murderous children's toys.
Boiled down, the Transformers franchise as a whole is designed as one long advertisement for these toys; from the cartoon series through the comics and so on. Bay recognises this and to his credit he doesn't seem particularly happy about it. The result is extremely barbed moments like a neckbearded manchild brony caressing a My Little Pony doll that morphs straight into an M4 rifle. Subtlety isn't Bay's strong point to say the least.
The wider implications of Bay's annoyance with the toys is the portrayal of the titular Transformers as deeply unpleasant, borderline psychotic murder machines. Want to wallow in childish nostalgia? Then come along the Transformers and watch the your toys exposed as war-crazed nutters. Practically all of their lines are strangled threats to kill, maim or destroy.
The highpoint is a line from Optimus Prime where he says "I have sworn never to take a human life. But I am going to kill this guy". Ooh! Or maybe a moment where another good guy robot voiced by John Goodman is annoys a caged alien which proceeds to spit on him. He summarily executes it while calling it a bitch. None of this accidental - these are not heroes and they're not supposed to be.
It's a bit cliche to approach a blockbuster like this as a satire, but frankly its inescapable. There is simply no straight-faced way to approach the way Bay goes about putting these scenes together, particularly in the way he uses product placement. Advertisers would ideally like product placement to be relatively invisible; we should unconsciously note that a character happens to drink Coca Cola or drives a General Motors car and, without thinking, seek to emulate them.
This is not what happens here. If anything, Bay appears to be mocking the very products he's been instructed to hawk. A man wearing elegantly framed Gucci sunglasses only notices the alien mothership when he removes the sunglasses (like a reverse They Live!). Mark Wahlberg crashes a spaceship into a Bud Light van, also crushing a man's car. Wahlberg then cracks open a beer on the distraught man's wrecked car, cracks a cruel joke and threatens to murder him. Really makes you thirsty for a beer. Another high point is a moment where Stanley Tucci's Steve Jobsalike stops in the middle of a frantic chase sequence to drink a carton of Shuhua milk. The camera cuts away from him mid drink, and the action literally pauses while he finishes his drink!
The height of Bay's audacity is a stunning shot of two robots battling on top of a robot dinosaur that's crashing through an exploding bus with a huge Victoria's Secret logo on it, all rendered in Bay's trademark maximalist slow motion pornography. If I see another shot in cinema so impressive this year I'll be surprised. Speaking of pornography, Bay even satirises his own predeliction for T&A shots. Almost from the moment the female lead is introduced it's explained that she's underage and that ogling her is creepy - laying a straight up guilt trip on any pervs in the audience.
If we're going to watch commercially minded Hollywood action film, we may as well watch the most brazenly insane example of the form - a full fat, high sugar dose of consumerist satire shot directly into our eyeballs. People often describe these films as something you need to "turn your brain off" to enjoy. They are morons. Approach this film with your analytical hat firmly on, view it as a sociopathic demolition of everything the West values, a world populated with meathead morons and killer toys that ends up as a completely fucking nuts pornography of destruction that always always finds something more to defile or explode. You'll have a great time!
Bay's cinema is unpleasant, tasteless and aesthetically awful - but this just underlines his essential honesty - society is unpleasant, tasteless and aesthetically awful. Why gussy up our awful world with cinematic beauty and style when you can wallow in pools of acrid, burning trash with Michael Bay? Age of Extinction is truth at twenty four frames a second in glistening CGI high def 3D.
"I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror." - J. G. Ballard on Crash.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is on general release.