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Here’s the Problem with the ‘Transformers’ Franchise

Here's the Problem with the 'Transformers' Franchise

This fall, the Argentine director Lisandro Alsono will spend six weeks in New York City as the recipient of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Filmmaker in Residence program, taking time to consider his next creative endeavor and networking with local heavyweights. In the process, the New York Film Festival will come and go, providing the director with the opportunity to experience some of the best new movies from around the world. He can take long walks around the city. Maybe he’ll see a Broadway show. At the end of the endeavor, he might make something brilliant, but that doesn’t mean everyone will see it.

If you’re troubled by the struggle of great cinema to gain the attention it deserves, ask yourself this: How many people missed the news about Alonso’s residency but are acutely aware of a new “Transformers” movie opening this weekend?

Alonso’s name may not strike a chord with every moviegoer, especially audiences only aware of new releases through the prism of marketing campaigns. But this patient, thoughtful director has made a number of acclaimed experimental narratives in recent years, including the visually arresting and nearly wordless 2008 travelogue “Liverpool,” in which a seaman travels across Argentina to visit his aging mother. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Alonso unveiled his grandest feat to date, the impressionistic fantasy “Jauja,” starring Viggo Mortensen. Shot in the square 4:3 “Academy ratio” with a stylish frame around its edges throughout, this delicate, colorful tale features a Danish man and his daughter in 19th century Argentina in search of a utopia they never quite find. When the daughter suddenly vanishes halfway through the picture, her dad spends much of the running time wandering the barren landscape, eventually arriving in a place of complete abstraction that explores the deterioration of innocence in strange and exciting ways.

“Jauja” has yet to finalize a U.S. distribution deal, but even if it lands one, nobody can seriously make the case that the movie will receive even a small fraction of the eyeballs committed to “Transformers: Age of Extinction” as it lumbers into theaters around the world this weekend. But with the announcement of Alonso’s residency arriving just days ahead of Michael Bay’s latest spectacle, the contrast between these two visually striking fantasy films couldn’t be more extreme. Both contain moments of extraordinary beauty specific to the moving image, but whereas “Jauja” gives them a poetic context, the multimillion-dollar effects work in Michael Bay’s latest flashy endeavor is unsurprisingly hollow.

The Studio Scheme

Of course, countless ticket-paying audiences have been convinced — through expertly-designed trailers, hulking billboards and an endless stream of toy tie-ins — that the pricey simplicity of “Transformers” contains exactly what they want out of a big summer movie.

Certainly the new installment delivers on those expectations. Its spectacular opening minutes feature a menacing spaceship barreling down on Earth in the midst of the dinosaur age, effectively destroying the species and planting the seeds of a new automated menace that comes to life in the prolonged closing act.

Yes, the dinosaurs are extraordinary technological feats that make “Jurassic Park” look like like stop motion animation. You’re unlikely to witness a more condensed celebration of the IMAX 3-D experience this year.

But nothing in the nearly three-hour running time of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” can match that opening: Swapping Mark Wahlberg for Shia Labeouf, Bay stuffs in a slight narrative involving the efforts of a straight-faced inventor in rural Texas who comes across a damaged Optimus Prime and manages to resurrect the autobots’ leader during a challenging time, since the CIA (headed by a bland Kelsey Grammar) has decided that all Transformers are evil aliens and launches a full-out assault against them.

Picking up its pace where most movies tend to wind down, “Age of Extinction” reveals a scheme by another inventor (Stanley Tucci) to use the wreckage of a Transformers battle from the previous installment to build their own. This provides an excuse for someone to actually say, “We can change anything into anything.” 

The storytelling burrows just that deep. Despite its hefty running time, not much happens in “Age of Extinction.” The autobots engage in some nicely rendered battles with the mutant robot known as Galvatron, eventually heading to Beijing and resurrecting some transformers from the past to help out. As usual, Bay constructs a barrage of showdowns remarkable for their ridiculous propensity to feature explosions and slo-mo, gravity-defying feats. They’re all unmemorable but equally loud and visceral. The popularity of “Transformers” suggests that’s everything viewers want from them.

Something Empty For Everyone

Collectively, these movies represent an assault on the senses that’s actively fighting against the prospects of a more varied film culture. Whereas the proactive moviegoer aims to see as many new movies as possible, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” argues that you only need to see one.

In what seems like a blatant attempt to replicate a Bollywood production, the “Transformers” movies stuff together any number of disjointed ingredients in the hopes of providing a mainstream entertainment that delivers thrills for as many people as possible, irrespective of the jumbled bigger picture. The only missing ingredient is a musical number — but don’t rule it out of future installments.

Though it might seem counterintuitive to ask for quality from a product designed to deliver a cheap escape, some modicum of the franchise’s success stems from the purer satisfaction of the first installment, which featured a self-awareness that bordered on camp. (Optimus Prime confessing that he relied on eBay to figure out a key plot point is a better form of movie magic than the CGI itself.)

The Choice Is Yours

Since then, with the promise of the spectacle established worldwide, Bay has kept things remarkably simple and irony-free; “Age of Extinction” feels unapologetically commercial in every way possible, from the cartoonish sex appeal of Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg’s underdeveloped daughter character to the climax in China that’s ostensibly set there for economic reasons. (Kevin Lee’s brilliant video essay “Transformers: The Premake” does a terrific job of sketching out the movie’s global identity.) Among the movie’s “human cast,” termed as much in the movie’s press notes, nobody tries to elevate the material aside from Stanley Tucci, who spends one amazing scene cracking up in an elevator as he attempts to sketch out the plot. But that’s a brief moment of meta in this otherwise empty beast.

Even viewers who might not care for a new Lisandro Alonso movie could still ignore “Transformers” this weekend for a better action product with Bong Joon-ho’s energizing post-apocalyptic narrative “Snowpiercer,” also opening on Friday, which marks the best case of counter-programming this year. But if you’re one of those viewers curious about “Snowpiercer” and choosing to see “Age of Extinction” this weekend instead, believe me, I get it: Those robots look really cool. Just remember, as the autobots careen towards another triumph in the closing moments, that no matter which side of the battle wins in this installment, there’s a bigger fight taking place well beyond the multiplex.


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