Sunday, 13 July 2014

The 'Stink' in Age of Extinction

So, obviously, I've seen the new movie... and the title should suggest I wasn't keen on it. I've read lots of reviews and opinions about the latest entry in the TransFormers franchise, and it seems strangely less divided and more resoundingly positive than the preceding three, despite being - in my humble opinion - one of the worst films I've ever paid to see... and not just because of the Dinobots.

I have to admit first of all that I tend to agree with most of the positive comments people have made about it (more screentime for the robots, more character development for the robots (if you can call it that), and a clearer sense of purpose to most of the characters, both human and robot... In fact, I'd say the human element is far better, generally, in Age of Extinction, than in any of the previous films... But is that enough?

(Some spoilerish bits ahead...)

The plot is a ridiculously patchy globetrotting affair and does yet another retcon on the TransFormers' history with the planet Earth. The first film led us to believe that the Allspark and Megatron were the first things from Cybertron to arrive on our world. The second basically said "hey, actually, a whole group of early Cybertronian leaders came to Earth, tussled over the idea of exploding our sun for its energy, and promptly sealed themselves away, while letting their evil brother live to scheme and strike again thousands of years later". The third then retconned that and suggested that, prior to his search for the Allspark, Megatron struck a deal with the leader of the Autobots to rebuilt Cybertron using slave labour from the very planet The Fallen had visited, thousands of years before, and that the human 'space race' came about because of a crashed Autobot vessel on the surface of the moon (and, miraculously, without uncovering the army of Decepticons buried up there).

This one retcons all of that, and suggests that Earth was "seeded" with the element all TransFormers are made from (later called 'Transformium' because the writer is cleverly pointing out that contemporary scientists like the lowest common denominator as much as the next group of humans... I mean, seriously? Why not 'Cybertronium'?) in a way that rendered the dinosaurs extinct... and kinda turned them into metal rather than, y'know, the petrochemicals we all know and love today.

Age of Extinction steals a trick from Dark of the Moon, in that some of the humans are working with this movie's main (robotic) villain, Lockdown... but the appearance of that character (the same old bounty hunter) in the live-action movie franchise points out that the writer has borrowed yet again from existing TransFormers storylines. It didn't twig immediately, but the fact that Ratchet is Lockdown's first on-screen kill is a clear nod to TransFormers: Animated... and then you realise that 'Galvatron' - supposedly a human-built and operated TransFormer - is also borrowed from TFAnimated: remember how Isaac Sumdac built Megatron a new body by working with his head?

Megatron isn't the only TransFormer the humans have built (supposedly as an exercise in saying "we don't need you any more, Optimus Prime!")... there's a whole fleet of ostensibly human-controlled 'drone' TransFormers, starting with Stinger - a robot created, they tell us, as an improvement on Bumblebee's specs and aesthetics. But Galvatron and these 'drones' don't even transform properly... They turn into airborne clouds of Transformium which merely reintegrate into either vehicle or robot modes. It's like the CGI took a huge step backwards, or they decided to emulate the way TFAnimated usually did things, or they just forgot that this was about transforming robots, not "molecularly unstable" sentient metal. Not for the first time, I wish Hasbro had exercised some goddamned creative control on this monstrosity. It's intended to sell toys, for fuck's sake, and there is no way they can possibly emulate the 'cloud' transformation. If they want to simplify the transformations of the toys, they need to made sure the CGI robot displays some evidence of its alternate mode... a feat which the first three movies managed rather well, if you ask me.

Which brings me to the overall robot design... Which is just terrible, and partly explains why the toys have had to be simplified. Once they adopt their final Age of Extinction looks, neither Optimus Prime nor Bumblebee look like robots that could transform into terrestrial vehicles. They're far too complicated, far too humanoid. Right from the moment Optimus Prime scans his new vehicle mode and miraculously gains a huge amount of vehicle bulk, he ceases to be believable.

Even before that, though, he's become something other than the noble and heroic leader of the Autobots. He's become broken and bitter and, while that may well be believable, under the circumstances (and, let's face it, not too far removed from the impatient and psychopathically vicious robot who's been mutilating his foes for three movies) they've turned Optimus Prime from a respectable, moral centre into something that's not significantly different from the Decepticons.

The bane of the TransFormers live action movie franchise - the superfluous humans - continues, with Cade's business partner/employee killed off because he'd served his purpose, Tessa's boyfriend doing virtually nothing useful throughout (and generally being quite cowardly when he's not driving a car), while Darcy and Su are literally nothing but eyecandy and Tessa herself can't decide whether she's an empowered young woman or the damsel in distress.

But easily the worst thing about it - and I almost can't believe I'm writing this - is that the Dinobots, pretty much the central part of all the advertising, only appear in the movie during its final few minutes. Basically, if you've seen the trailers, there's not much more Dinobot action on offer in the full movie. They're in robot mode for less than a minute in total, and there's not one single line of dialogue between them.

So... As a fan of the TransFormers toyline, I think Hasbro have permitted a(nother) grievous mis-step in their live action movie franchise, both from an artistic/stylistic/technical viewpoint and a general story viewpoint. The robots are there, certainly, but they're clichéd and poorly handled. Had I been remotely interested in any of the awful new Optimus Prime toys (other than Evasion Mode, which is awesome), seeing Prime in action would have put me off... and with so few other proper characters in the movie, there ain't much for the toy collector to get interested in unless they're into Dinobots despite their garishly inappropriate colourschemes.

For me... I reckon I'll get Drift, Hound and Lockdown... Possibly Stinger if the Deluxe has the right vehicle mode... And I may even pick up the 'New Camaro' Bumblebee now I've seen a video review of the toy. Hasbro had better pull out all the stops with the 'original' character toys (and make an official Movie Nightbeat out of the Crosshairs mold), or they won't be getting much cash out of me...

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