Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review of Transformers: Age of Extinction

Pure cinema is a concept, heralded by the old cinematic masters, which states the stripping back of film from plot, character and the like to the basics of vision and movement. There have been some utter masterpieces of so-called "pure cinema" over the years, from film-makers who break away from the usual rules of narrative cinema and let the feeling, mood and picture take over. For me, the purest example of pure cinema in recent years has come from Steve McQueen in his 2011 film "Shame" starring Michael Fassbender as a guilt-ridden sex addict. That film had vast stretches with no dialogue, and instead played the action off of Fassbender's face, his actions, and the cinematographic space around him. The result was a film which allowed a lucid insight into a self-imposed mental hell, as well as a film which knew how to describe, as opposed to explain, leaving an open-ended exercise where the audience is invited to empathise with how the characters feel, based on how the film has presented them.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

See, in my humble opinion, Michael Bay, the helmer of "Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction", has created an example of pure cinema.

Now I know what you're thinking. I've just described a concept of high-cinema, and here I am reviewing Transformers 4, the latest in a series of films hardly renowned for their nuance, clarity and depth. But let's look at the evidence; in a number of instances, Bay does away with plot, and thought, and allows images to play out onscreen. Further than this, there are perhaps up to twenty minute stretches where the film descends into complete, and utter chaos. Things hit things which hit other things which result in a tumultuous cataclysm of sparks, metal on metal, and fireball explosions. Wikipedia helpfully defines pure cinema as "minimizing story and plot, focussing instead on visual concerns by using close-ups, dolly shots, montage, lens distortions, and other cinematic techniques".

Well, at the very least, you can't argue with the first part of that description. There is a semblance of plot for about fifteen minutes; we are shown (not told; cinematic) the dinosaurs being wiped out by giant spaceships. Then we cut to the present day with the discovery of those spaceships. Then we are introduced to the protagonist, Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg), and his 17 year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). We are told basic and fundamental things about their characters; Cade is a right-wing, controlling father who constantly berates his daughter's short skirts and won't allow her to get a boyfriend (although she has one anyway, in the form of Jack Reynor's Shane Dyson). And Tessa worries about her father, who has a habit of forgetting meals and locking himself up in his huge shed full of gadgets and the like. He's an inventor, you see, and he plans to save his family from financial destitution by making money from junk.

Then, one day he discovers a Transformer, brings it to life and mends it (it's Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen). Then an anti-Transformer black-ops wing of the Government, headed by Kelsey Grammar's shady baddie, tracks down Optimus, threatens to kill Cade's entire family in a gruelling sequence entirely unsuitable for a kids' film, which this is. Then Optimus comes along, blows up some stuff, and the film ditches any semblance of character development (which was ropey to being with), and then the whole farrago descends into an incomprehensible orgy of stuff hitting other stuff and things going into other things and everything being very LOUD and EXPLODEY and EXCRUCIATING in that obnoxious way that Michael Bay has perfected.

So, yes, it is pure cinema. But it's awful pure cinema. And Transformers 4 is an awful film. What's most intriguing about it is how it turns the stuff that masterpieces are made from, and wastes it abundantly. I read that the budget for this film is £210 million, and all I can think is "what a waste". Say that money had been donated to charity, or given to someone like, say, Steve McQueen. He could make ten masterpieces with that money.

It's also awfully, awfully unpleasant, in a cumulative way that's hard to pinpoint in one particular aspect or another. Every character is either clich├ęd or horrible; Cade, as you might have gathered, is an unlikeable "Dirty Harry" stereotype who we are not invited to empathise with as much as we observe him, like just another special effect Bay plugs into his films like needles from that gross bit in the Matrix. There's also a dodgy business leader in the form of Stanley Tucci's Joshua Joyce. At one point, as a giant black hole/thing is sucking up various bits of Hong Kong, he looks straight into the void and screams "OH MY GODDD!!!" I fully understood how he felt. (also the dialogue is terrible, macho-comic book rubbish with utterings such as "my face is my warrant".)

And that's another thing; as well as making no sense, the action sequences are terrible by any usual criteria for action sequences. By this I mean, they go on for too long, and are only over when the Editors from Hell and their Overlord Bay deign them to be over. Now, I'm a sucker for moments where film-makers let rip and their vision is there on screen, for us to see. But Michael Bay isn't so much a director with vision as he is a shrewd finance manager, taking his £210 million and turning it into a huge profit (as I write, £750 million). The fact that a film that relishes upon terrorism and destruction and carnage, and is so full horrendously wonky sexual politics, and iffy stereotypes can gross as much as it has says something that I'll leave you to infer. (I wasn't joking about stereotypes by the way; the good Transformers "Autobots" comprise a Samurai, a mad war general and a Cockney geezer, voiced by Ken Watanabe, John Goodman and John DiMaggio).

I can't even quote Shakespeare's famous "tale, told by an idiot..." dialogue from Macbeth. Because this isn't a tale. It's a mess. An inchoate, distressing mess. It's an abhorrent, bloated, overlong and tedious mess. That it's being marketed as a kid's film troubles me; Fight Club isn't as nihilistic as this.

This is the kind of thing Nietzsche would watch and write a book about.

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