With this fifth Transformers movie, it seems clear that Michael Bay is still trying to define this franchise. The first film was solidly entertaining, but the sequels have been hit and miss. And this jarringly chaotic episode never finds its feet. Is it aimed at teen boys (robots hitting each other), young children (a random little girl in the cast) or action fans (Mark Wahlberg being heroic)? Meanwhile, the plot only barely connects a stream of wildly overblown set-pieces.
We find Wahlberg's mad inventor Cade now in hiding protecting the good Autobots, while government meathead Lennox (Josh Duhamel) chases the evil Decepticons. Somewhere in space, tentacled temptress Quintessa (Gemma Chan) has turned heroic Transformer Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to the dark side, and now they're heading to suck the life out of Earth, as you do. Humanity's only hope is in a mysterious talisman Cade possesses and the staff of Merlin the magician (Stanley Tucci in an Arthurian prologue), which only Oxford professor Vivian (Laura Haddock) can wield. She's accompanied by dotty Sir Edmund (Anthony Hopkins), who helpfully explains the mythology with the assistance of robot butler Cogman (Jim Carter). Then everyone converges on Stonehenge for an epic battle.
To be fair, Bay does have an eye for spectacle, and the film looks properly amazing in Imax 3D, especially as Bay throws everything he can think of at the screen, including some adorable baby dinosaur robots, a submarine chase, various elements from Star Wars and Alien, and a military invasion that desperately wants to outdo Saving Private Ryan's opening scene. All of this is piled into a blender and edited together with absolutely no sense of logic or geography.
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With each film in the Transformer saga, Michael Bay makes it clear that all he's interested in are massive metallic special effects bashing into each other and usually exploding. Because otherwise this is a vacuous thriller without any characters to speak of, no sense of plot coherence and an appallingly simplistic sense of geography. There's plenty in this franchise to enjoy (just watch the original 2007 film again), but Bay takes everything so seriously that only die-hard fans will have any fun this time.
The story picks up five years after the cataclysmic Transformers' battle in Chicago, as Texas inventor and overprotective single dad Cade (Mark Wahlberg) builds gadgets in his rural barn, oblivious to the fact that his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) is secretly seeing 20-year-old Shane (Jack Reynor). Luckily, Shane is a race driver, so he's handy to have around when black ops agents commanded by shadowy CIA director Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) raid Cade's farm looking for an old truck that turns out to actually be Optimus Prime in hiding. This sparks a return to Chicago for more mayhem, followed by a hop to Beijing and Hong Kong, where Optimus Prime and a handful of remaining good-guy Autobots take on the villainous Lockdown. Helped of course by Cade, Tessa and Shane, plus billionaire inventor Joshua (Stanley Tucci).
The new gimmick this time is dinosaurs, building on a prologue showing the real reason they went extinct. This comes back in the climactic battle in the form of Dinobots, ancient Transformers that will have fanboys squirming in their seats with joy while everyone else yawns and looks at their watches, astounded that Bay has somehow managed to stretch this paper-thin story out over nearly three hours of metal-on-metal chaos. As in the earlier films, the action is quite literally cartoonish, purely animated mayhem that's not easy to decipher. At least the humans help keep it vaguely approachable, as they provide running commentary in their dialogue and bounce through the air like plastic action figures who never get hurt.
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In the near future, Charlie (Jackman) is an ex-boxer who now controls massive robots that have taken over the sport. A stubborn failure buried in debt, he has no interest in his 11-year-old son Max (Goyo), whose mother has just died, but agrees to care for him until his rich aunt and uncle (Davis and Rebhorn) return from holiday. But Max is far more savvy with robots than his dad. And with the help of Dad's lovelorn pal Bailey (Lilly), Max defies Charlie's expectations with his scrapheap robot Atom.
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Don Murphy and Empire Leicester Square - Producer Don Murphy (R) and guest London, England - Real Steel - UK film premiere held at the Empire Leicester Square - Arrivals. Wednesday 14th September 2011
With his usual disregard for story logic, Bay plunges us into another deafening metal-against-metal smackdown. Fortunately, this film is a lot more entertaining than Part 2, because it has a more linear plot. And it looks absolutely amazing.
With everything back to normal, Sam (LaBeouf) needs a job to impress his impossibly hot new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley). Then strange things start happening around him. Again. And soon he realises that the Decepticons are back to wage war against the Autobot-human alliance. But he has to convince an arrogant government official (McDormand) to let him get involved with his old team (Duhamel, Gibson, Turturro and their Autobot buddies). All of this has something to do with a secret weapon that crashed onto the dark side of the moon in 1961, sparking the space race.
McDormand is easily the best thing about this film, even if her character has a dramatic personality shift halfway through the film. Malkovich is also terrific (as Sam's offbeat new boss), and Dempsey has his moments as well (as Carly's boss and cause of Sam's inferiority complex). Fortunately, the narrative is straightforward enough to give all of the actors the chance to make their mark, distinguishing themselves above the chaos.
Sadly, the same can't be said about the battling robots. While the first-rate animation has a staggering attention to detail, the deafening battles are still impossible to follow. They amount to an eye-catching display of whizzy effects as clanking robots bash each other senseless and destroy everything around them (Chicago gets the full destructive force for a change). Although at least they fit vaguely into the plot this time.
Meanwhile, lapses in even the most twisted logic are plentiful, including the fact that Sam seems to have metallic Transformer bones to resist injury as he's flung into walls and dropped from high places (not to mention Carly's magical white suit and heels). In other words, it's deeply preposterous and almost painfully boyish, but it's nowhere near as muddled as the last chapter. And besides keeping our eyes entertained, there are some great moments throughout the mayhem.