Monday, 14 July 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction is the first film in the series I've enjoyed. Previous entries fumbled an easy sale by changing million year old soldiers into uncoordinated idiots, basing the entire third act around racist robots and, in the case of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a truly revolting performance from Shia LaBeouf. Implied domestic abuse aside, Moon did have a few cool beats. Fallen Autobot Sentinel was at least a two-dimensional idea of villainy.

Michael Bay's latest easily tops that with a PTSD Prime coming to terms with the horrors that have been visited on his kind. Prime is no longer a background player, he's Extinction's dramatic engine. In this sense the film is the closest match to the multimedia brand that was pumped into my brain as a child. So while Extinction may be vulgar, blaring trash, it has enough consistent character ideas to conjure up a few cackles.

Extinction's villain Lockdown operates as an opposite to Optimus Prime, the swaggering mercenary to Prime's rigid true believer. Lockdown has no allegiance to either the Autobots or Decepticons. He's something new - a third path. Lockdown's name and occupation springs from Transformers: Animated, were he seemed an attempt to roll Marvel UK's Death's Head character into the Hasbro canon.

Lockdown is Lamborghini grey and carries a sickle. He unpacks from a Aventador sports car, his body flayed and athletic compared to the new plate metal Prime. Like Sentinel Prime before him, Lockdown has a human face to stress cunning and duplicity. Lockdown's grasping anti-agenda opens up future conflicts beyond the strict binaries of Autobot and Decepticon, he's a cosmic character with a menagerie of violent, spiky things to command and the ability to reconfigure his face into a gun.

Lockdown, along with the rusting, cantankerous Hound, feels like he's been designed as a personality first and a toy second. He's a Spaghetti Western sharpshooter brought in to throw a spanner in the works. Riding shotgun is Megatron, resurrected as his upgraded form Galvatron. He's visually cleaner, resembling an ogre mocked up by Apple. There's none of the regal splendour of Floro Dery's original design but, like the 1986 Galvatron, he's immune to an outside force trying to rebrand him. As ever, the Megatron personality is persistent, looking for weaknesses in his prison.

Extinction's Autobots are no longer hulking do-gooders, they each have own individual outline and colour scheme. Their personalities are violent and disagreeable. Two of Prime's soldiers are openly insubordinate when they think he isn't looking. Fresh recruits are battered into compliance. These kinds of ideas aren't new to Transformers as a property. Flick through Marvel's The Transformers Universe character guides and you'll discover the Autobot ranks are full of sociopaths. How else do you cope with a war that has lasted forever?

Simon Furman's Transformers: Generation 2 comics featured Autobots seething with grenade pouches and belts of ammunition. Derek Yaniger using the visual vocabulary of 90s X-Men comics to rejuvenate ailing ideas and characters, making them gritty champions of war that terrify the pacifist aliens they help. Extinction goes a little further, Hound's mek-nificent four are basically 2000 AD's ABC Warriors - a cadre of treacherous killer robots who only respect strength.

There's a sense of truth in this idea though. Optimus Prime isn't Superman. He doesn't have a no kill policy when it comes to equals. He's a warrior general fronting an intergalactic establishment in a civil war. Since he carries a God artefact in his chest, he should probably be considered a religious extremist too. This punch-drunk Prime adds up. When Marky Mark finds him gathering dust in a devastated movie theatre he's literally decrepit. Peter Cullen's voice has a raspier register this time, evoking a kind of weariness.

Extinction's Prime has been betrayed by the race he tried to help. His preferred team mates have been hunted down and horrifically murdered. So when he takes a moment to lay out the fact that he absolutely will kill a human now, it doesn't feel particularly extreme. If you accept Optimus Prime as a character rather than a special effect, why wouldn't he? Especially locked into this hyper-aggressive Michael Bay milieu.

Extinction's Prime is past higher ideals. They died with his comrades. Three films have taught him humans will sanction his actions, attack him and his troops, and now dissect them in pursuit of a pay raise. Prime is a zealot from a world that has subsumed every aspect of their society into pure conflict. Currency is irrelevant to Prime, all he values is subsistence. He's used to total war. So when he brushes up against profiteering and the military-industrial complex why wouldn't he be revolted?

Prime survives in the company of Cade Yeager, a deranged possessive with a knack for engineering. Yeager repairs Prime and speaks to him like an equal. Yeager is also keen to use Cybertronian technology to join the fight. Yeager then fulfils a similar function to Prime's de-activated warrior-medic Ratchet. To a ruthless utilitarian like Optimus Prime, Yeager is genuinely useful.

Sam Witwicky was always just collateral damage waiting to happen, a human germ who had his action heroics mapped onto a secondary character. In contrast Yeager tracks after Prime providing suppressing fire. Ehren Kruger repeatedly stresses Yeager in similar masculine terms as Prime - the Father God who plays with his children's lives but will ultimately die for them. When Yeager's government threaten him and his family Prime is explosively angry.

This is an ideological clash. Optimus Prime is the supreme commander of the Autobot faction of Cybertronians. It's a position he's won through bloodshed and maintained with respect. Extinction also posits that it's a role run on fear. Prime is so terrifyingly powerful no-one dares challenge him. Even skyscraper tall Tyrannosaurs get their jaws broken trying. Prime is then the totality of a government state, a fascist ideal programmed to fulfil every executive role in an endless war. If he has found a use for Cade Yeager, who the fuck are Frasier or the American Government to disagree?

Age of Extinction has bum jokes, a peeping Tom gaze and a runtime that feels like punishment, but it also features an Optimus Prime who is so absolutely fucking disgusted by the race he's found himself protecting that he's excited to blast off into deep space on a suicide mission.

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