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Bayhem: Transformers 4, Age of Extinction - Elf M. Sternberg
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elfs
Bayhem: Transformers 4, Age of Extinction
In the very first Transformers movie, Steven Spielberg kept Michael Bay on a very short leash. The result was a film that, while still full of Bayhem, was at least coherent. In the second film, all the jokes that Bay wasn't allowed on the first came to full fore: robot fart jokes, robot scrotum jokes, an incoherent plotline that involved going to the ends of the Earth, and truly stupid villains. Stung by the poor reviews, the third film was better: Bay kept it reined in and delivered a workmanlike product.

One of the most brutal criticism of the second film involved its visual incoherence in the small. Battles became nothing more than scrambles of chrome and color on the screen, making little sense to the viewer. In the third film, Bay figured out a visual vocabulary for fight scenes that let the viewer understand who was punching whom, and why. It involved a lot of ramping, which Bay was already famous for, but it also involved a lot of heavy artistry about color choices, camera position, contrasting designs, and the like. It was actually impressive, from an animators' point of view, to watch the third film and see how Bayhem and CGI intermingled into a coherent scene. (Again: in the small. Overall, the plot made zero sense.)

Between the third and fourth film, Zack Snyder filmed Man of Steel, which got amazing reviews for its cinematography. And I have to agree with those reviews: as grim and depressing as the script was, the cinematography was kinda amazing: the viewer never lost track of what was happening, even though Snyder never ramped: everything was in real-time and Snyder's genius was in somehow keeping the viewer both informed and, frankly, a little terrified of being a mere human at the mercy of such extraordinary alien forces.

Bay seems to have taken exactly the wrong messages to heart in Transformers: Age of Extinction. He still does a lot of slow-mo, but his battle scene coherence is gone. Set-pieces of battles are edited together and intermingled in ways that either don't make sense or, worse, deprive the viewer of exactly what he came to see. In the first fight scene between Optimus and Megatron (it's no spoiler to say there is one!) they're both trucks (don't ask) hurtling toward each other at full speed. The viewer, informed by the last three movies and all the cartoons and every other movie of its kind, knows what happens next: Optimus and Megatron transform at the last moment, leaping upon each other in a sparks-flying, ear-shattering clash.

Except... they don't. At that very moment you expect the transformation to begin, the camera cuts away to the humans trapped in a car near the battle. Mark Wahlberg and the two teenagers trapped with him are screaming about getting out of the car, getting into the car, something. You hear the clash in the distance. The next cut is a helicopter shot of them running away while at the top of the screen you see Optimus and Megatron slugging it out.

This happens again and again. The huge clashes, the big sparks, are tossed aside in order to close in on Wahlberg and whoever is with him, to show how much danger they're in being involved with these enormous robot things. It's not an accident. It's Bay's new thing.

The Transformers movies are porn films. A tissue of a plot unites a series of battle scenes. Nobody interrupts a porn film to turn the camera on the cat licking itself. Nobody ever went to the first three films to watch Shia La Beouf, and nobody's going to the rest to watch Marky Mark. Transformers 4 marks a failure in the franchise, and I hope whoever takes over for the next one (and yes, there will be a fifth, since it's made over $1bn on $210mn production costs) learns from Bay's mistakes and gives the audience what it wants: hot robot-on-robot action.

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