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Plot Is Overrated: ‘Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe’ Cartoonist Tom Scioli Reviews ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’


I love my job. I make Transformers vs. G.I.Joe comics on a monthly basis (with the help of my co-writer John Barber). As part of due diligence, it’s my duty to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. My ticket is a business expense. I’m making my comic not just for fans of Transformers and G.I.Joe, but for the rest of planet Earth, too. As a Transformers author I need to know how the larger world percieves Transformers so that I can play up to certain expectations and run counter to preconceived notions. In that capacity, I documented my observations about the film.

Hasbro, my boss, is credited right at the top as space snail starcruisers fill the screen. Sci-fi movies have been starting this way since Star Wars. The CGI is very clean. It feels like a Metroid cut scene, especially when the action moves from space to a very Zebes-like prehistoric Earth. It’s the Dinobot’s origin. They’re robot duplicates of dinosaurs. This is already my favorite live-action TF. I hope that baby dinosaur grows up to be Grimlock. He’s frozen in a Cybernetic state by a cyberactive bomb called the Seed. It freezes it’s victims by turning them into cyberlife. If you survive the carbon-freezing process, you get to live out eternity as an immortal body-morphing robot.

When Cade Yeager, played by Mark Wahlberg, shows up in his pickup truck, it’s a bummer. Normal people? An everyman? In a post-Internet world, nobody identifies with normals. We identify with cyborgs, gods and mutants. But there’s more than meets the eye (gotta say it once). Wahlberg builds advanced, seemingly intelligent robots from the spare parts he scrounges. Earth bots meeting Autobots makes sense.

Wahlberg is an everyman the way Tom Cruise is. You don’t buy it, nobody buys it, but we’ll go along with it for the sake of convenience. There are obligitory sequel jokes and Richard Riehle as an affably avuncular Wilfred Brimley type who unfortunately shows up just once and never again. A good rule for these movies would be “less people, more robots”, unless the people are sci-fi comic book super-soldiers with memorable code names. I want to skip straight to Optimus waking up. We know it’s going to happen from the moment we see the busted-up truck, even if we didn’t see the previews. Why prolong things? I always thought Herbie the Love Bug would be a good template for a Transformers movie and here it is.

 

 

The actress Nicola Peltz, cast as Wahlberg’s daughter, Tessa Yeager, could easily have been cast as his love interest. This creates an Electra dynamic between the characters, indicating that director Michael Bay is a more daring filmmaker than people give him credit for.  When a love interest who’s not her father eventually shows up for the female lead, it is a relief. But Cade is pissed even though his daughter’s suitor, Shane (Jack Reynor), shows up in a glorious way — specifically, saving their lives from government spooks.  ”It’s not the way I wanted to meet,” the kid says. What? It’s the best way to meet. What’s better than having your stunt car tire-punch a rogue agent in the face in slow motion? It’s a bloodless quotation of a similar moment in Tarantino’s Death Proof.

The evil robots in this movie are cool as hell and probably exist in real life already, especially the mini-drones. I’ve been seeing some weird bugs this summer. There’s an ATM card wielding drone in this movie that is utterly terrifying.

The designs of the Decepticons/Quintessons/Whatever are a cross between Kirby and Moebius, meaning they were probably designed by Jose Ladrönn. I checked and I don’t see anything about his involvement, but they sure look like Ladrönn’s Ronin the Accuser or the Recorder from the 2000 Thor Annual.

 

 

I was never able to guess the identity of the killer robot seen throughout the film. I thought it was Shockwave because of his connection to the Dinobot’s origin, his occasional faceless visor, and the fact that his head can turn into a cannon. He’s a hitman — I’m assuming for the Quintessons. The Internet says his name is Lockdown. I don’t remember coming across him in my research.

This might be the first genre film where fans asked for more daylight and less darkness. Color is much more present in this outing than in the previous dark gray installments. The rainbow heat vision palette the humans use when they go Autobot-hunting is a better palette than you’ll find in most of modern cinema. Ratchet, the hunted Autobot, is one of three very green characters. It must’ve been a challenge finding enough greens that differentiate, but digital projection technology is more than up to the task. There is a lot of green in this movie, literally and figuratively.

Indeed, product placement is actually referred to in-story as product placement. Bay is a deft filmmaker, but the type of film he makes is a different game with big stakes and many masters. He’s able to negotiate that minefield. Wayne’s World was the first time product placement was handled this self-parodying way, but the comedy was much broader. Bay almost gets away with it here by going all-in. The transformium (more on that later) morphs into a set of Beats by Dr. Dre speakers. Nothing exceeds like excess, I suppose. If you’re going to have product placement, why not have it in every frame? Transformium gets rid of all limitations on Transformer shape. Unless they’re able to duplicate its philosopher’s stone qualities in real life, toy sales will suffer. Fittingly, Hasbro practically invented product placement with its ’80s cartoons based on toy products. My Little Pony makes an appearance in Age Of Extinction, teasing the eventual crossover. I shouldn’t be surprised by all the ad content. Its increasingly oppressive presence brings a narrative tension of its own.

 

 

Bay does a good job of generating pathos for robots attacked by humans. It’s the same creative instinct I have. Making one of them Ratchet, the Autobot healer, might be a step to far into overly obvious irony. Now that I am thoroughly immersed in Transformers mythology, I found the violent removal of Ratchet’s Spark (the physical manifestation of the Soul) to be obscene. We find out explicitly that robots have a soul, and along those lines the conversations between man and machine in this film are much more substantive than in previous installments. Optimus is a bitter former optimist this time out. But his primer gray attitude and color scheme eventually get a red-white-and-blue paint job.

The aforementioned daylight aesthetic helps, but this is also the first TF I’ve seen in 3D so I’m sure that lighting aids in parsing the shapes, distance and size cues. My level of comprehension, at least in terms of the physical, is pretty good with this one. Robot vehicle physiognomy is something our ancestors never had to reckon with so it occupies a strange new place in our psyche. The hole in Optimus’s cab is more evocative when you realize it’s a gut shot. Optimus wakes up angry still in the violent throes of whatever offscreen final battle brought him to this reduced state.

In terms of animation and design, Prime looks better than ever. All the Transformers look more organic and more roboty, driving home just how badly the previous films’ designs missed the mark. The new look is close to the line of toys that were introduced around the time of the ’80s animated movie. Without his mouth guard Optimus looks sad and tired. I prefer his space ninja look, but this works for story purposes. He coughs like Darth Grievous, spewing the gray powder that covers him and mutes his colors to a primer tone. His mask returns when he gets into ass-kicking mode at the 3/4 mark, but you’d think he would’ve employed it sooner as a dust guard.

 

 

Optimus eventually returns to his high-voltage look. His design incorporates elements of Hot Rod (the human face and the flames), probably a deliberate decision to incorporate Rod’s youthful vigor while eliminating him as a separate character and assume him into Optimus’s persona. There’s a gravity popular gods have. They absorb and incorporate the mythologies of the gods of competing cultures.

Hound’s face and coloration resembles Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings. Hound’s overall design has personality — maybe too much personality, making him seem like he belongs in a different universe altogether. He’s got pouches. Rob Liefeld could do a great version of it, but I think the design is way too MegaMan villain. I see Hound in TvsGIJ as a different kind of grizzled war dog. More Orion than Enkidu.

They really went for a cartoon palette with the Autobots this time. Neutral areas of color contain bolts of high-saturation hues. I’ve mentioned the role that green plays. There are three green Autobots: Ratchet (usually ambulance white), there’s Hound, and one in a green cyberleather-duster I couldn’t identify. The internet says he’s CrossHairs, one of the Targetmasters. To differentiate from the other two he’s extra green. A green I haven’t seen since the ’90s. It’s a carnival ride green.

This movie is an improvement over the others in that the robots and people are part of the same general plot. It’s a largely nonsensical plot with several dead ends ( including a riff on an ’80s film and television staple: the overzealous real estate agent), and it has more in common with a video game, where each challenge is just another obstacle to shoot or jump over. There’s a rooftop fight. There’s a toyetic stunt driving ramp. SloMo nonsense explosions look like they’re part of the Transformers on Ice show. When Mark’s friend is frozen by one of those roboactive seed bombs, it seemed a certainty that he’d return later like the Dinobots. Death is not final. You will return as metal. Not so. We never see his buddy again. Left on the cutting room floor, or another one of the myriad narrative dead ends? (So yet again we will not get to see a human being ascend to Transformerhood. Another thing I can do in my comic before the movies.) But at least this time the humans and the robots are in it together.

The comedy in this movie is also much better than previous efforts. There are genuine laughs from verbal and visual gags. A Johnny 5-looking wall painting robot makes an appearance. The characters in the film keep saying “F—” instead of “F*CK”, meaning they’re saving the one that a PG-13 rating allows for a really good moment. When it finally comes out of Stanley Tucci’s mouth, it’s a genuine belly laugh which I won’t spoil here.

Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager is not part of Transformers canon. Good to know. Cade. Yeager. C. Y. Cy. Cybertron. Is he the creator of Cybertron and Cybertron resides in the future, like in Terminator? Bay seems much freer to ignore established lore here. I imagine the fact that he is so vilified by TF fans that it’s empowered him to dismiss fan outrage and just do whatever he wants.

 

 

Bay’s made another late addition to canon: Transformium. Now there’s a technobabble MacGuffin. “Trademark that, ” says Joshua, Stanley Tucci’s Steve Jobs stand-in. I’m sure they did. It joins the ranks of other sci-fi pseudo-elements: Adamantium, Mutagen, Supremium, my own Subliminium from Final Frontier. Transformium gives you the ability, through pure thought, to “transform anything into anything.” As such, the next Transformers movie should look unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. No robot shapes, something more like Jack Cole’s Plastic Man. Transformium makes you indestructible, because you’re so modular, you can be broken into a million pieces and put yourself back together again. The ultimate shape of all things will eventually be Sandman, the Spider-Man villain, the first nano-organism in fiction. This is the ultimate iteration of the basic concept. It is genuine science fiction, and is not too far off from extant technology in real life.

That’s the challenge with sci-fi. Do you push things to their natural inevitable conclusion, or do you hold back the reins in the interest of drama and robot designs that conform to established conventions? I believe in the literal existence or near-existence of every bit of technology in this movie, so you’d better go a step beyond.

In the unlikely event that this film is your first interaction with the Transformers Universe, you might take for granted that the Autobots and the Decepticons were born on Earth, not in space. I think this movie is subtly moving things in that direction. The Planet of the Apes was a separate planet, not a post-apocalyptic earth, in Pierre Boulle’s original novel. But they still haven’t made a Cybertron-centered film. That gives me an advantage, a couple more years to own the popular conception of the flora and fauna of that cybernetic world. If you would’ve liked to have seen some Cybertron action, check out TvsGIJ. Cybertron is an important part of our cosmology, like Kirby’s Asgard.

Stanley Tucci is good. You’re not sure if Joshua is a villain or a hero. He’s what is called, in non-genre fiction, a “character.” He’s a sometimes unflattering portrait of Steve Jobs, perhaps indicative of the slight diminution of the blind awe in which Apple was once held. As Jobs’ innovations become ubiquitous, we’re becoming inured to them. But for this story, Joshua and Cy realize that regardless of their superficial differences and values, there’s a brotherhood of inventors. Cy is just as greedy an IP grabber as Joshua, he’s just not as successful. Before the poor guy is turned into frozen metal, Cy tells his friend about how he owns all his ideas because he signed a contract the second he entered Cy’s barnyard robotics lab. The scene hits close to home as the Kirby family are headed for the Supreme Court.

Stanley Tucci gets a love story. Well, two, and I think it’s up to us to decide which e mployee he ends up with. Incomplete stories are interactive. But he’s a versatile actor, starting out seeming like a villain and becoming comedy relief like John Turturro, probably at the exact same minute mark as shown in this video.

 

 

Like Dr. Smith on Lost in Space or R2D2 and C3PO were in the early drafts of Star Wars, when they were imperial deserters rather than wise-cracking robots.

 

 

Bumblebee’s ‘tude reminds me of my 16-year-old nephew — the demographic of Bumblebee’s appeal, I guess. There’s a scene where Bumblebee punches a passenger in the face with the steering wheel. These films need more of this Herbie the Love Bugangry car combat. Incidentally, Bumblebee should fly. He’s a bumblebee. For Transformers Vs. GI Joe we considered a flying Bumblebee but decided against it. We should’ve done it, though. It makes sense. There’s still time.

Cars seem to have faces, headlights for eyes, grill for a grill. Bumblebee’s new look is the first time that has been really noticeable in these movies. I wonder if they went out of their way to make the TF fronts not look like faces, so it won’t look like Pixar’s Cars. Even Bumblebees rear headlights look like a grinning face.

In the human’s Transformium lab they’re building Galvatron, the Galvanized Megatron. He’s supposed to be modelled after Optimus, but keeps looking like Megatron. Galvatron is a purer, meaner version of Megatron. Galvatron has no Spark, therefore no soul. It’s a good idea. Emptiness at his core, like Megatron’s Black Hole Heart if his tech spec file card is to be believed. It’s the sort of cosmic idea you’d find in a comic book, and therefore it gets my thumbs up.

One of the first things I learned when I took on the TvsGIJ assignment is that they phased out Megatron’s gun form and Soundwave as a cassette tape deck and gave them functions that make more sense within their fictional world. Soundwave has been a road vehicle. Megatron has been a tank or a jet, or a T-Rex in Beast Wars. He’s whatever he wants to be. He rules Cybertron. In Age Of Extinction. Galvatron’s alt form is an 18-wheeler. He reminds me of Garth and Goliath from Knight Rider, Michael Knight (The Hoff) and K.I.T.T.’s evil counterparts. It’s all pointing towards a head-on collision between Optimus and Galvatruck.

 

 

For the first time we have real acting from the Transformers in this movie, particularly the villainous robot bounty hunter Lockdown, which goes a long way towards this series claiming its rightful place as a sci-fi franchise. Enhancing Lockdown’s character is his giant spaceship, which looks suitably Giger-esque. I’m unable to follow the story, of course, but I’m not finding that it interferes with my enjoyment of all this scary stuff.

I think the giant ship is supposed to be a rebuilt, dark version of the Autobot’s now-tarnished golden Ark. It’s now the home of an apocalyptic robot version of Dante’s Inferno. There are bug-eyed robot monsters straight from The Outer Limits.They’re lively, cartoonishly vulgar Boshian nightmare creatures and bolder than any I’ve seen in a while. The action dips into a gross-out splatterhouse alien realm that adds yet another note to what the sometimes stodgy franchise can do. But that’s nothing compared to the inexplicable arrival of a gunk-spewing Vagina Dentata later. We’ve also got bionic space dingoes. The blending of alien flesh and alien machine makes this closer to a Micronauts than a Transformers movie. It increases the range of what a Transformer can be. You do risk losing the unique identity of Transformers. It’s only a bad thing if you don’t come up with something better.

The script and filmmaking during the Dark Ark sequence is imaginative; a legit space opera approach. It’s only natural, now that film is moving out of the early ’60s superhero influence and into the late ’60s/early ’70s, when COMICS became COSMIC.

 

 

The DingoCon cyborgs are where Transformers is headed. It’s where I see Transformers vs. G.I.Joe eventually going. Transformers can be cybernetic, but they can be organic, too. Mankind and Robotkind can meet somewhere in the middle and be more or less indistinguishable from each other. It’s inspiring and emboldening me to expand the visual vocabulary beyond the Gen 1 designs I hold so dear.

Two hours into the movie, there’s still no sign of Grimlock. They sure are saving up their killer app. This is like Unbreakable. Bay’s restraint is commendable (never thought I’d say that), but Optimus finally calls in the reinforcements.

Now, I’ve seen plenty of Prime-as-Jesus iconography. But Arthurian Prime is something new and I might’ve liked to have done it myself. Plenty of other mythologies to raid for spare parts. The pre-Raphaelite Prime gives us an indication of what a Barry Windsor-Smith Transformers vs. G.I.Joe cover might look like. I can dream, can’t I?

 

 

The most recent Arthur in the cinema-going imagination is Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord o the Rings. Prime resurrects his Legion of the Lost, calling the Dinobots back into action. GRIMLOCK! In Transformers Vs. GI Joe #2 we’ve got Trypticon, a robot dinosaur the size of a city (a city made for giant robots). Bay made Grimlock a mythical fire-breathing dragon rather than a dinosaur. It looks like all the Dinobots are featured but rendered as mythological beasts rather than natural history museum dinosaurs. With his two heads, Swoop looks more like Gidrah than a pterodactyl.

Hound tosses a giant grenade and Mark and co. fumble with it. Not enough of these playing with scale-based visual gags in Transformers. I’m working on it on my end.

Bumblebee and Stinger have a grudge match, because a voiceover said Stinger was an improved version of Bumblebee. That’s all it takes. Everybody’s fighting their doppelgängers like the Fantastic Four.

There’s a passing of the torch scene, the boyfriend grabs the front seat. He’s driving the car instead of Wahlberg. “I’m the man in her life now.”

 

 

It seems wrong when an Autobot kills a human. Very wrong. The credo of Transformers writers going back to day one, going back to the original cartoon, is that you can have violent eviscerations as gross as can be and get away with it because “it’s just robots killing robots.” But we know better. There’s no such thing as “just robots” to sci-fi fans. If Artoo Deetoo died, we’d cry harder than if it was Luke or Leia. They’re living creatures until it’s time to go to town on some impalings and eye-gougings. If man and machine are going to co-exist peacefully, we’re going to have to change our Aesop’s Fables to be more equally respectful towards man and machine.

The Lord of the Rings cycle is completed when the Lost Legion of Dinobots are released from obligation. With his newfound gift of flight, Optimus embarks on a search for the creators. If you look in the sky, one of the stars is Optimus’s soul. I’ve seen flying Optimus toys in stores for a while. He gains the gift of flight at the end of Predacons Rising. I wanted to have Optimus fly in issue #2 of TvsGIJ, but it does seem like something that should be saved for later. The “Autobots don’t fly” taboo is powerful and needs to be handled carefully.

Transformers: Age of Extinction proves that superheroes (which they are) don’t need human identities. As Kirby said, superheroes are angels. That’s why he never gave them genitals, but rather the famous “Kirby Krotch.” Optimus Prime is angry at his creators, like Shaw at the end of Prometheus.

If those creators are the Quintessons, then the creators are robots. Who, then, are the creators’ creators? That’s a question that’s never been answered or addressed in a satisfying way to me in TF fiction. In the original Battlestar Galactica, Cylons were Lizard People who built an army of servitor robots. The servitor robots rose up and exterminated the Lizards, the original Reptilian Cylons, and took over the Cylon Empire. “We just kept calling them Cylons.” There’s got to be an analogous explanation for the Transformers. Somebody had to build the Quintessons. You’ve got to have flesh first to have metal. Right? No Steve Jobs, no iPhone. Or maybe not. “Whereas life elsewhere in the cosmos usually evolved through carbon-bonding, here it was the interaction of naturally occuring gears, levers and pulleys that miraculously brought forth sentient beings.”-Mantlo and Macchio, Transformers #1.

 

 

I got a lot out of this movie, but maybe it’s the result of it playing to and against fan expectations. I’m way more of a well-versed Transformers fan than I ever have been in my life. The film is obviously the work of an auteur with a point of view, however you feel about it, but it doesn’t look like other Bay movies. I imagine that’s deliberate, too — make a more generic aesthetic to smooth the transition to a new director for TF5.

It’s been said that blockbuster stories are deliberately designed to make no sense. It sure seems that way here. A bunch of unconnected incidents have happened that never converge or culminate and I kind of don’t care — like the caged robots we see, whose jailbreak never comes. I can understand why you would deliberately craft a nonsensical story. Nonsense traps the mind. We as viewers try to make sense of things. We treat it as a puzzle and don’t stop playing with the pieces until we figure out the nonexistent solution or get bored. If the spectacle is spectacular, you can delay boredom possibly until the end of the movie.

There’s an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom rope bridge walk sequence here — between a spaceship and a skyscraper — that reminds me that “plot” is overrated and generally accepted theories of story are outdated, having been made in a time of monarchy and aristocracy. There’s no place for it in our egalitarian global community.

What’s this movie about again? Doesn’t matter. I like it because I’m trying to analyze a movie that deliberately evades and confounds analysis. I thought I’d do a lot more mocking and a lot less learning at this film. The word “farrago”, for instance. I looked it up, it means “a confused mish-mash.” What a great thing to learn from a Michael Bay movie. Transformers vs. G.I.Joe is still going to blow this thing out of the water, but this movie is a worthier adversary than I’d given it credit for. Michael Bay has a skill set and 10,000+ hours of practice not too many people have. His films defy analysis, but I find that’s a good thing. It means you’ve got an elusive quality all your own that’s greater than the sum of your parts. I think he’s the real deal. Bay was able to make this movie, put his indelible stamp on it and still have a fresh look, something you’d ordinarily get from bringing in a new director. That’s a Hollywood survival skill worth having.

Bay’s type of spectacle is unique. It’s emulated by others but without the same facility. He is an artist, but his paints and brushes are piles of cash which can be applied to any situation. Avengers is tame by comparison, but we will continue to see an escalation of these competing franchises until the eventual fall of the blockbuster, when a 21st Century equivalent to 1990s Miramax comes around to redefine the template for Hollywood movies.

Still, there hasn’t yet been a better Transformers movie than the DeLaurentis-produced 1986 animated one. That was a psychedelic space odyssey of technocosmic exploration. The ending of Age of Extinction teases a cosmic sequel, like Avengers did. It is a good opportunity to redefine what a Transformers movie can be. There’s been four of them. It’s overdue for radical reinvention. Instead of a run-and-gun action movie, why not a documentary-style exploration of a world where robot cars and humans live in peaceful productive harmony?

 

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