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Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Intelligent Agency

I was impressed by a few features of the first one. Most notably, it was a risk for them to adopt and extend a certain cinematic technique in such a high risk project. I wrote about the effect: having battle scenes with only a part of the action visible, either in the cut or the frame.

It meant we were not quite able to understand what was happening, who hit who precisely, and where they fell and such. This is not new, invented I believe by Kurosawa. But it was reframed by being in 3-D and involving creatures made of bits whose assembly we witness. In a similar fashion to the battles, we can’t follow what folds and tucks where.

I knew then that this was primarily for practical ends: the rendering technology and costs constrained them. But it made for pretty exciting visuals, reflecting the confusion one would have if they were there. It increased the immediacy of the thing. This was coupled with their choice for a color balance, something different than a colour choice. They bucked the industry and went for something greenish and shocking. This also made it feel, subtly but strongly, as if it were a real thing.

Since then, the cinematic adventure has been washed away. They can now afford to have the fights be shown where the viewer can see and understand each movement — so much so that comic comments can be inserted. This is a step backwards in cinematic power. I can only assume that it was because nearly three hours of confusion wouldn’t sell.

At the same time, we have a massive retreat to retro misogeny, more obvious product placement, overt pandering to the Chinese ‘central’ government, and less concern about acting.

But there is something to be said for the increased sophistication of agency in the narrative. Your standard blockbuster has one pair of agents: some bad guys and some good ones. All we do is see the good guys in peril designed for us to relate enough to cheer when the bad guys are suitably punished. As time goes on, the cosmic forces involved get more esoteric and involved, but this two-agent dynamic is constant.

So even though we have dumber fights, dumber characters and a dumber ‘bomb’ here, we also have a greatly expanded set of agents, revealed in pretty skillful manner. We also, I think, have the writers messing with the prior history of that world to build new ambiguities and tensions for future, multi agent conflict weaves.

Here, we have Autobots, our normal good guys. They seem to be recast as rat packers here, but never mind. We have the reliably evil CIA, off on some overpowered and misguided action, thumbing its nose as oversight.

We have the Kelsey Grammar CIA program manager whose motive could be money, could be honour, could be xenophobia, could simply be a drive for power from relative helplessness. (We would bring our knowledge that the CIA has screwed up so enormously and consistently in 50 years that anyone in power there has to be psychologically damaged.)

We have the stock genius-inventor tuned billionaire defense contractor. Arrogant, demanding, steeped in adoring women. (Why he only has 20 billion dollars is odd. Even minor talents like Gates got 80 billion by thuggery. One Lockheed project is estimated at 1 Trillion.) We discover that he has internal agents: the desire for a companion, the quest for knowledge, an urge to control and of course fame and fortune.

There’s Megatron, our standard bad guy. His motives are represented as simple evil.

The odd player in this is the alien bounty hunter who may be in it for something like money. He seems to be a counterpart to the CIA guy, with similar internal drives; he could be playing the system himself.

The rather sweet complications: The billionaire may be controlled by the CIA guy or the other way around. The Megatron may be controlled by the billionaire or the other way around. The bounty hunter may be controlled by the CIA guy or the other way around.

At the robot level, the bounty hunter may be mastered by ‘the creators;’ the ancients (I forget their name in this universe) may be mastered by the autobots; the prototypes may be mastered by the Galvatron who may be mastered by the Megatron head.

To support this is (I believe) a backstory that is new: the creators used a seed to create the original Earth-bound transformers, incidentally destroying the dinosaurs (minus birds). Also new is the idea that the material can be mined and exploited for its own agency. We see the defence contractor and his team direct the material to form different objects. Some inner soul of the transformers overrides this intrinsic agency.

It all seems to have been worked out at the level that Tolkien established as the standard and which (actual creators) Takara and the Hassenfeld Brothers glossed.

Posted in 2014

Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.


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