The robots return in ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Filmmaker Michael Bay thinks there’s something interesting about Japanese samurai that sets them apart from English knights.

“You put a medieval knight in front of the camera and it now looks (a bit) cliched, it looks outdated,” he says. “But the samurai look, of course we know it’s historical yet it looks so modern.”

The “modern samurai” look is evident in “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” literally in the character of Drift (voiced by Ken Watanabe) and in a broader sense because the CGI robot cast is based on a line of toys out of Japan that was popular in the 1980s.

“You look at some of the older Japanese movies with samurai characters in them and you can visualize them as robotic,” Bay says. “They look . . . streamlined, mechanical and practical.”

Bay himself has become synonymous with the modern action movie, having helmed blockbusters such as “Armageddon” (1998), “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Pain & Gain” (2013) and the entire “Transformers” movie series.

His latest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” promises more of the action and explosions Bay is known for, but the director reportedly almost didn’t take the job this time around. He’s not saying why, but he admits he was “prevailed upon. Expertly.” Coming back on board for a fourth time, he decided to make a few changes to the franchise. In particular, he didn’t want the robots to look too much like toys.

“I understand the need to draw an audience of kids and the global considerations, but I wanted to be involved with something that had a longer-lasting, even cerebral appeal. And I don’t want to be tied — artistically or in people’s minds — to ‘Transformers’ after ‘Transformers,’ ” he says, perhaps alluding to the series’ planned fifth installment.

While the Japanese roots of “Transformers” may be apparent in the design of the robotic heroes and villains of the film, the “global considerations” Bay refers to come mainly from the newly important Chinese market.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” was partly financed by Chinese backers, has Chinese product placement and co-stars Li Bingbing as the owner of a factory manufacturing Transformers for a U.S. outfit named KSI. Bay says that cooperation between China and the United States for future filmmaking ventures will be important. The tendency of Hollywood to cast the citizens of foreign nations in villainous roles might be coming to an end if that’s the case, I suggest, to which Bay replies, “I don’t think the Chinese see themselves as villains. They do want to be admired.”

It’s also interesting, then, that a lot of the aircraft on loan from the U.S. Army in the series are often associated with the evil Decepticon robots. The army doesn’t seem to mind, however, as the film’s producers secured even more military assistance for this sequel than the previous “Transformers” movies.

The thing that sets “Transformers: Age of Extinction” apart from its three predecessors, though, is a new group of human characters. Mark Wahlberg stars as the hero, Cade Yeager, while Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor round out the main cast.

“I’m just kind of the small human heart of this movie — small, but beating. I wouldn’t have guessed, years before I turned 40, that I’d still be doing stuff in a movie like this,” says Wahlberg, who is now 43. “Not that there are many movies like this, you know? The scale of the whole thing is awesome.”

Grammer, who played the titular role in the popular U.S. sitcom “Frasier” (1993-2004) takes on the role of Harold Attinger, the paranoid head of an elite CIA unit.

“His name’s Harold — isn’t that a perfect, anal-retentive, paranoiac name?” Grammer says with a grin. “Then you have Cade, pretty much an average Joe, and his daughter Tessa (Peltz) — these wonderful names! Stanley Tucci is this arrogant technocrat (head of KSI) who wants to make and control his own Transformers, and his name is Joshua Joyce. It’s a bit comic-bookey, but it really works on screen.”

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” has succeeded in drawing in a large audience despite replacing its cast, and Grammar believes this is because the film brings back the real draw — familiar robotic characters.

“It’s a rather ingenious blending of the human vs. machine equation,” he says, adding that the film is about balance. “The human element is shown in its negative and positive aspects . . . you have greedy businessmen who employ science and technology for material ends, and naturally are unconcerned if it gets out of control — like in, say, ‘Jurassic Park.’ “

The original “Transformers” film in 2007 made stars out of its leads, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. In particular, the film turned Fox into one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood. Nineteen-year-old Peltz isn’t looking to follow in Fox’s footsteps by appearing in the film as Tessa Yeager, though. She makes it clear she isn’t the eye candy.

“Of course a man with a daughter is automatically more vulnerable, and she’s vulnerable. Their relationship humanizes the whole project,” Peltz says. “But in keeping with the need to lift the status of girls and women globally, Tessa is an active and self-determining individual.

“Also, on a lighter note, she was fun to play because this sort of movie calls on real acting chops when you’re playing to, not only humans, but all sorts of mechanical and metallic co-stars.”

Peltz points out that while the human villains in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” are rather despicable, the mechanical ones are “not exactly cuddly, but there’s something to admire or even like about them.”

“I’ve seen the other ‘Transformers’ movies and I think this is the most imaginative one,” she says. However, she adds, the $210 million budget has raised some eyebrows.

“One critic said that amount is obscene, compared to the number of poor Third World-citizens it could feed,” she says. “A few friends of mine think (‘Transformers’) and some other recent movies have gotten into a habit of using technology for technology’s sake . . . that the human element’s sort of (lost) in all of that. Although,” she brightens vocally, “that’s what Mark and I are there to try and counteract.”

Some movement sequences from prior “Transformers” pictures took nearly 40 hours to process, due to the complexity of the special effects involved. Bay says this amount of time will fluctuate because the technology of special effects continues to improve while also tackling bigger challenges.

“The problem, if it is one, is that we maybe keep overreaching ourselves. We (swiftly) get used to a quicker, easier effect and then we want to take it to the next stage,” he says. “I’m not a wizard at this — I have brilliantly talented special-effects wizards to help create the often truly amazing final product, or result, as I prefer to say — but it seems that in filmmaking the desire and need to come up with more, with something bigger or more spectacular, is the mother of a new ability, of a new result. It doesn’t cease to amaze me that what the imagination can come up with is usually doable” on film.

Grammer believes that at the core of new advancements in action and special effects, however, a story that can unite the audience is still essential.

“Movies like this that show the Earth placed in jeopardy by outside forces — whatever (those forces) may be — are, I think, intended to push the concept of the family of humanity — to show that we’re one bunch of vulnerable beings who should come together for our own and our children’s sakes, instead of emphasizing individual cultural or religious differences,” he says. “I think ‘Transformers 4′ can be read on that level, as sort of a warning — and an encouragement: Unite positively . . . or perhaps be annihilated. If you look at most of the sagas, tales and stories that have lasted through the centuries, they have these elements of over-the-top villains that represent very real and destructive human forces — political, religious, corporate, etc. They contrast with the vulnerable, typical humans who, in dire circumstances, can rise to a level of unity and courage.”

In “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” one such person is Cade. Wahlberg says it was “a kick” to appear in a film with such iconic childhood characters as Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.

“These are pretty real characters to a lot of kids the world over,” he says with a chuckle, noting that the addition of the Dinobots lends a new lease on life to the series’ characterizations — not to mention a new line of merchandising tie-ins. The animated “Transformers” series, which was a hit in North America during the 1980s (and provided inspiration for the current series of films), was completely tied into the toys marketed by American company Hasbro and Japan’s Takura (now Takura-Tomy). “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is also targeting kids with a wave of merchandise, and as a father of four, Wahlberg must be readying for some trips to the toy store.

“I guess when anything costs as much as this (film) did, you want to get it back in more than just movie-ticket sales. Does it go too far? You know, that’s an opinion, but I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me.”

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” opens in cinemas nationwide on Aug. 8. For more information, visit www.tf-movie.jp.

  • Thomas

    Michael, please. A franchise doesn’t capture people’s imaginations for 30 years unless it already has a “longer-lasting, even cerebral appeal.”
    When people say these movies are pointless, it’s not the concept of “Transformers” they’re talking about. They’re talking about YOU.

    It’s this attitude of Bay’s that *causes* the movies to lack substance – he doesn’t believe that they can or should have it, so he doesn’t bother to try. Meanwhile audiences know how good and meaningful Transformers can be (we wouldn’t be fans after all this time if there wasn’t something deeply meaningful in it for us).

    He’s been displaying this fundamentally disrespectful attitude since day 1. He doesn’t believe “Transformers” is important, so why should we keep paying his bills and keeping him around?