Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth film in director Michael Bay's global blockbuster franchise. With help from a new cast of humans, Optimus Prime and the Autobots must rise to meet their most fearsome challenge yet.
I honestly have no idea how best to approach reviewing a fourth 'Transformers' film. After catching a screening this summer, I decided to move on from the franchise for reasons I'll get to in a moment. Then word came out that 'Age of Extinction' was to be the first Dolby Atmos Blu-ray and HDD's trusty Editor-in-Chief asked me to review the title, so here I am.
Before we jump in, please know, despite my criticisms, I'm writing this review as sincerely as possible, purposely avoiding sarcasm that could be read as lazy or cynical. I realize this film franchise still excites millions around the world, and it's also a fantastic financial investment for Paramount and its partners. Truth is I'm invested in Hollywood-produced content, and any time one of the few buyers in town can make a profit, that means other movies can be made, other filmmakers can be given chances. Basically, in the most cynical town in the world, a town often afraid to make movies that aren't based on branded properties, I'm earnestly hoping for all of these companies to do as well as possible for the sake of other content that can be made (and jobs secured) in the wake of a profitable quarter.
So I don't begrudge these movies the way some do.
I just find it hard to emotionally connect with them.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' picks up five years after the events of 'Dark of the Moon', with an America rebuilding physically and emotionally from the Battle for Chicago. While CIA Agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has been instructed to save Autobots while hunting the Deceptions, he has his secret black ops team, lead by James Savoy (Titus Welliver), tracking and killing all Transformers. Oddly, even though Attinger and Savoy openly voice their disgust for these robotic illegal aliens, they have teamed with an interstellar Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (for mysterious reasons). Fearing for their lives, Optimus Prime and the other Autobots have gone into hiding.
Down in Texas, we meet the Yeager family. Cade (Mark Walhberg) is a struggling inventor and single father who is going to lose his house if he doesn't get his life together. Daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) is two weeks out from high school graduation. She's supposed to go to college next year, but has been unable to secure the necessary scholarship. Finally, as the comic relief, we have Cade's employee buddy, Lucas (T.J. Miller).
While looking to buy an antique projector from a defunct movie theatre, Cade and Lucas stumble upon an old tractor trailer truck and buy it for a couple hundred bucks. Cade hopes to strip it and sell the parts, but this is no truck. It's a crippled Optimus Prime in disguise. Soon the CIA finds out and descends on the Yeagar farm as Cade brings Optimus back to life. After escaping with a a little help from Tessa's rally car racer boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), our heroes become wanted fugitives along with surviving Autobots Bumblebee, Hound, Drift, and Crosshairs.
What is the CIA really up to? Why are they working with Stanley Tucci's mysterious company, KSI? What does Lockdown really want? The only way to find out the truth and save their own lives is to take the fight directly to the enemies. The Yeagers and the Autobots team up for a trip back to Chicago and eventually around the globe to save themselves and, ultimately, the whole world from a dangerous weapon that may have eradicated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' might have a new human cast, but for anyone who has seen the previous three installments, it's interchangeable with what's come before. For many of you, that's a pretty great thing. This flick features gorgeous visuals, cutting edge special effects, a blistering surround sound experience, juvenile humor and other unique tonal flourishes, and endless amounts of action / disaster porn. It's part alien invasion, part science fiction war epic, all funneled through the lens of awe shucks American machismo. This is a story about good guys who are forced to use heavily artillery to save the day.
If you love all that stuff, and again I'm saying this sincerely, you're going to love (or already love) 'Age of Extinction'. Director Michael Bay is the voice of this series -- and also the leader of thousands who help him achieve his vision -- and this man has told the story he wants to tell exactly as he wants to tell it. Also, Mark Wahlberg, Titus Welliver, Kelsey Grammar, and Stanley Tucci all seem to be having a lot of fun, so I think they did a pretty great job. In all of these terms, it's a home run.
For me, however, I find the whole experience a little numbing and overtly nihilistic. Consider a throwaway gag in the first act where a grandson is selling his grandfather's beloved movie house. When grandpa talks back, his exasperated grandson quips, "I am one diaper change away from poisoning his oatmeal." Which is fine. Comedy's subjective, I know. And it's one gag from non essential characters. But there are tons of jokes just like these and this line perfectly exemplifies how hateful this universe can be while pretending to be fun and light. Maybe I'm just getting old.
'Transformers 4' is also a film universe where a plucky inventor has a character arc that makes him anti-science by tale's end. "One day I'm going to build something that matters," he hopes, but the movie never gives him the chance. It's a story where the hyper-sexualized main female character, Tessa, is repeatedly reduced to An Object to be ruled by the puritanical men in her life. This is a film with a series of set-pieces that go on and on (and on) without any sense of escalation or geography or suspense. I often compare Mr. Bay's 'Transformers' era to his earlier Bruckheimer days, and honestly 'The Rock', 'Bad Boys', and even 'Armageddon' have much better action sequences. Not bigger, mind you, but thrilling and emotional. These newer ones are epic and visceral, but feel so repetitious (example: during the climax our heroes are nearly killed by at least three different giant ship propellors) and Turn The Amps to Eleven.
Then there's the logic stuff. I won't go too deep here, because most logic critics are horrible (see Cinema Sins). Basically, if you try to dictate, as an audience member, what a story should or shouldn't be doing, you're much more easily frustrated. Here is the part where, I presume, people say "turn off your brain." But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about creating Movie Rules (for this one universe) and keeping them consistent. So while some get ticked off when a car chase starts in Beijing and ends up in Hong Kong, I'm more focused on when the movie defines a Rule and then seems to break it (often within the same scene).
Example: Cade, Shane, and Bumble Bee break into KSI's "scanning room" (they are scanning the exteriors and interiors of high end cars for reasons I'll not spoil), Stanley Tucci verbally accosts them, saying in regards to Bumble Bee as a '69 Camaro, "What's with this vintage crap? We're not scanning collector car junk." Which is totally fine. Tucci's implying he only wants poetic new modern cars, right? Except as Tucci says the line above, he literally passes 1959 Corvette Racing Stingray, a vintage collector car. Another small moment, but a perfect example of how this movie often breaks its own rules within seconds (at the exact same time as?) creating them. That sort of stuff bums me out.
In terms of giving the movie a numerical star rating, I find the whole process futile, particularly with polarizing content, because people focus on The Number more than the (hopefully) carefully constructed essay. Knowing full well whatever number chosen, the first Facebook and Forum comment will be, "How could you give it __stars!?!!", I'm going to try something a little new:
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' is pure popcorn spectacle, produced on the grandest scale possible, made by a group of professionals in service of a director with a signature vision. It does everything it wants to do exactly the way it wants. And yet, for me, I'm not a fan of the movie's character thematics (a perceived nihilism), its lack of in-scene (in-movie) logic, and tiresome, repetitive action sequences. So that's 5 Stars on its own terms. 1 Star from me. Average that out to 3 Stars.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' debuts on Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment as a three-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack. The first Blu-ray is a BD50 housing the movie-only over 44.93GB. There are no forced trailers. The second Blu-ray houses all of the Special Features. The Digital HD redemption code can be used with UltraViolet or iTunes, and may not be valid after 9/30/2016.
This film is also available as a four-disc Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack. That version includes the IMAX 3D cut of the film.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' explodes onto Blu-ray with a stunning AVC MPEG-4 encode framed at the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Your high definition display is going to love this Blu-ray. It's a sumptuous visual feast of razor sharp details and bright, bold colors. Everything from the farmlands of Texas to Monument Valley to Chicago to Hong Kong and other China locations looks fantastic. Primary colors are warm and saturated and lush. Skin tones are often a little exaggerated, but reflected the story environment. Black levels are also on point, from the inside of the Yeager barn to the Lockdown's spaceship interior to the CIA assault on a Riverboat. This movie on Blu-ray is visually flawless, though some of the visual effects are less than perfect.
While we have already enjoyed over 100 titles released to cinemas, 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' is the first Blu-ray to feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, an object-based surround format which has, until now, been exclusive to commercial cinema venues. In this Blu-ray's settings menu, Dolby Atmos is the default audio selection, and can only be experienced by bitstreaming to an Atmos-capable AV Receiver amplifying A) additional overhead speakers OR B) Atmos-enabled speakers that reflect overhead channels off flat ceilings. If you do not have a Dolby Atmos equipped AVR or the required speakers, selecting Dolby Atmos defaults to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, which will downmix to 5.1 TrueHD if you do not have a 7.1 setup. There are also discrete 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital (lossy) mix options.
Dolby Atmos -- 4.5 Stars
Atmos has proved to be my favorite surround sound format after experiences like 'Gravity', 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', 'Guardians of the Galaxy', 'Iron Man 3', and 'Life of Pi'. Some say Atmos is a gimmick. To that I respond, yeah, no kidding, welcome to motion picture entertainment. It's all a gimmick, designed to enthrall, dazzle, and entertain. To transport audiences into other worlds where we get to emote and empathize with our favorite character, feeling the heartache, sweating the close calls, cheering the big wins, and mourning their losses. Atmos is one of many tools that, when used in titles like those above, disappears and perfectly suspends disbelief.
In other words, I can't wait to upgrade.
Since all of this is pretty new, and because many of the new AV Receivers and Atmos-enabled speakers won't be available until 'Age of Extinction' hits retail floors (or later this fall), I was able to coordinate, through Dolby, a trip to Pioneer a facility to demo Atmos on some new Pioneer gear (thanks again to Chris, Katherine, and Jaed!).
For this review — using a 9.2-channel Pioneer Elite SC-89 9.2 channel AV Receiver paired with four SP-EFS73 Elite Floorstanding Speakers to bounce the height channels off a 10-foot ceiling — I experienced 'Age of Extinction' in 5.1.4. That's a standard 5.1 arrangement of ear-level channels combined with front and rear stereo overhead channels. During the movie, I was able to toggle Atmos off and on to compare it to a traditional 5.1 setup.
Everything I say below about the 7.1 track holds true. This is a reference quality mix — detailed and aggressive and loud and bass heavy and abounds with demo material. I spent quite a bit of time with Atmos on and off, trying to compare certain sequences, revealing a few favorite Atmos effects that improve over their 7.1 counterpart:
Basically, the best directional effects are mini drones buzzing your ears, helicopter rotors and jets blazing overhead, and much taller explosions (particularly that Rachet scene as the big boom is punctuated by a preceding moment of silence).
Atmos object-based effects definitely compliment an already outstanding sound mix. That said, while walking around to each speaker to hear when the upwards-facing driver was actually firing, I was surprised by how infrequently the overhead channels were used. Granted, I don't know what this mix would sound like with in-ceiling speakers, but, despite being able to pick out some bonus effects…
The Atmos mix is not overwhelmingly different from the 7.1 mix.
I have a few theories about this. First, my 7.1 side and rear surround speakers are above ear level so that might cancel out some of the need for rear height channels (though when I was comparing 5.1.2 to 5.1.4 later in my demo, I definitely missed the rear heights).
Second, in my personal experience, Atmos is best suited in delicate moments or precise panning effects. It fills a room with the sensation of drizzling rain punctuated by thunder claps. A single arrow or bullet or jet streaks over our heads. Yet, in full blown action sequences, in movies like 'Age of Extinction' or 'Edge of Tomorrow', it's sometimes more challenging to pick out these individual effects as the sound field becomes complex and crowded.
Third, this mix is exactly how the filmmakers want it to sound. There's no reason for them to jam a gimmick down our throats when it doesn't serve their needs.
So how do we rate this Atmos track?
While it matches the reference quality 7.1 mix perfectly, and even enhances a few moments, which would imply the need to give this another 5-star grading, my Atmos expectations are higher than normal. Maybe too much so, but given that this is pretty much the world's first Atmos-for-the-home sound mix review (for a full movie), I think we can do better because I've already heard better Atmos. Not only in the movies listed above, and not just theatrically, but even listening to Dolby trailers 'Leaf' and 'Amaze' on this $6800 5.1.4 Pioneer system (not including Display) revealed nuances I hadn't noticed in commercial Atmos spaces.
I know that's probably confusing to some of you. How can something better than a 5-star 7.1 track get 4.5 stars?
Think of it this way. You can enjoy a 3D version of the movie more than its 2D counterpart while admitting there are better 3D Blu-rays available. That's what I'm looking for in a 5-star Atmos mix. That's what we'll hopefully get by year's end -- an Atmos Blu-ray that's wholeheartedly a better experience than the traditional channel-based sound mix. At present, 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' in Dolby Atmos is not quite there. But I'm still looking forward to see what titles come next to see how this format can expand on Blu-ray and HD streaming.
7.1 Dolby TrueHD -- 5.0 Stars
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' explodes onto Blu-ray with a highly articulate, bombastic, reference quality 7.1 Dolby TrueHD sound mix.
No surprise here. Each 'Transformers' Blu-ray has been a go-to demonstration disc to test out and show off your surround sound gear. Despite the non-stop onslaught action and visuals and kinetic movement, this soundtrack is wonderfully subtle, using smaller, precise sounds to pull viewers into the on-screen action. I love the way the metallic sounds swirl around the entire room, how the LFE fills the room at certain moments you wouldn't expect. This is a track that evokes the sensation of chaos and destruction, but never overwhelms the whole system. This precision is impossibly immersive while keeping dialog levels audible too. There are demos a-plenty all over the place, but I suggest checking out chapters 1, 13, and 20 for some really fun audio sequences.
All of the included Bonus Materials appear to be HD Exclusives.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' is exactly the type of movie you think it's going to be. It's loud and aggressive and tonally wild. Honestly, you can't help but be impressed by the scale of this production, particularly after watching the feature length making of documentary. Many people love these movies. For me, I have a hard time connecting to the emotions, tone, and the way it approaches the structure of action set-pieces. You probably already know whether or not you're going to enjoy this movie.
The Blu-ray offers a reference quality video and audio along with the world's first Dolby Atmos track. While it might not be The Best Atmos Ever, it's still a powerful surround sound experience. Add in three hours of bonus features, and fans are guaranteed to love this. The only question is to pick up this version (or one of its many limited edition sets), or the 3D IMAX Blu-ray. For franchise fans, this Blu-ray comes Highly Recommended. For the rest of you who want to experience the high quality picture and audio, but may not want to revisit again and again, Give it a Rent.
As a Blu-ray, this title is Recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.