Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Transfomers: Age of Extinction, 2014

Production Companies: Paramount Pictures, Hasbro, China Movie Channel
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Producers: Michael Bay, Don Murphy, Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cinematography: Amir Mokri
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Editors: Roger Burton, William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell
Running Time: 165 mins.
Classification: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo.
Tagline: This is not war, it’s extinction.
Box Office Gross: domestic $245.4m / worldwide $1.1bn
Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Cade Yeager), Stanley Tucci (Joshua Joyce), Kelsey Grammar (Harold Attinger), TJ Miller (Lucas Flannery), Nicola Peltz (Tessa Yeager), Jack Reynor (Shane Dyson), Titus Welliver (James Savoy), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime)
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Plot The Cretaceous period. Spaceships use explosive ‘Seeds’ to turn Earth’s living matter into an alien metal used to create transformers. Present day, five years after Autobot Transformers and their enemies fought a major battle in Chicago. Traces of the alien metal, dubbed ‘Transformium’, are being used by inventor Joshua Joyce and his multinational corporation KSI to create new weapons, upgraded from parts of Decepticons and Autobots alike. These have been captured by Harold Attinger’s covert CIA unit Cemetery Wind, with help from a spaceship-flying Transformer called Lockdown, who is willing to provide a Transformium-producing Seed in exchange for Autobot leader Optimus Prime, whom the Transformers’ Creators want to subjugate. An old truck salvaged by Texan widower and inventor Cade Yeager turns out to be the injured Optimus. Cade, his teen daughter Tessa, her boyfriend Shane and Optimus escape Cemetery Wind, re-join four other fugitive Autobots and infiltrate KSI’s city headquarters. Joshua unleashes his synthetic Transformer, Galvatron, not realising it has been infected with the brain of Decepticon leader Megatron. In the ensuing fight, Lockdown captures Optimus and Tessa, taking both to his spaceship. Cade, Shane and the Autobots rescue them, as well as some captive Dinobots. Harold and Joshua move the Seed to their Beijing offices. As Galvatron turns Joshua’s Transformers into a Decepticon army, Cade, Shane, Tessa and the Autobots flee to Hong Kong with Joshua. In a pitched battle, Optimus tames and rides the Dinobots, killing Harold and Lockdown. Optimus flies into space to face the Creators. (Bitel, 2014)

Film Note The highest grossing film of 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a spectacle of excess. Bay’s distinctive style creates a hegemonic masculinity that rehearses 1980s modes of hyper-masculinity in order to register growing anxiety with contemporary liberal masculinity. Reviled by critics, the film is also a significant part of a cycle of American-Chinese co-productions shaping contemporary Hollywood business practices.

Rebooting hyper-masculinity Transformers: Age of Extinction is a soft reboot of the previous Transformers trilogy with a new cast. The change of teenage Sam (Shia LaBeouf) to father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) shifts how masculinity is portrayed onscreen. In the Blu-ray extras the film’s producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says, “[Now we have] a male action hero [Cade, and] that’s a different vibe than before”. Nick Pinkerton places Mark Wahlberg who plays Cade as a “transitional figure in action cinema” (32) who marks the change from 1980s hyper-masculinity to a more liberal masculinity. However, Wahlberg’s appearance in Transformers: Age of Extinction (and Pain and Gain (2013) a year earlier) shows his image is increasingly recalling 1980s masculinity without concessions to liberal variants, and that this represents “a new maximalist tendency” (Pinkerton 30). This maximalist tendency, which is defined by ultra-violence and ever-increasing kill counts, marks the change between the first three Transformers films and Transformers: Age of Extinction, which displays an aggressive masculinity, as when Optimus tells Cade; “I swore to never kill humans, but when I find out who is behind [the assassination of the Autobots] he’s going to die”.

Cade and Optimus Prime can be read as representations of this conservative masculinity. The audience is encouraged to identify with Cade, who is described as an “everyday Joe” by Wahlberg in the Blu-ray extras. Stella Bruzzi identifies this as a hyper-masculine figure that is “hysterically two-dimensional, stripped of normalcy and ultimately perverse” (25), creating a tension with Cade’s “everyday Joe” image. A father and struggling inventor, Cade is a cipher for the working class Republican masses that shaped the political culture towards the end of the second term of the “Obama Administration, which Bay represents as so prissy and anti-war” (Pols). Cade tells Attinger, the head of government organisation Cemetery Wind, to “man up and do it himself” indirectly criticising a liberal and thus ineffectual government.

Cade also represents a conservative patriarchy, withholding his daughter from other men. Yet when Cade reprimands Tessa for the length of her shorts, the camera is framed on her thighs and rear, generating a conflict between having an objectified woman on screen and the articulated constraint of female sexuality by a conservative worldview. Cade’s actions and character arc reflect a cycle of action/sci-fi films where the father affirms control over the family in crisis, including War of the Worlds (2005) and San Andreas (2015). Additionally, the father in San Andreas is Dwayne Johnson, a hyper-masculine figure like Wahlberg, whose hulking physique is often clad in tight t-shirts, further recalling the action heroes of the 1980s.

Cade is juxtaposed with the other forms of masculinity in the film, particularly Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), head of KSI. Joyce represents a liberal masculinity concerned with science and progress over tradition. While Cade saves the day, Joyce is the cause of most of the problems in the film and requires Cade to put him on the right path, as in their phone conversation where Cade tells Joyce he is in too deep with Cemetery Wind. This serves as an allegory of liberal masculinity being ineffectual and requiring a return to a conservative masculinity and the “maximalist tendency” (Pinkerton 30) of the 1980s. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin see masculinity “associated with being large, loud and active, with non-emotional aggression and strong leadership abilities” (214). In line with this, Cade is the one to take charge by virtue of his masculinity. Compared with Joyce, who screams in fear at multiple points in the film, Cade never cries or shows his emotions in any other way than aggression. The difference in Cade and Joyce’s masculinities reaches its peak when Joyce complains about his situation as the Autobots and KSI robots fight. Cade offers him the gun but Joyce states “I don’t want the gun”, showing liberal masculinity’s reluctance to be involved in the more violent aspects of masculinity.

If Cade is “hysterically two-dimensional” (Bruzzi 25) within the limits of the human body, the production design of Optimus takes this to cartoonish proportions. In the film Optimus is half-destroyed and then gains a new form, including breast plates, broad shoulders, tapered waist and kilt-like hanging metal. The production design here recalls the physique of Conan the Barbarian and other hyper-masculine figures popular in the 1980s. For Bruce Isaacs this transformation is significant, “fetishiz[ing] the process of becoming [hypermasculine], desiring to engage in such a process […] and thereby situating the spectator in this same relationship to the process of becoming”. As a digital spectacle the audience is objectifying the body on screen but additionally there is a desire to become the body. The audience see Optimus transform into masculine perfection, just as Cade starts as an everyday father and becomes an action hero.

The Blu-ray extras note that in Transformers: Age of Extinction  the cars and vehicles were designed to look and be more “aggressive” and the use of an American truck for Optimus’s other form links this style of masculinity to American ideals. In comparison Galvatron’s truck design is based on (presumably more effete) European lorry design. Presented as a group of  “American good old boys” (Ellis) the spectacle of the Autobots bodies is one that also creates identification. When comparing their masculine forms with Galvatron’s out-of-proportion, stocky and distinctly alien shape the audience is inclined to identify with a US-branded masculine body.

Unique to Transformers: Age of Extinction compared to the rest of the franchise is the change in Optimus’ moral stance and this can be read in relation to the ideological shifts noted above. As mentioned, Optimus revokes his stance on not killing humans, killing Attinger at the end of the film. Optimus kills Attinger to save Cade, and although this is a killing to save a life, the way this scene is shot reveals “brutality is part of the satisfaction” (Bruzzi 84). The fast editing means there is little time to contemplate the consequences of the death. This is part of the new “era of the bicep” (Pinkerton) more concerned with images of masculine dominance than arguments over the morals of killing. As Cade says to Tessa: “it’s not a rule, its wisdom”. The wisdom of right and wrong is intrinsically linked to the hegemonic masculinity of Cade and Optimus who are never framed by the film as making the wrong moral choice. Optimus who wanted to abandon his support for humankind is proved right with the rebellion of the KSI robots and yet he is convinced to help humans again by an everyday American embodying the masculinity of the 1980s. In this there is “a correlation between the Supersizing of the American action movie and the political ascent of the United States” (Pinkerton 32). Following failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq America has been viewed as a declining world power and against this backdrop audiences may see a return to a more conservative patriarchy of the 1980s as some kind of answer. In this way the film might be read as a premonition of Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’.

Bayhem An aggressive, masculine cinema, conveyed through quick edits and gratuitous digital effects defines Bay’s work and in Transformers: Age of Extinction it “pummels the audience into stupefied submission” (Kermode). Bay’s style is coherent enough to warrant a name: “Bayhem”, defined by Tony Zhou as “the use of movement, composition and fast editing to create a sense of epic scale”. Battleship (2012) is used by Zhou as an example of a film that made use of the Bayhem style but was a commercial and critical failure. What Battleship lacks, according to Zhou, is parallax; moving the foreground and background images in contrast with each other.  Transformers: Age of Extinction does not make the same mistake. When Galvatron commands his army in Beijing, the camera is at a low angle following Galvatron as he walks while his army move in the opposite direction to him in the background, creating parallax. Archways and buildings give an additional sense of scale, intensifying what the audience see on screen. Shots like these, and Bay’s continual use of slow motion, do not follow a classical model. Indeed, rather than motivation via narrative action, slow motion here “rationalises” the digital images on screen allowing “the marvellous complexity of contemporary digital animation” to be read by the audience (Isaacs). Slow motion also intensifies the scene, as with the fight in Beijing between the Autobots and the KSI robots, the audience have time to process the emotional impact of the Autobots being overpowered by the KSI robots. In scenes like these digital images are removed from the spatial-temporal narrative of the film, to create “an exhibitionist display of digital imaging” (Purse 2013).

Bay had the showpiece scenes in Transformers: Age of Extinction filmed on the new lightweight Phantom 65 IMAX 3D camera (Weintraub). This news helped with the film’s hype and points to a post-classical audience invested in spectacle. For Lisa Purse this is “digital literacy […] we are aware that we are witnessing something that is, wholly or in part, computer generated” (2015). Dan North argues that the virtual nature of the figures on screen causes the audience to no longer identify with them as characters but instead simply as digital spectacles.

Peter Travers calls this excess “the usual Bay nothing”. However, Bay is involved in an intricate “practice of fragmentation, appropriation and contextualisation” (Isaacs) and he borrows from the vocabulary of previous blockbusters, including his own. As Zhou argues “[t]he tight shots become tighter and the wide shots become wider” offering the audience maximum spectacle and visual pleasure. Consider when Cade, Lucas, Shane and Tessa make their escape from Cemetery Wind in the racing car. Close-ups on the characters’ faces are juxtaposed with wide shots detailing the carnage they leave behind, the moment of quiet in the bingo hall allows what Isaacs defines as a moment to process the previously fast paced scenes. When the car flies off the abandoned building, a wide shot in slow motion is abruptly broken by a close up on Lucas’ face. This creates spatial discontinuity, the audience infers the action in between the fast edits, and spectacle is put before conventional strategies of legibility.

This excess makes Hollywood seem like a “giant playroom” (Bennett, Isaacs, Gurevitch) to Bay and this image is encouraged by the media. Steve Weintraub writes “like all new technology [in this case, the Phantom 65 IMAX 3D camera], the big boys get to play with it first”, reinforcing the spectacle of the digital as a masculine experience. Purse is also aware of the masculinity in play with the digital, illustrated in Bay’s obsession with rotational movement onscreen (2015) and how this movement represents ideas of power. In fight sequences participants spin and tumble over each other, such as when Optimus fights Galvatron, and the rotation has the victor be the one who ends up on top. The camera rotates around the spectacle of these digital bodies in “360-degree visual access” (Purse 2015). Rotational movement signifies masculine dominance on multiple levels, for Bay as the film-maker with full access to his images and thus the audience who consumes these images, but also for the characters within the film who fight for dominance. This is “spatial penetration” (Purse 2015) and shown in the discontinuous editing and omnipresent camera movement. This is not, then, “Bay nothing”. It is a coherently coded use of the new language of digital cinema to articulate conservative masculinity.

There is also a contradiction in this rotational movement. Galvatron’s rotating core identifies him as soulless and he uses it to destroy Optimus’ sword, a symbol of phallic masculinity. Purse links this anxiety with one of technological evolution (2015), as is the case with the KSI robots who transform with a rotational fluidity not seen in the Autobots. Yet, these rotational aesthetics are favoured by Bay: Galvatron’s transformation is showcased in a continuous shot while Bumblebee in an earlier scene has his transformation’s continuity broken by quick cuts. For Zhou this is a sign Bay is a “slave to his own eye” (2014). Though, in the past, the edit would follow the narrative choices and favour the good characters of the Autobots, increasingly the spectacle of digital effects is shown through the evil KSI robots, confusing the narrative because the audience revel in the digital and err in their sympathies to the film’s antagonists. By favouring the rotational stylings of the KSI robots, Bay is choosing “the aesthetics of the overt digital effects deployments […] rather than the epistemic and ideological issues” (Purse 2013). No longer operating in purely narrative terms, and with precious little commitment to ideological coherence, the ultimate meaning of the film is determined as this contradiction is ironed out via the prevailing of human bodies and masculine agency in sequences of conflict.

The Chinese Deal Transformers: Age of Extinction is the definitive Chinese-American co-production. The Blu-ray extras claim it as the “biggest action movie ever shot there [China]” and the film’s hybridity is driven by a desire to capture the largest possible audience across international borders. However, even with financial and creative input from Chinese companies this is still the story of everyday Americans saving the world, exemplified by “Mark Wahlberg’s tough talking character, whose family property is cluttered with bold American flags” (Suebsaeng). As both China and America have a patriarchal culture, there is an argument to be made that the narrative of the everyday male hero is one that can cross cultural borders. As such, the plot of Transformers: Age of Extinction plays well in both territories. However, the film is less than even-handed.

The main drive of the film’s marketing around this American hero’s tale seems directed at a Chinese audience. When Cade attempts to use his credit card while on the run it is a China Construction Bank card. This creates a tension between the film’s plot and marketing as there is no logical reason for a poor Texan to have a credit card for a Chinese, non-global bank. Other product placements are better integrated such as Joyce drinking Yili milk while in Beijing. Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t the first time Chinese product placement has appeared in the Transformers franchise. Lenovo and TCL appeared in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The key difference here is that while Lenovo and TCL are global brands, Yili milk and China Construction Bank are unique to China.

In a logical extension to the exclusive scenes added into the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 (2013), Transformers 4: Age of Extinction has multiple scenes for the sole enjoyment of a Chinese audience. In one scene, Joyce is saved by a seemingly random Chinese citizen who fends off Joyce’s attackers with remarkable skill. For the Chinese audience this moment serves two purposes. As a Chinese citizen he becomes the hero of the scene saving both Yueming and Joyce from the Cemetery Wind operatives. He is a positive character for the Chinese audience to project themselves on to. Additionally, this is a cameo of Olympic boxer Zou Shiming, famous in China while relatively unknown in America. This is not the film’s only cameo for a Chinese audience, when Lockdown’s magnet starts lifting cars one of the cars lifted contains Chinese musician Han Geng.

A Chinese television show was used to cast some small roles in the film and a focus was put on the “meaningful” (Rui) place of the actors in the film by Marc Ganis, founder of Jiaflix. It has been argued that much of this is opportunist (Rui) and Ying Zhu goes as far as to argue these elements “are, at worst, insults and at best satire, none of which cast China in a particularly glowing light” (2014). Li BingBing’s character Yueming seems to exemplify this tension between entertainment and insult. Li BingBing primarily acts in Chinese films and is well known to a Chinese audience, she switches freely between Chinese and English in the film despite the actress not knowing much English when shooting first started. Her character is without flaw, her beauty and stoicism guides Joyce through Beijing and Hong Kong. She rides motorbikes, has combat training, all while running the Chinese branch of Joyce’s company. In one way, this is a positive portrayal of a Chinese character for a Chinese audience. At the same time, it can be argued this is just another stereotype of East Asian characters as emotionless martial artists. A number of shots of the Great Wall of China back up this idea of cultural stereotyping.

Transformers: Age of Extinction won an award for the most product placements with 55 brands advertised (Lee). With the film costing over a $1m a minute it is to be expected that the cost be covered partially by product placement and with China’s involvement these cameos and product placements are less creative choices as much as maximising a Chinese mark on the film to appeal to a Chinese audience. Despite this a Blu-ray extra labelled “The People’s Republic” invokes a more positive and inclusive image of China and has the sole purpose of making the viewer aware how China was an integral part of the film’s production design. The screenwriter Ehren Kruger says even when writing the screenplay he wanted to use Hong Kong as a key location. It would be naïve to take this at face value for multiple reasons. China has a large market for the consumption of films, illustrated by around a third of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s gross profit coming from China (Fleming Jr.) and the film going on to be the highest-grossing film in Chinese history (Jenkins). It is also difficult to film in China as the authorities are not willing to shut down urban areas, thereby forcing the crew to film around city life. This required a number of fight scenes to be filmed in Detroit made to look like China. Why not do this for all scenes instead of going through the difficulty of filming in China? The answer leads back to Chinese involvement in production. There was an imperative to capture the actual images of China, to work with a Chinese crew and put money into China’s industry.

Despite this focus on the Chinese elements of the film, American products are in abundance. In a comic exaggeration of American culture, Cade smashes open the lid of a Bud Light and asks his daughter to get his “alien gun”. The Transformers franchise when stripped back is primarily an extensive advertisement for Hasbro, an American toy company. Transformers toys were one of the few western brands allowed into China in the 1990s, possibly due to East Asia’s nostalgic preoccupation with Mecha, the name for the genre of giant robots like Transformers. Both Zou Shiming and Han Geng say they enjoyed the toys when they were children in the Blu-ray extras. With a profit of $1.1bn globally just from the film, and with Hasbro’s revenue $4.28bn in 2014, those making Transformers: Age of Extinction had the intention to capture the broadest possible audience, and with the Chinese market growing it is pure economics to pander to such an audience. Ultimately though, and with growing concerns of a “Chinese takeover” in the US, the film can be read as “the ultimate victory for US popular culture”, with concessions to representing China driven only by commercial imperatives (Zhu).


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Written by Isabella Macleod (2017); edited by Guy Westwell (2017), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2017 Isabella Macleod/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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