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Transformers: Age of Extinction
  • Composed by Steve Jablonsky
  • Paramount / 2014 / 78m

The Michael Bay machine marches ever onwards in Transformers: Age of Extinction, the latest off his production line that critics hate but audiences flock to.  The series’ longevity is extraordinary, really, since it was originally fairly obviously conceived mainly as a marketing tool for the line of toys – well, it worked.  Returning for the ride is composer Steve Jablonsky, scoring his sixth Michael Bay film in a row (a sequence that started with 2005’s The Island).

It’s interesting to think about how much film music has changed since then.  About The Island I wrote that it was “one of the most offensively, relentlessly inane and banal musical concoctions ever to have featured in a motion picture… this is barrel-scraping stuff and the sooner film music manages to escape from this sort of thing, the better… This is an absolute stinker, as depressing and disheartening an album as a fan of film music could ever find.”  A couple of years later I wrote about Transformers “It goes without saying that it’s intellectually-bereft… that it is so utterly without heart or feeling… truly hideous film music – lazy, derivative, utterly soulless, pretty much as bad as it gets.”  So, in preparation for writing this review, I gave it another spin (probably the first time I listened to it since writing those words in 2007) and thought… hmm, this isn’t that bad.  The likes of Ramin Djawadi, Henry Jackman and Jablonsky himself have dug so low that things which just a few years ago seemed absolutely appalling no longer have any capacity to shock – a new normal has been reached and even a miserable old git like me has been so conditioned to accept it that tiny morsels of entertainment now feel like they’ve come from a Michelin starred restaurant.

Steve Jablonsky

Steve Jablonsky

It is in that context that I found myself listening to Transformers: Age of Extinction and chewing on those morsels with no small amount of satisfaction.  The opening “Decision” includes a generic but nice new anthem-type theme (more Media Ventures 1994 than Remote Control 2014) – though admittedly it does then descend into Man of Steel-style drumming hell.  Second track “Best Thing that Ever Happened” has a very nice vocal that’s perfect for Bay’s filmmaking and there’s no qualifier required here – it’s a very nice piece.  Some of the action cues are perfectly solid modern pieces of action music – it’s ruined a bit by the obnoxious electronics but “Cemetery Wind” has some interesting ideas and the brass actually sounds like brass.  That’s followed by “His Name is Shane and he Drives”, which is not only an important piece of information to be given, it’s also an entertaining piece of music.  A different kind of vocal in “Hacking the Drone” is good too – original, effective, impressive.  The electronica in “Transformium” is done really well, very listenable.

So, I’m sitting listening to this and being drawn in by it.  It’s enthusiastic, very slick, there are actually a couple of clever ideas.  There’s no point going into it expecting anything spectacular nor groundbreaking, just as there’s no point going into the movie expecting any kind of intellectual stimulation; take that attitude and it’s really not all bad.

Having said that, there are three significant drawbacks here which must counterbalance the positives.  The first is the eye-watering album length – nobody wants to listen to this sort of thing for 78 minutes.  (Even those people who think they do, don’t really.)  It’s a Big Mac, not a slab of Kobe beef – McDonald’s might be the most popular restaurant in the world but nobody wants to eat there every day and the same is true here – it’s surface-level entertainment, nowhere near deep enough to maintain interest over such a long album.  Also, there’s some really unpleasant electronic stuff which is not so very different from that heard in the worst film score in living memory, Jackman’s Captain America (astonishingly, there’s no HORN OF DOOM, but there’s an electronic equivalent which is truly obnoxious).  The other thing is how derivative it is – I’ve already mentioned Man of Steel and Captain America and unpleasant memories of them are prompted a few times – there’s also more than a hint of Hans Zimmer’s Batman scores – and some of the combinations of orchestra and electronics are straight out of Tron: Legacy and/or Oblivion.  Is that a problem?  Maybe not, but the most unfortunate thing is that it does prompt the thought that for all its surprising entertainment value, it’s certainly nowhere near the level of those latter two.

While it may not be as good as them, it’s streets ahead of virtually anything else I’ve ever heard from Jablonsky, easily the best score for this series.  Maybe I have just mellowed, maybe the “new normal” is so low that something I would have found objectionable a few years ago no longer falls into that category, but the bottom line is that if you chopped 30-40 minutes off the album then you’d have a fine piece of entertainment here.  Unfortunately I can only review the album as released and that means the rating has to drop because of the insane album length and some of the junk that pollutes it in between the entertainment but otherwise I’m pleasantly surprised.

Rating: ** 1/2

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  1. tiago on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 02:22

    There’s some really good stuff on this album. “His Name is Shane and He Drives” is a very nice action track, the presentation of the Autobot theme in “The Legend Exists” is excellent, and “Dinobot Charge” is the best thing composed by Jablonsky in a really long time (perhaps since the “No Prisoners, Only Trophies” cue from the third movie).

    However, the music is overall boring and obnoxious, especially the Lockdown theme, which is horrendous. At this point, it’s senseless to expect from Jablonsky another score like Steamboy, isn’t it?

  2. Edmund Meinerts on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 03:51

    “easily the best score for this series”

    And yet you gave it a half-star less than its predecessor. :p

  3. Mikal on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 04:55

    I only glimpsed at the text, because your reviews of MV/RCP-influenced and/or -produced scores tend to rub me the wrong way, but I’ll concede that you rated it higher than I would’ve expected (I was unsure whether you’d even review it). I suspect – no, I *know* I’m in the minority among the film music cognoscenti in calling Age of Extinction my favorite 2013 score to date, but it’s something that you found it at least marginally enjoyable.

  4. Ty Scott on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 05:15

    Pretty good review, especially the note of some of the weak electronic bits and Trapanese-like elements. Of the score, I actually thought the Imagine Dragon vocals induced in “Honor to the End” were a bit annoying. An instrumental would’ve been nice, but that’s just me. Also wanted to note that the score gave me a scare in “I’m An Autobot” when that two note Regent theme from Battleship appeared. Almost thought I was gonna hear Battleship Part II. Luckily I didn’t.

    But I gotta ask out of curiousity, what’d you think of the Lockdown theme? That’s been talked about of the score lately and I don’t think you gave an opinion of it in your review, unless it’s related to the bad electric stuff that was stated.

  5. Callum Hofler on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 09:36

    It’s poorly produced for the most part, and it’s a technically flawed album… but I still really enjoyed listening to it.

  6. Daniel Henderson on Sunday 20 July, 2014 at 03:09

    So is this better or worse than Steamboy (Jablonsky’s best)?

  7. James Southall on Sunday 20 July, 2014 at 11:51

    I can’t even remember what Steamboy sounds like, it’s been so long. Need to listen to it again, I think.