“What’s that sound?”
So asks Stanley Tucci’s billionaire inventor, upon entering the main lobby of his research facility in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Apparently, he had requested a “boundless, transcendent” noise to be emitted whenever someone crossed his threshold, and what he heard doesn’t quite fit the bill. “When you walk through the door, it should sound as if you’ve stepped into the future,” he explains.
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the sound in Transformers: Age of Extinction is transcendent, but it is boundless (partly because the movie is 165 minutes long). And as has been the case with each of the Transformers films, sound is the picture’s main achievement. Say what you will about these movies – and I’ve said a lot – in audio terms they’re things of beauty.
Sound designer Erik Aadahl has had a hand in each of the Transformers films, as well as 2014’s Godzilla (in which the audio is equally crucial). In Age of Extinction, which brings new recruit Mark Wahlberg on board for another adventure with various vehicular robots (and some robotic dinosaurs), Aadahl and his team deliver the most memorable moments in the picture.
When an alien bounty hunter detonates some sort of space grenade, its alternating series of pulsating thuds and penetrating howls creates a terrifying, futuristic death rattle. Later, a humongous spaceship hovers over Hong Kong, vacuuming up anything made of metal, and the overwhelming, cyclonic whoosh we hear must be what it sounds like inside James Dyson’s head. And then, of course, there is the reliable, electronic clicking and clacking of the Transformers changing shape, which nostalgically echoes the sound effects of the 1980s cartoon series on which these movies are based.
It’s important to note that the sound design here isn’t just an effect; it’s a crucial part of the storytelling. In fact, given that director Michael Bay stages the action with his usual eye for incoherence, it’s actually the noises – not the visuals – that serve as cues for what is happening on screen. Often in a Transformers film, we understand what’s going on not because of what we see, but because of what we hear.
How was the rest of Transformers: Age of Extinction? Well, as I mentioned, it’s 165 minutes, and all I can bring myself to talk about is the sound design.