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Sequel or reboot? Paramount plays it both ways with new 'Transformers'

MoviesEntertainmentTransformers (movie)Michael BayTransformers: Age of ExtinctionMark Wahlberg

Big-budget summer movies these days tend to fall into two categories. There's the slate-wiping reboot that deletes all that came before ("Godzilla" and its ilk) and the keep-the-mojo-going sequel that hopes to build (and build and build) on existing stories ("X-Men: Days of Future Past" and its brethren).

Now, Paramount Pictures is trying something more unusual: release a movie that does a little bit of both.

The Hydra-headed creature comes, fittingly, in the form of "Transformers: Age of Extinction," the latest movie about those hulking masses of metal that are themselves two-in-one deals. In a way, Paramount is trying to play the deck from both sides. The studio wants to lean on a brand that has been one of the most lucrative in Hollywood — but, using an injection of new blood and ideas, lends it all the feeling of a fresh start.

"It's definitely not a reboot, but it's also not a sequel," Paramount President Adam Goodman said in an interview this week, pausing to search for words to describe the hybrid. "It is its own new thing."

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is a peculiarly modern Hollywood phenomenon. The film (budget: $200 million-plus) illustrates what happens when studio executives realize that a franchise has grown long in the tooth but also remain reluctant to abandon a brand that has proved so bankable. At $2.7 billion, the films' global box office exceeds the GDP of some small nations.

Whether audiences will embrace the move or see it as an attempt to sell the same concepts in new packaging remains the key question, not just for Paramount but also for a nervous movie business at large.

Though a sequel-like continuation in title and theme — with director Michael Bay back for his fourth go-round after some earlier reluctance — "Age of Extinction" is also in many respects a slate-wipe.

There is a new direction to the story, which moves beyond the good-versus-evil battles of robots to the larger fate of humanity. There are new characters. Gone is Sam Witwicky and his millennial brio, replaced with the old-school machismo of Cade Yeager, a 40ish single-father mechanic.

And there are, of course, new stars. Mark Wahlberg plays the lead (Cade), rendering Shia LaBeouf's Witwicky as disposable as a mangled fender. Nor is the female lead a love interest, as it was with Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in the first three films. Now it's Cade's daughter, Tessa, played by teenage newcomer Nicola Peltz.

The story centers on Cade and his relationship with Optimus Prime. Four years after the cataclysmic war in Chicago that closed third installment "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the Transformers have gone underground, persecuted by government officials wary of all the blow-em-up damage they wrought. (The new movie does assume the events of the previous films happened, so score one for the sequel column.) Cade discovers Optimus Prime hiding in his garage and develops a relationship with him; a battle also soon develops between various Transformer factions as well as a scientist played by Stanley Tucci.

Rather than try to continue the epic battles between Autobots and Decepticons, the new movie, Paramount executives say, puts humans at the center (while adding such toy creatures as Dinobots and other new destroying machines just to be safe).

But then, it's not just creative concerns driving the new story line. Like all studios, Paramount is acutely aware that moviegoers tend to tire of a franchise past a third installment. Disney's fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, in 2011, was the least popular of the bunch in the U.S. and also had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score. "Transformers" has had a similar commercial arc, with box office for the 2011 "Dark of the Moon" dropping 12% from the 2009 "Revenge of the Fallen." The new elements, they hope, will reverse that trend.

So, marketers have gone to some lengths to underline what's different this time around. A trailer has an Optimus Prime voice-over saying that "this is not war — this is human extinction," an allusion to the film's new stakes. It also suggests just which humans we should be caring about with utterances like Tessa's resolute "I'm not leaving my dad."

"This 'Transformers' is really about the emotional connection between father and daughter," said Paramount's chief marketing officer, Josh Greenstein. "Some of our goals in marketing the film was to showcase Michael's incredible work not just on a visual level but on an emotional one."

Added Goodman, "People will be pleasantly surprised that the movie stays in a very intimate place and stays there for a decent while."

Marketers have also created a "District 9"-like campaign that implores citizens to "Remember Chicago" and "Report alien activity." If Bay spectacles generally aren't likely to be confused with even "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and its heady National Security Agency themes, subjects like the fear of the other do give it a topical gloss.

Wahlberg could be a draw — some posters highlight him — though many believe the real lure to be Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and the rest of the gang. Acknowledging both the commercial expectations that come with a "Transformers" movie and the creative fatigue that can accompany a franchise four films in, Wahlberg told an audience at CinemaCon this spring that there's "a bit of pressure to step into the shoes of the other cast" but that he decided to go ahead because Bay had assured him that "we'd be able to do our own thing, and it'd be pretty much a stand-alone movie."

Even with the human stakes and a widening of the mythology, it's an open question whether some filmgoers might ask if in the end this franchise comes down to rooting for one piece of metal to beat up another piece of metal.

Industry tracking, at least, suggests a strong opening. The film could reach the magic $100-million mark for the three-day weekend, with some estimates even nearing $110 million.

That would bring some comfort to Paramount as other brands, such as the "Star Trek" and Jack Ryan movies, have hit choppy air. More broadly, a big opening would be a welcome development for the movie industry, which has seen no film reach $100 million on its three-day debut weekend so far this summer. No summer has gone without one in the last decade.

Of course, it's not just about U.S. audiences. International moviegoers will come out to a series much later in the game; the fourth "Pirates" film was actually the series' highest grossing internationally. "Transformers" has had a similar arc: "Revenge of the Fallen" saw overseas box office nearly double even as U.S. numbers fell.

Seven years ago, "Transformers" started a craze in Hollywood development circles for movies based on toy lines, indirectly spawning Warner Bros.' "The Lego Movie" and Hasbro and Paramount's "G.I. Joe." It remains commercially the standard by which all license-driven movies are judged.

But that doesn't mean the franchise has always been an unstoppable juggernaut. The last "Transformers" film seemed poised to exceed $100 million on its opening weekend but wound up falling just short, with $98 million. Despite the belief that it could finish atop the box office heap for the year, the movie ended up being bested by the last "Harry Potter" film several weeks later. When it comes to "Transformers," what seems solid can morph pretty quickly.

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesEntertainmentTransformers (movie)Michael BayTransformers: Age of ExtinctionMark Wahlberg
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