Big-budget summer movies these days tend to fall into two categories. There's the slate-wiping reboot that seeks to delete 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).
This Friday, though, Paramount Pictures will try something unusual: It's releasing 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. Paramount in a way 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, lend it all the feeling of a fresh start.
"It's definitely not a reboot, but it's also not a sequel," said Paramount President Adam Goodman 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, illustrating what happens when studio executives realize a franchise has grown long in the tooth but also remain reluctant to abandon a brand that has proved so bankable. 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-vs.-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. This time out, 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 Huntingon-Whiteley in the first three films, but rather Cade's daughter, Tessa, played by the 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 new movie does assume the events of the previous films happened, so score one for the sequel column), the Transformers have gone underground, persecuted by government officials wary of all the blow-em-up damage they wrought. 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, say Paramount executives, puts humans at the center of it all (while adding such toy creatures as Dinobots and other new destroying machines, just to be safe).
Of course, it's not just creative concerns driving the new story line. Like all studios, Paramount is acutely aware that noviegoers 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 2011's "Dark of the Moon" dropping 12% from 2009's "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 voiceover 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."
Goodman said, "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," complete with a created phone number to help the cause; if Michael Bay spectacles generally aren't likely to be confused with even "Captain America: Winter Solider" and its heady National Security Agency themes, subjects like the fear of the other do give it a topical gloss.
As for the retailing of the film's new talent, a number of billboards highlight Wahlberg but others showcase the larger-than-life machines. (Plenty of people in Hollywood believe that, for all of Wahlberg's drawing power, Optimus Prime is the franchise's dyed-in-the-wool star and will be the bigger reason people turn out this weekend.)
Acknowledging both the commercial expectations that come with a "Transformers" movie and perhaps the creative fatigue that accompanies a franchise four films in, Wahlberg told an audience at the CinemaCon convention 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 "we'd be able to do our own thing and it'd be pretty much a stand-alone movie." (He couldn't resist a playful Wahlberg-style boast that the film is "bigger and better than the other three combined.")
Yet even with the more human stakes and a widening of the mythology, it's an open question if some filmgoers might find in all the explosions more of the same, leading them to ask if in the end this franchise comes down to rooting for one piece of metal to beat up another piece of metal.
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 offer reassurance for Paramount, which has counted "Transformers" among its most lucrative series as other brands, such as "Star Trek" and the Jack Ryan movies, have hit some choppy air. (Over its three movies, "Transformers" counts a global box office tally — $2.7 billion — larger than the GDP of many small island nations.)
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 opening weekend so far this summer and a number of lackluster second weekends from brand-name franchises to boot. "'Transformers' is really one of the last chances we could have a $100-million weekend, which is quite remarkable," said Bruce Nash of box office site the Numbers. If it fails, 2014 could turn out to be the first summer without a $100-million domestic opener in 11 years.
But then, 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: 2009's "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, at least indirectly spawning Warner Bros.' "The Lego Movie" and Paramount's own "G.I. Joe," also in conjunction with Hasbro, among plenty that haven't seen the light of day. It remains, at least in the commercial sense, the standard by which all license-centric 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. And 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 start to morph before our eyes.