“A new era has begun. The age of the Transformers is over…”
Oh, where to even begin with this movie. We might as well start with the plot, such as it is. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” concluded with the heroic Autobots repelling a Decepticon invasion that left Chicago devastated and 1200 humans dead. “Age of Extinction” picks up five years later as the American government has cut all ties with the Autobots. CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) heads up an off-the-books operation that involves hunting down all Transformers, regardless of whether they are Autobots or Decepticons. The robots are harvested for parts and shipped to Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), the brilliant head of a technological conglomerate. Joyce has discovered an unstable metal dubbed “Transformium,” which he and Attinger plan to use to create their own army of Transformers. In order to gather more of the metal, Attinger has struck an alliance with the bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan). In exchange for capturing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), Lockdown will give Attinger the Seed, a terraforming device that would create Transformium. Does every “Transformers” have to revolve around some nebulous MacGuffin?
In Texas, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is a down-on-his-luck inventor who is struggling to pay the mortgage on his farm and send his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), to college. He purchases a rundown semi-truck hoping to find something salvageable. The exasperated Tessa can only remark that he’s just turning junk into other junk, which could be a perfect metaphor for this entire franchise. The truck turns out to be Optimus Prime and his presence alerts a CIA strike team led by the remorseless Savoy (Titus Welliver). Now classified as fugitives, Optimus and the few remaining Autobots must protect their new human allies.
The human protagonists from the previous movies are gone and forgotten with nary a fleeting reference. Not that the new characters are an improvement, they are all just as bland and uninteresting. Sure, Mark Wahlberg is a better protagonist than Shia LaBeouf, but his being an inventor bears no little impact on the plot. He never invents anything to defeat the Decepticons, he just grabs an alien gun and shoots stuff. On the other hand, producers are wise enough to fill the supporting cast with actors like Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, and Titus Welliver to lend some legitimacy to the ridiculousness. Grammer and Welliver play standard issue cardboard villains, but Tucci has fun hamming it up as an evil Steve Jobs. If you didn’t get that reference, there’s a black and white portrait of Tucci in a turtleneck sweater hanging prominently in the background.
As Michael Bay’s latest ingénue, Nicola Peltz isn’t given any opportunity to differentiate herself from Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Peltz is dressed in cutoff shorts just like Fox and even uses a tow truck to assist the Autobots during the climax. There are plenty of shots from between her legs as the camera leers at her thighs and buttocks. The way Michael Bay fetishizes Peltz feels dirty when you consider that her character is 17, despite the actress being 19 in real life. However, that’s nothing compared to the sequence in which Bay justifies statutory rape. Tessa’s boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), a 20-year old Irish race car driver, pulls out a copy of a “Romeo & Juliet” law allowing the two of them to be together since they dated before he turned 18. Yes, one of the heroes in “Age of Extinction,” is a creep who carries around a photocopy of a law that allows him to have sex with an underage girl. In a film about giant robots from outer space, a film that exists simply to sell toys to kids, why is this subject even being broached?
Congratulations to Michael Bay for hitting all new lows though the usual trademarks of a Bay production are present here. We have the rampant misogyny represented by the fact that nearly every female character in the movie is thin and impossibly gorgeous. The only exception is the sassy, overweight black woman who acts as comic relief. Aside from Peltz, the only other actresses who receive any significant screen time are Sophia Myles as a geologist and Li Bingbing as an executive in Joyce’s employ. They are just as one-note as everybody else in the whole series and both women appear and disappear whenever it’s convenient for the plot. Li Bingbing’s inclusion and an entire third act set in Hong Kong is a blatant attempt to pander to Chinese audiences, who have become increasingly vital to the wallets of studio executives. The product placement throughout “Age” is equally forced with actors shoving Bud Lights and Beats speakers into your face in full IMAX 3D. One would think Bay was doing this with a hint of irony, but it’s hard to tell anymore. Next, we have racist caricatures in the form of Drift (Ken Watanabe), an Autobot modeled after a samurai who speaks in Haikus composed of broken English.
Just as he couldn’t be bothered to come up with unique personalities for the humans, screenwriter Ehren Kruger couldn’t be bothered to do anymore with the Autobots. Hound (John Goodman) fulfills the exact same role as Ironhide that of the grizzled war veteran while Bumblebee gets surprisingly little screen time given his popularity. Lockdown is the most interesting villain in the series, a Transformer who owes no allegiance to either the Autobots or Decepticons. He works for the mysterious Creators (the Quintessons?) who originally built the Transformers as as a slave labor force. Also, long-time fans might be pleased to hear Frank Welker return to voice Megatron who has now been upgraded to Galvatron ala “Transformers: The Movie.” The designs of the Transformers have also been improved so that the viewer can actually differentiate one robot from the other. The biggest additions to the robotic roster are the fan-favorite Dinobots. Prepare for Devastator-sized disappointment, folks, you will have to wait over two hours into the movie before the Dinobots appear, despite them serving as lynchpins of the marketing campaign.
If you’re wondering how Kruger spent his time during the script writing process, it certainly wasn’t crafting scintillating dialogue. Nobody was expecting David Mamet in a “Transformers” picture, but you’d think Kruger would at least put a modicum of effort beyond, “Take that bitch” or “Do you have a warrant?” “My face is my warrant.” And it’s always thrilling to hear Optimus Prime, the noble warrior that he is, running around rooftops screaming, “I’ll kill you.”
SPOILERS: At the end of the movie, Optimus shoots off into outer space with the aid of rocket boosters in his feet, which begs the question why didn’t he use them before, instead of turning into a truck to slowly save the day? Also, he threatens to kill the Dinobots unless they join forces with him. Then, Optimus lets them loose on the Chinese countryside because it’s always a great idea to have mechanical dinosaurs running around completely unfettered.
Story has never been Michael Bay’s strong suit. It’s traditionally been incidental to the visuals. The last three films suffered from action sequences that descended into incoherent visual noise, but Bay’s camerawork seems to grown more patient in “Age of Extinction.” This allows Bay to make good use of 3D imagery, particularly during a set piece wherein the Cade and Tessa dangle precariously from grabbling cables high above Chicago, a city which shows no evidence of serving as ground zero for an alien invasion a few short years ago. Bay takes a page out of Terrence Malick’s playbook by shooting the farm scenes at golden hour with actors silhouetted against the backdrop of a beautiful orange sky. The beauty is almost undone when you realize Bay’s idea of small town Texas is a Bostonian, a surfer dude, an Irishman, and a girl who struts around the rural countryside in high heeled boots.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” runs two hours and forty-five minutes, a punishing length filled with inane dialogue, illogical plot developments, and relentless stupidity. “Revenge of the Fallen”still stands as the worst of the bunch, but it has the excuse of being rushed into production during the writer’s strike. “Age of Exctinction” has no excuse. However, none of that will mean a damn thing because audiences still eat these movies up with a spoon. The fourth “Transformers” film scored over $300 million worldwide during opening weekend. If you enjoy “Transformers,” then more power to you. Personally, I find it sad that this is a resounding success while “Edge of Tomorrow,” a far better written blockbuster with one of the strongest female characters in recent memory, was a box office flop.