“With help from a new cast of humans… Optimus Prime and the Autobots rise to meet their most fearsome challenge yet.” Thus do press materials describe director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. It’s a useful clarification of what should have been evident all along: In this ruthless Hasbro toy-verse, it’s the human characters who serve as interchangeable parts.
Some confusion on this point was perhaps natural. Bay had advertised his willingness to change flavors of eye candy when he dumped Megan Fox for Rosie Huntington-Whitely after the second installment of the franchise. But as late as the third, Shia LaBeouf was still clearly laboring under the delusion that he was the main character. Indeed, perhaps the best thing one can say about this latest Transformers outing is that LaBeouf is not in it. The boyish zeal he’d displayed in the first two movies had by the third curdled into a stew of petulant entitlement.
So, no, Transformers: Age of Extinction is not quite as sour and unpleasant as its immediate predecessor, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. And, no, it’s not quite as aggressively idiotic as the movie before that, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which may to this day stand as the clearest victory by screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman in their ongoing war against narrative coherence. But it’s fair to say that it gives its forbears a run for their money in both departments. A long, long run, in fact, clocking in at nearly three hours. If it truly takes this long to save the world from the depredations of robots that turn into muscle cars, it may be that the world is no longer worth saving.
This time out, the feisty-yet-innocent (human) hero is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a single dad and the unsuccessful inventor of such ill-conceived contraptions as the “Butler Bot,” a souped-up charcoal smoker that utterly fails in its appointed task of delivering beers to Barcaloungers. Cade lives with his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), on a farm in Paris, Texas, that is perpetually on the verge of being seized by creditors. One day, Cade and his friend/employee Lucas (T.J. Miller) discover a dilapidated old semi in an abandoned movie theater and decide to bring it back to the barn. (Why a movie theater? So the film can congratulate itself for self-knowledge with a characteristically lame joke about how cinema has collapsed into “sequels and remakes, all that crap.”) The truck is, of course, chief Autobot Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), sorely wounded after a skirmish. (The fact that it takes Cade a good while to figure out that this is no ordinary semi may help explain why he is not a more successful inventor.)
Since the trashing of Chicago in the last movie, the U.S. government has severed its alliance with the Autobots; worse, a rogue unit within the CIA classily dubbed “Cemetery Wind” has been targeting them for assassination. The villainous head of the unit (Kelsey Grammer) is in cahoots with both an intergalactic mercenary Transformer named Lockdown and a billionaire industrialist (Stanley Tucci) shopping for parts to build his own Transformers. It’s not long before this sundry assortment of bad guys catches wind of Optimus’s presence at the Yeager homestead and paramilitary agents descend, threatening to put a bullet in Tessa’s head if her father does not cooperate with them. Luckily, Tessa’s secret boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), shows up and it just so happens that he’s a professional rally-car driver. So Cade, Tessa, Shane, and Optimus hit the road together, with Lockdown and the CIA in hot pursuit.
I could try to unravel some more of the plot here, but it is, as always, almost entirely beside the point. There is once again an all-powerful MacGuffin to be found, this time called “the Seed”—a sort of bomb the likes of which, we learn early in the movie, were used to wipe out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This narrative development, remarkably, is almost entirely unrelated to the appearance in the latter part of the film of a herd of Transformers that turn into, yes, robot dinosaurs. (These are known in the broader Transformers canon as “Dinobots,” though the film—no doubt recognizing just how silly that sounds—refers to them simply as “legendary knights.”) There is also, inevitably, a storyline involving the return of the presumed-dead Megatron, although there are so many villains on offer this time around that he tends to get lost in the shuffle.
As with previous installments of the franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction misses very few opportunities to be dumber than it has any need to be. Noble everyman Cade infiltrates top-secret labs and interstellar dreadnoughts alike with casual ease. The high-tech federal agents who track a nondescript sedan through the crowded streets of Hong Kong by satellite nonetheless lose track of Optimus the Transformer Truck on the empty roads of rural Texas. John Goodman lends his voice to—of course!—an overweight Autobot who smokes a cigar. And on and on. Don’t even get me started on the discovery of the wonder metal “transformium.” The script, by Ehren Kruger, is uniformly terrible, and not a single member of the largely talented cast proves capable of rising above it.
Given the goofiness inherent in both the premise and the particulars of the movie, it shares with its immediate predecessor a strangely belligerent tone. The violence is far more brutal than necessary, featuring repeated robotic impalements and amputations. And though one character chides another for his “textbook machismo,” that is, in fact, the precise attitude conveyed by every male character, good or bad, human or Transformer, in the entire film. “Are you going to bitch out on me?” Cade taunts his (maybe) future son-in-law Shane at one point. “Take that you little bitch,” Goodman’s robot shouts in the midst of a firefight.
The female characters, by contrast, again exist primarily to wear tank tops and short shorts and to periodically require rescuing. (The exception is a Chinese corporate executive who, in a twist no one could possibly have foreseen, turns out to know kung fu.) On the upside, Bay’s lens does not leer at his actresses nearly as lewdly as it has in some past projects, presumably in recognition of the fact that his principal female protagonist is 17 years old. This is the occasion for a peculiar joke, however, when Tessa’s dad first meets her 20-year-old boyfriend, Shane. Cade, furious, says he could have the younger man arrested, only to have Shane pull from his wallet a laminated print-out of Texas’s “Romeo and Juliet” laws. The gag is moderately funny—at least by the feeble standards of the movie—but it's genuinely not clear how we are supposed to feel about one of the movie’s heroes literally walking around with a statutory rape defense in his pocket. At least we will have ample opportunity to ponder the question on the innumerable subsequent occasions when Cade comically threatens Shane with bodily harm for sleeping with his underage daughter. In a related vein, while Bay does not quite stoop to the outright minstrelsy of the second movie, he flirts with the line with a tiny Autobot (voiced by Reno Wilson) prone to hilarious outbursts such as “free at last!”
As for the action, there is a lot of it, and there are occasional moments of modest visual brilliance—as when Autobots Optimus and Bumblebee flip over a highway overpass while cradling their human charges in their arms, or when a massive starship begins suctioning cars up off the streets of Hong Kong and freighters from its harbor. But these are terribly meager rewards for a movie of such punishing length and across-the-board inanity. Even Optimus Prime spends most of the film seeming grumpy and sullen, complaining about how much he has done for humanity and how little he’s received in return. (It’s a mood with which voice actor Cullen, famous for his Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh movies, is intimately familiar.)
If all this were not sufficiently dispiriting, the movie ostentatiously sets the stage for yet further sequels, at least two of which are already in planning stages. It’s enough to make one feel a certain kinship for Grammer’s fanatically anti-Transformer CIA agent, who at one point declares, “Our world will never be safe until they’re gone.” He may be portrayed as a murderous thug, but damned if he didn’t take the words right out of my mouth.