I’ll admit it—I went into a Friday morning showing of Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in Michael Bay’s epic action saga of robot aliens who disguise themselves as cars, with somewhat high expectations. I plunked down extra cash to see it in 3D, because I had been impressed enough with Bay’s use of the technology in 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I expected more of the same, except this time without Shia LaBeouf and with Mark Wahlberg, which to me represented a significant upgrade. Wahlberg’s an engaging enough star to build some robot explosions around, whereas LaBeouf running around waving his arms and shrieking at everyone had gotten very tiresome indeed.
Of course, the Transformers series is utterly ludicrous and burdened with Bay’s many flaws as a filmmaker—his over-saturated visuals often make whole scenes look like car commercials; his female characters are usually a pair of legs in jorts; he leans on ridiculous racial stereotypes even when directing robots; and his action sequences more often than not are jarring maelstroms of fire and noise with no coherent throughline. He’s had more than his share of moments, but the first two Transformers films suffered from the same problem that this fourth one does—after a largely comedic, perfunctorily engaging opening, it devolves into incomprehensible sci-fi gobbledygook and messy, messy action.
Dark of the Moon, which staged its big final fight in Chicago, actually managed to make all that robot fighting finally seem truly epic. Without sounding like a gibbering child, the best part of the Transformers movies is when the cars turn into the robots, unfolding into a thousand moving pieces and re-assembling. It’s definitely a trick that gets old, but it’s easier to take when the robots aren’t also crashing around into each other and smashing into buildings and throwing debris everywhere just to make the visual field as confusing as possible. Age of Extinction suffers from all of these problems, and the promised “Dinobots” of its advertising campaign (Transformers who turn into dinosaurs, for some reason) only show up right at the very end to do basically nothing at all. Since the film is a chilling two hours and 45 minutes long, that means one’s mind quickly wanders, dancing across this film’s many flaws, little and big. Namely:
- Mark Wahlberg plays a goofy inventor who is from Texas, but he’s just doing the usual Mark Wahlberg voice and his “inventor” side is basically reflected by him holding a blowtorch a couple times.
- He’s also a super creepy, overbearing dad to his supermodel daughter (Nicola Peltz), who he refuses to let date or basically go outside. Of course, she does have a boyfriend, and he’s 20 and has a laminated card in his wallet that explains that he is allowed to date her under obscure Texas laws, which is just what you want your underage daughter’s boyfriend to have.
- The family is besieged by a CIA kill squad led by Titus Welliver who storm his farm looking for Optimus Prime, and when Wahlberg protests that he doesn’t have a warrant, Welliver replies “my face is my warrant.”
- The camera absolutely refuses to stop moving at any time, no matter what is going on, even if it’s just a bunch of robots talking to each other.
- John Goodman voices a fat transformer with a beard made of coils who smokes bullets, while Ken Watanabe is a samurai transformer who speaks in haikus.
- The third act of the film takes place in China, clearly to please an international audience, and while this in itself is not a huge issue, it takes certain liberties with the setting.
- At one point, it is safely assumed that if you are in a fight near an Asian person, they will suddenly display martial arts prowess.
- At another, it is implied that the whole gang drives from Beijing to Hong Kong very quickly, although according to my googling those cities are 1,224 miles from each other and it would take more than 24 hours of solid driving to get between them.
- The film leans heavily on Stanley Tucci, playing a Steve Jobs parody, to provide the yuks much like John Turturro in the previous movies, and, well, he’s not bad. 'Cause Stanley Tucci’s usually pretty great.
- Kelsey Grammer does nice growly work as the film’s chief non-robot villain, a corrupt civil servant who somehow puppets the U.S. government into hunting down all the Autobots and melting them down for scrap by manipulating the CIA. This film is alarmingly anti-government and generally disgusted with the presidency, represented only by a stammering, milquetoast Chief of Staff played by Tom Lennon who is repeatedly silenced by Grammer.
- The plot, of course, makes no sense, with Optimus Prime maybe being hunted down by his god-like robot creators, who have hired a robot bounty hunter, who has a big boring spaceship we spend a lot of time in. Also humans have made their own nano-bot transformers that are quite troublesome. Also dino-bots show up out of nowhere.
- There’s no logic to how we jump from story to story, and the final showdown is catastrophically edited, lacking any of the epic scope Bay invested in Dark of the Moon, where just the ONE thing was happening.
- The movie sets up a sequel, because of course it does.
- I’m probably going to see it, because I’m an idiot.