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.