There’s no need for us to denounce Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction as the downfall of modern cinema, because one of his characters essentially does it for us. Early on, as Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) rummages through a run-down old theater, the theater owner makes a comment about how sequels are the reason why it failed. Bay knows that the films of this franchise are constantly crapped on, but he clearly doesn’t care. This is the most excessive movie he’s ever made, and it’s also one of his worst.
The third film, Dark of the Moon, posited that the moon landing was actually a cover for a secret mission involving Transformers, but in typical Bay fashion, things only get bigger in this one: in Age of Extinction, we discover that the creators of the Transformers were responsible for wiping out Earth’s dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Yep, the Transformers have creators, a concept that’s mentioned a few times during the course of this film’s two hour and forty-five minute duration, but one that’s left for the next sequel to flesh out in any meaningful way. Just our luck, considering it’s one of the only interesting ideas presented in this movie.
Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is an inventor from Texas who lives with his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). He’s terrible at his job, is months behind on his rent, and has never invented anything that works. When he finds the shell of Optimus Prime and takes it home to scrap it for parts as a last-ditch effort to make some quick cash, he awakens Prime and discovers that the Autobots are in hiding after the battle of Chicago at the end of Dark of the Moon. The government is hunting all Transformers – Autobots and Decepticons alike – and a black ops unit called “Cemetery Wind,” commanded by the shady Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), teams with a new Transformer called Lockdown to bring them all in. Attinger is working with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs-type who owns a technology company on the verge of a breakthrough: they’ve discovered what the Transformers are made of, and can now engineer their own. He needs more transformium (yep, that’s a real line uttered in this movie) so he can begin mass production.
As you might expect, Cade, Tessa, and Tessa’s stunt-driving boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) – their secret relationship is something the over-protective Cade is not happy about – get caught up in the mix when Attinger’s team hunts Prime to their Texas farm. After a narrow escape, they meet up with the handful of remaining Autobots to figure out what to do. After that, they basically spend the next hour and half in interminable chase scenes, running from explosions, arguing about the fate of Tessa (who is barely given anything to do other than look pouty), going to China for some reason (hello, foreign box office money!), and screaming as Dinobots – yep, they’re exactly what they sound like – join Prime in the fight against Lockdown and Galvatron, who, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, is Megatron reincarnated into the body of a human engineered Transformer.
I need a drink.
Ehren Kruger’s script is embarrassingly bad, and other than Bay’s devotion to creating “Bayhem” on the largest possible scale, I can’t fathom a reason that this story couldn’t be told in two hours. That extra forty-five minutes is killer, because there’s nothing on the screen but gnashing metal and explosions that don’t mean a damn thing. Giant spectacle scenes like that used to genuinely entertain me, but because almost every blockbuster movie now has to have massive stakes, huge effects, and cities laid to waste, I’ve reached the point where I just don’t care anymore. And because this is the fourth movie in this franchise and things don’t really look all that different from the previous entries (Bay’s eye for visuals is still great), I’m not even impressed by it anymore. That’s the most depressing element of this movie for me: I wasn’t expecting the movie to be good, but Age of Extinction is so long and brainless that it killed my ability to even be impressed by the visual aspects of the film.
Buried beneath the nonsensical chaos of the surface level, there are themes of distrust of the government, a post 9/11 security metaphor, and Americans’ obsession with guns, but it’s tough to say whether Age of Extinction is actually about anything. Mostly it’s about Michael Bay cashing another astronomical paycheck, sitting back, and watching the box office receipts roll in. It’s obvious that he doesn’t have any investment in these movies on a story level anymore, and before you write him off entirely, watch Pain & Gain – it’s a great movie and though it has some problems, it proves that Bay can make a small scale film with characters that actually elicit some sort of emotion from the audience.
I realize the Transformers movies are basically “critic proof” by now and most people just want to see giant robots fight each other, but even on that level, Age of Extinction doesn’t bring the Dinobots in until the last 25 minutes to cause their own brand of carnage, so there’s limited enjoyment to be had if that’s the only thing you’re coming to see. We’re only a few steps away from having no humans in these movies at all, and you know what? That would actually be fine with me. At least then we wouldn’t have to sit through forced conflicts between people that never feel fleshed out in the first place.
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