Transformers: Age of Extinction

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In the early moments of this flick, one of the main characters forbids the use of the word "junk." Later in the movie, another main character forbids the use of the word "complicated." I'm going to have to apologize to both of them, because the ever-growing Transformers franchise can best be described as "complicated junk."

This series is arguably the most overstuffed, convoluted major franchise in existence, which seems odd given the appealing simplicity of its core concept: alien robots that turn into cars and fight other alien robots. There's a lot of big, dumb fun hiding in that basic idea, as evidenced by the toys themselves and by some of the better animated television programs based on those toys. However, the live-action movies have never been content to focus on something as simple as Transformers transforming. No, we have to endure the melodramatic stories of mostly-pointless human characters, and loads of bonkers exposition devoted to giving us details of allsparks and cubes and seeds and arks and control pillars and species treaties and secretive government agencies and on and on and on. Audiences don't go to see the Transformers movies for this stuff - they go to see giant robots smacking each other and stuff blowing up real good - but the series continues to insist on cluttering the big, noisy action scenes with bewildering plotting and clunky human drama.

Michael Bay tends to receive most of the blame for the quality of the Transformers movies, and I suppose that's fair. However, Bay is also the reason these movies are still making big bucks at the box office. Yes, his name is now synonymous with dumb entertainment, but his dumb entertainments are considerably more distinctive than those of his imitators. A lot of movies mimic Bay by emphasizing explosions and mayhem over story and character, but I can't think of another big-budget director who operates with that same level of ridiculously overconfident swagger. In many ways, he's as distinctive as someone like Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch. To see Bay operating at the peak of his powers is akin to watching the world's most enthusiastic air guitar player: it may be silly and pointless, but there's something kind of weirdly compelling about it.

For instance, just look at the sequence in Transformers: Age of Extinction in which a handful of government agents descend upon the home of humble Texas inventor Cade Yeager (an unconvincing Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter) in search of information about Optimus Prime. The purpose of the scene is simple enough: to form a conflict between the good human characters and the bad ones, to form a bond between the good human characters and Optimus Prime and to provide a neat segue into the film's second act. However, Bay directs this scene as if it's the climax of the most intense movie ever made. Loaded with his signature low-angle profile shots, tons of intense close-ups, an American flag waving in slow motion, pounding music and lots of threatening black SUVs, Bay turns the scene into a display of absurd intensity that borders on self-parody (and needlessly raises the stakes by having the government agents threaten to murder Cade's teenage daughter, played by the bland Nicola Peltz, The Last Airbender). Examined on its own, it's alternately hilarious and thrilling, but Bay's problem is that he directs at this volume all the time. Without much modulation between the noisy beginning of the film and the noisy end, the whole thing starts to run together after a while. At two hours and forty-five minutes, the primary feeling the film generates is exhaustion.

The plot, as always, is complicated. The war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is over, but the CIA is convinced that no alien robot can be trusted. As such, the sinister Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) has formed a secret unit devoted to hunting down and killing every transformer in existence. They seem to be doing this against the wishes of the President, who is oblivious to pretty much everything the CIA does (it's hard to tell whether this is lazy screenwriting or political commentary). In order to achieve this goal, the CIA has allied with a ferocious alien bounty hunter of sorts named Lockdown, who has agreed to provide humanity with a powerful ancient device in exchange for Optimus Prime (who is currently disguising himself as a worthless, beat-up truck in Cade Yeager's barn).

The CIA has also formed an alliance with billionaire inventor Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal), who has recently discovered a powerful substance known as - wait for it - "Transformium." The exciting thing about this stuff is that it can turn into pretty much anything: some entirely new, human-controlled Transformers, or a plot development designed to revive the ghost of Megatron yet again, or a blatant piece of product placement ("Like a Beats Pill!" Tucci exclaims, holding the speaker up to the camera so everyone in the audience can get a good look). The plans Tucci has for the device the CIA will ultimately receive from Lockdown are complicated, too, but suffice it to say that they will eventually require him (and the rest of the movie) to go to China, which is surely just a random storytelling decision that has nothing to do with blatantly attempting to pander to a big international market. I will admit, however, that this decision seems slightly less random when Tucci suddenly begins declaring how amazing, powerful and successful his Chinese secretary is (he pays her at least five compliments within the span of two minutes), even less random when that secretary (whose character has pretty much been a complete non-entity until this point) is given a big action scene (she knows martial arts, naturally) and maybe-not-so-random-at-all when a couple of never-before-seen Chinese guys appear to give a quick shoutout to the Chinese government. Anyway.

As usual, we spend too much time with the humans, though at least Shia Labeouf's character (who grew increasingly intolerable over the course of the first three films) is nowhere to be found. Mark Wahlberg can be an appealing actor in the right role, but he spends most of his screentime engaging in debates with his 17-year-old daughter and her 20-year-old boyfriend. It plays like a feature-length version of one of those insufferable country songs in which an overprotective father threatens any man who tries to come near his daughter, which I suppose will appeal to the same demographic that keeps turning those songs into hits. Bay has traded an irritating protagonist for a dull one, and that really isn't much of an upgrade.

Characterization has never been one of the series' strong points, and there are some baffling inconsistencies this time around, too. Wahlberg's character is introduced as a 21st century version of Rand Peltzer from Gremlins; a terrible inventor who only knows how to make severely flawed contraptions. However, whenever a high-pressure situation arrives, Wahlberg suddenly turns into Thomas Edison. Stanley Tucci's character is introduced as a slightly self-absorbed but ultimately serious-minded scientist, but in the third act he suddenly turns into an incredibly wacky comic relief character. Even Bumblebee seems about 300% more childish and impetuous this time around.

Still, it's worth noting that this is probably the most consistent Transformers film since the very first one, falling back into the same sort of unmemorable mediocrity that movie suffered/benefitted from. The comic relief bits are never as horrifically painful as the worst moments from the second and third installments, but the action is never as thrilling as the stuff from the second half of the third film. It's a bad movie, but not aggressively or offensively bad like Revenge of the Fallen.

The most intriguing scenes in the film come at the very beginning and the very end. I won't spoil them for you, other than telling you that they are pretty blatant Transformers-themed variations on the opening and closing scenes of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. In fact, if the promised sequel really does follow up on the plot development promised by that closing scene, Transformers 5 may very well be the most spiritually-minded and philosophical film of Michael Bay's career. God help us all.

It must be admitted, there are a few moments that work. An assault on an office building in Chicago is kind of thrilling, mostly because it offers some big city destruction which takes place inside a building rather than on the city streets. Optimus Prime still retains his weary gravitas, and remains an appealing, well-drawn character. I don't know how Optimus has managed to retain his dignity despite all of the other embarrassing directions the series has taken, but I suspect it has something to do with Peter Cullen's iconic vocal performance - every time I hear him speak, I hear a glimpse of how good this series could be. Tucci offers a few line readings which made me laugh. Plus, my inner five-year-old was kind of delighted by the image of Autobots waving swords in the air while riding giant robotic dinosaurs through a giant field. In a film like this, you take your pleasures where you can get them. Odds are you would find just as many pleasures doing almost anything else for three hours, but at least this one won't cause you as much mental distress as the series at its worst.


Transformers: Age of Extinction

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 165 minutes
Release Year: 2014