Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction
PLOT: Years after Chicago was obliterated in a war between Autobots and Decepticons, Transformers are on the verge of extinction. When a poor inventor finds the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, and salvages him, the war begins anew as a bigger, better army of man-made Decepticons converge on their prized target.
REVIEW: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is less a movie than it is an endurance test. A 166-minute pummeling of your senses, reason, and, finally, your will to live, which feels every bit as long as that running time indicates. And it's stunning to contemplate the fact that a movie this long can still be so painfully bereft of intelligence or genuine wit. You'd assume, at some point, the makers of this bulk would stumble upon a good idea or heartfelt moment during their two and a half hour slog, but they couldn't find human emotion if you paid them $250 million to do it. Even the most ardent fans of the franchise will have trouble defending the amount of sheer idiocy on display.
And here's the thing: it's still the best TRANSFORMERS movie to date.
Naturally, that says more about the series than it does about this installment. I have not liked any of the previous movies, but AGE OF EXTINCTION has thankfully jettisoned one key ingredient that made the others particularly irritating: Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, a character I always found thoroughly insufferable and unlikable. (Gone too are his parents, equally unappealing.) I can't be alone in thinking Sam, with his faux-boyish charm and supermodel-hot girlfriends, was an obnoxious character, and when the human element offers no retreat or comfort from the clanking, smashing robot mayhem, you're in deep trouble.
AGE OF EXTINCTION instead has Mark Wahlberg, god bless his goofy heart, who is a much more welcome presence than LaBeouf. Wahlberg here has retreated to the imbecilic "gee gosh!" mode that we saw in THE HAPPENING for some reason, and if there's anything about Wahlberg we know it's he's more adept at playing meaty bad boys than nerdy types; when he's doing the latter it sounds as if he's channeling Andy Samberg's impersonation of him. ("C'mon Optimus, I just wanna talk to you!") Though his line-readings are often unintentionally hilarious, Wahlberg is a likable guy who actually appears to want to be in the movie, and that helps immeasurably.
Walhberg plays a Texan named Cade Yeager, who lives on a farm with his hot daughter (Nicola Peltz). (Mom died, and she's rarely ever mentioned.) Cade "invents" tiny little robot things like the dad in GREMLINS in an effort to dig his way out of his financial hole, but his creations are little more than cute toys with no actual use. One day he finds a broken down truck in a movie theater (how this truck entered this movie theater is never explained nor contemplated) and plans on stripping it for parts, but wouldn't you know it, this is no ordinary truck: it's Optimus Prime, who is in hiding after the events of the last film made Transformers rather unpopular around here
Optimus' concerns are legit: there is a secret Black Ops crew hunting Autobots and Decepticons alike with ruthless efficiency. The team is lead by an angry Donald Rumsfeld-type (Kelsey Grammer) who is actually receiving help from a Transformer bounty-hunter named Lockdown; the latter is on the lookout for Optimus and means to bring him back to their planet. Meanwhile, a billionaire scientist (Stanley Tucci) has discovered the genome that makes Transformers what they are and plans on using it to create, well, everything, including a Transformer army.
Here's how much sense the movie makes: There's a giant agenda against all Transformers, yet part of Tucci's master plan is to build his own Transformers. If the world is so anti-Transformer, would you really create more Transformers for profit? The plan is especially brainless when it turns out their prototype Transformer, named Galvetron, has essentially been given the brain of Megatron, the villain who just won't go away. When Megatron gets his act together and begins bossing around the other prototype Transformers, this will seem like an even stupider idea.
But this movie never runs out of stupid ideas, nor does it lack the dopey commitment to engaging us in its human story. Wahlberg and daughter are forced to go on the run with her Irish (?!) boyfriend, a race car driver (Jack Reynor), and father and boyfriend essentially act out the entire Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck storyline from ARMAGEDDON: first pops detests the young buck, but gradually learns to love him as he sees the kid's affection for his girl. This is all very boring, of course, and never once rings true, but I'll definitely take it over snarky Sam Witwicky squaring off against Patrick goddamn Dempsey. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger is still the absolute worst at plotting, not to mention writing dialogue that sounds like actual human beings would speak it aloud.
The movie is long, have I mentioned this? Even when things are blowing up all over the place, the pace just lags. Michael Bay predictably films everything as frenetically and maniacally as he can, but he still hasn't learned much about the nuances of a film's structure. (To his credit, Bay has seemingly received the message that he should hold on shots longer, hence the average shot-length is about 4 seconds as opposed to 3.) There are many glorious locations to visit and crush to bits - poor Chicago gets reamed once again, and various cities in China are blown to bits in the laborious third act, where once again Autobots and Decepticons have a knock-down war on the streets of a metropolis as people run away screaming. Here's an issue I always have: after the fight has gone on for 30-something minutes, how are there still screaming people running away? Did they not all run away immediately? Why are the trains still running, cars still driving around without a care in the world? Why are there people shopping and hanging out a few blocks away? Did they not hear the recognizable sounds of Transformers beating the crap out of each other down the street?!
I know, I know: don't apply logic to a movie called TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. But your brain turns to questions like these when the movie appears to be skipping like a record to the same sequence over and over again. I have never bought the "what do you expect from a movie about giant fighting robots?" argument, and I still don't. Any subject, even one as silly as this, can be made interesting and fun, without sacrificing spectacle or mayhem. But there's no turning back now for Bay and company; they have their tropes - lunkheaded humor, vaguely racist caricatures, fetishized women, cars flipping a hundred times through the air - and they're sticking to them. If you were pleasantly surprised by the self-aware humor and entertaining weirdness of Bay's last picture, PAIN AND GAIN, you'll be saddened to learn he's reverted once again to the same old soulless, boorish orchestrator of chaos with this product. (Speaking of products, Bay is still a skilled commercial director: there's a product placement in practically every frame of this thing.)
Oh yeah, almost forgot: I hope you're not too stoked about the Dinobots. By the time they appear (maybe the two hour mark, maybe even further into the film), they've really become afterthoughts, and are barely utilized in an interesting way. The sight of a robotic triceratops galloping around China sadly did nothing to alleviate the cold, numb feeling that had overtaken my brain. That no joy can be found in such a thing doesn't say anything about my ability to have fun, though: It says something about TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION's ability to deliver it.