'Transformers: Age of Extinction' review: Michael Bay's latest 'Transformers' movie 'least aggravating of a very aggravating lot'
Suffice it to say, there are many special effects in the Transformers movies of which Transformers: Age of Extinction is the latest and, get ready for some high praise, the least aggravating of a very aggravating lot. In fact, its greatest special effect, much like the previous three films, is its ability to deflect all criticism; these movies are not just critic-proof, they're quality-proof. As long as the Autobots or Decepticons or emoticons or Comic-Cons or whatever they're called keep laying waste to cities and brain cells, its target audience of global fanboys and Viacom shareholders will be sated and the rest of us can go down with the ship watching some arthouse limited release.
Cynicism aside, there is a certain nobility in being so unapologetically excessive and uninterested in the accepted standards of what constitutes a good film. Say what you will about Michael Bay, the generalissimo of all four Transformers epics, he's a brand name director who knows what his audience wants: fast cars, objectified women, cheap jingoism, cultural clichés, platitudinous dialogue, robots crashing into skyscrapers, and a beggar's banquet of explosions. And dammit if he's not going to deliver.
All this is not to defend the Transformers movies from the criticism they so richly deserve. However, it looks like we're stuck with these films – the next sequel is slated for a 2016 release – and based on approximately 615 minutes worth of evidence, the series probably won't get much better than Age of Extinction, which is less a recommendation than a statement of resignation.
Latest 'Transformer's movie boasts upgraded visual effects
One of the absurdities of the Transformers series is the egregious overdesign of the robots. They've always seemed impractical and arbitrarily designed, with only a few bolts and a swatch of color separating an Earth-saving Decepticon from a villainous Autobot (or is that the other way around?). Transformers: Age of Extinction addresses the issue with improved facial detail and more seamless integration between robots, humans (“humans” being used loosely here), and real-world backgrounds. All the better to experience the umpteenth robot body slam against a Chicago building or some rundown structure in Beijing (site of the film's climax in yet another depressing and transparent ass-kiss to the lucrative Chinese moviegoing market).
The upgrade in visual effects proves less important than the upgrade in cast. The twerpy, you-just-wanna-hit-him Shia LaBeouf is nowhere to be found in Age of Extinction. He has been scrubbed from Transformers history and replaced by the softly rugged, action-film ready Mark Wahlberg, whose character is saddled with the Red State-ready name of Cade Yeager.
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' plot
Six months behind on his Texas ranch, Cade is some sort of inventor / junk collector whose new acquisition turns out to be fugitive Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Optimus, along with all other surviving robots, good and bad, are being hunted down by the U.S. government after they destroyed much of Chicago in 2011's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Leading the anti-robot charge, in part by making a silly illegal immigration parallel, is CIA something or other Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer).
No one would label Michael Bay a feminist director, so call it progress that instead of an unattainably hot love interest for Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, we have Cade's jailbait daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Cade and Tessa look nothing like father and daughter and their heated arguments about high-school graduation and the perils of boys, specifically her BF Shane (Jack Reynor), who rather fortuitously drives rally cars, are formulaic blather. Still, when a juvenile mentality like Bay's needs to stimulate a few salivary glands, Tessa's 17-year-old behind is ready for its close-up. And returning screenwriter Ehren Kruger strafes some seriously questionable moral ground by working in Texas' Romeo and Juliet law that would allow 20-year-old Shane to date a minor.
After Attinger finds Optimus hiding in Cade's garage, father, daughter and Autobot go on the run, chased by Decepticons, a bounty-hunter robot named Lockdown, and Attinger's henchman Savoy (Titus Welliver). It's hard to keep track of what happens next, but whatever it is, it's loud and it continues for approximately 120 minutes. (This movie is so long that Michael Bay is rumored to have written, shot, and edited Transformers 5 during the critic's screening of Age of Extinction.)
Nestled amongst the exhausting amount of car chases, gun fights, and robot smackdowns is one passable idea: Stanley Tucci tears into the role of Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobsian tech mogul who melts dead Transformers down to their raw material (called transformium) and then builds new and better Transformers for the U.S. government to control. Galvatron, Joyce's most potent example of a human-created Transformer, is unleashed to find Optimus and help retrieve “the seed,” a bomb that converts soil into transformium.
Michael Bay has no need to 'evolve as an artist'
As a longtime director of visual and aural excess, Michael Bay's choice of palette is a settled matter. Indeed, why evolve as an artist when your signature style is popular and profitable, and besides, who wouldn't want to play with $165 million of someone else's money? Helping execute Bay's sophomoric vision once again is DP Amir Mokri. The pair love their push-ins, up-angle shots, and crane moves. They light scenes as if Earth was about 10 feet away from the Sun. It's all extremely polished and occasionally very exciting. Bay's use of vertiginous angles as Cade tries to evade Savoy by climbing down a Hong Kong tenement is a highlight. The problem is that, like a junkie who needs more product to achieve the same high, Bay feels he needs to provide more climaxes and more action to keep audiences satisfied.
During Transformers: Age of Extinction's third or fourth climax – it was hard to keep track – an enormous spaceship, acting like a magnet, began picking up cars and boats, and dropping them onto the street. Later, Optimus sits atop an enormous metal dinosaur. It's like an arms race of PG-13 violence with only one participant. At this rate, the final Transformers movie will be a 160-minute explosion shot through a woman's legs. And yet, without a story worth investing in and characters worth caring about, it'll just be empty spectacle.
So, as the sun sets on Age of Extinction, human and robot staring up at the endless void, billions of dollars of worldwide damage and countless lives lost as a tragic result of their hard-fought victory, fear not: Tessa's lipstick survives, a bright, inviting shade of pink affixed to her pouting lips as if nothing happened.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). Dir.: Michael Bay. Scr.: Ehren Kruger. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, T.J. Miller, Li Bingbing, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, and the voices of Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Mark Ryan, and Ken Watanabe.
Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor Transformers: Age of Extinction photo: Paramount Pictures.