If you've already decided a) "All Michael Bay films suck and I won't go see any of them ever," b) "All Michael Bay films suck, but I can't stop going to see them," or c) "I love Michael Bay and/or TRANSFORMERS movies," you can probably step away from your computer for a little while, because I don't think I'm going to change your mind on any of these opinions. I guess I'm aiming my sights at the undecided voters with an open mind who are willing to take every movie on its own merit, and don't see or discuss movies simply to show how witty they are and how many clever ways they can find to shit on a film they're too cool to enjoy.
Now make no mistake, I'm not here to defend or endorse TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION; there's just too much wrong with the movie to encourage all but the diehards to see it. But I'm of a firm belief that anyone who dismisses the film with a single sweeping "it sucks" gesture, made up their minds about the film long before they stepped into the theater.
Set five years after the epic Battle of Chicago in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, the world (and by the world, I mean the United States of America) is a different place. Where once human and alien robots lived in a somewhat balanced alliance, now all Transformers—good and bad—are being secretly hunted and killed by a black ops CIA team run by Kelsey Grammer's Harold Attinger and his lapdog Savoy (Titus Welliver, wearing a lovely, flowing black trench coat). The robot parts and technology are being shipped primarily to the research facility run by tech kingpin/wizard Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who is intent on creating manmade versions of Transformers that humans can control—"a fully automated army."
But I'm jumping ahead. Did you know that in addition to the first manned moon mission finding the remnants of Transformers on the moon, the "creators" of the Transformers also somehow wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth millions of years ago? It's true. What that's important, I'm not sure, but I'm guessing sequels will provide the much-needed answers.
Jumping ahead a few million years, failed and broke Texas-based inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has found the remnants of what was once Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen), and he manages to get him back into working order just in time for the feds to show up at his doorstep and threaten to kill his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) if he doesn't reveal Prime's location. And then the heroics and explosions begin, as you'd expect. These early scenes reveal one of the biggest problems with these films: neither writer Ehren Kruger (on board since the second film) or Bay know what to do with humans in these movies, aside from making them the connective tissue that brings the robots together. They are either in peril, putting others in peril, or about to do one or the other.
That being said, casting Wahlberg as the world's worst single dad (his idea of parenting is telling his daughter she can't do [fill in the blank]; and that's it) is a vast improvement over the clown that Shia LaBeouf became by the last couple of films. Seeing Wahlberg wielding an oversized alien gun just visually makes far more sense. While Age of Extinction hasn't been completely swept clean of the awful humor (another major weakness in the writing) that permeates these movies, there's a lot less of it. Even the presence and constant riffing of T.J. Miller as Wahlberg's junk shop partner is, um, cut short early in the film, as if to say, "This ain't that kind of movie," which isn't entirely true, but it's certainly more tolerable. Then there are a couple of scenes with Thomas Lennon as the White House chief of staff, but he barely registers as being a part of this movie, so depending on your outlook, that's either good for him or bad for us.
I'll tell you what else is pretty great. Pretty much every sequence shot in and over Chicago. Yes, the rebuilt city offers up a few more great moments, including a stomach-turning (in a good way) high-wire walk by some of the characters from an alien spaceship and the top of the Willis Tower. I saw this in IMAX 3-D, and if you really want to experience this extended sequence properly, that's the way to go. There's also a more traditional but still thrilling aerial chase sequence above the streets of Chicago that also works quiet nicely.
So much is made about the Battle of Chicago from the last film that a big part of me wished the films would have ended there (which would have made it only about two-hours 20-minutes long), with the humans successfully making a stand at the city the robots destroyed five years earlier. Alas, AGE OF EXTINCTION has a lot of Chinese financing to deal with, so Tucci relocated his robot experiments from Chicago to Hong Kong, which offers up some lovely visuals and about 25 more minutes of sheer chaos (with parts of Chicago and Detroit doubling for HK), which takes the film from "long" to "too long."
The Hong Kong sequence gives Tessa's racecar driver boyfriend (Jack Reynor) a chance to show off his skills behind the wheel, including an entire scene in which he drives backwards to avoid a shower of debris.
I haven't really talked about the robots in AGE OF EXTINCTION, most of which are either new to us or have been redesigned to reflect newer-model vehicles. There's something truly weird about hearing John Goodman's voice come out of a robot that looks overweight and is chomping on a giant machine-gun shell like a cigar, and something mildly racist about Ken Watanabe voicing Drift, a shogun-looking Autobot. Why do robots have accents?
The bad guy robots are led by Lockdown (Mark Ryan), who seems intent on delivering unto humans something called "The Seed," which will apparently turn everything in a very large radius around it a metal Joyce has dubbed Tranformium, which will help him build more of his robots, but Lockdown has other plans, courtesy of the mysterious "creators." And then there is the much-anticipated appearance of the Dinobots, who show up under the guise of ancient warriors in the Transformer universe and are apparently so well revered that the Autobots ride them like horsies. And then they're off.
I don't usually talk about product placement, but a huge part of the humor (intentional and otherwise) is how awful and blatant these moving advertisements are in the middle of AGE OF EXTINCTION. I get that studios use these placements to offset the costs of their bigger films, but if these moments pull you right out of the movie, you're shooting yourself in the foot. Wahlberg's hilarious Bud Light truck spill, leading to his popping the cap of one and downing it, literally stops the movie to get its "proof-of-logo" moment. Tucci also drinks some sort of Chinese beverage during a rooftop break from the action. Not to mention the car-porn shots of these admittedly gorgeous machines, which at least have something to do with plot of the damn movie. Logos are omni-present in all TRANSFORMERS movies, but there are points here that just feel like commercials in the middle of the film.
If you tend to get headaches during TRANSFORMERS movies, go see your doctor. You probably have a brain tumor or need new glasses. But if you don't know if that's a possibility for you in these films at this point, you have no one to blame but yourself. Other than its impossibly long running time, AGE OF EXTINCTION isn't any more or less appealing than the first or third in the series (we will not speak of Rise of the Fallen). It has nearly all of the same flaws (although there aren't nearly as many slow-motion sequences as in previous TRANSFORMERS movies), while ramping up the still eye-popping special effects, blaring sound design and really great 3-D. Bay is one of the few filmmakers who gets that 3-D doesn't work in dark settings, so pretty much this whole movie is bright and sharp and makes great use of all of the dimensions.
As for the dialogue, which ranges from silly to stupid to offensive with stereotypes and sexism, I'll make no apologies. It's the anchor that pulls these films down and keeps them from being true escapist entertainment. The performances are certainly better than what we're used to in these films, but they still aren't great. I actually liked Grammer embracing his role as one of the kings of the Hollywood Republicans, and just spitting in the face of civil liberties and committing acts against American citizens in the name of national security. And Wahlberg's performance sold me on him being a concerned parent, even if his dialogue doesn't give us that.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION is an overcrowded mess that feels a bit like Michael Bay playing with all of his toys at once, rather than taking his time to enjoy each one for its own merits. I know in his mind he feels he's giving us our money's worth by throwing everything at us, but if we're missing half of the cumulative experience because there's too much to focus on, we're still getting screwed. It's simple math.