This far into the Transformer series of films by Michael Bay you know exactly what you’re going to get, so you’re either going to see Transformers: Age of Extinction and enjoy it, see it and hate watch it, or just ignore its passing and seeing something more engaging to your personal taste at the multiplex. If I could describe Age of Extinction in two words, they would be “too much,” too much exposition, too much action, too much plot, too much Bay-hem… And although it’s not as noticeable, too much silliness mixed in with all the hardcore action. In other words, it’s everything you like, or hate, already about Transformers films, just more of it.
Now you may infer from our coverage of Age of Extinction, which has been, at times, snarky, sarcastic and even downright negative, that we, the Nerd Bastards, are not fans of this franchise. That’s not unfair. Many of my fellow Bastards utterly hate Bay’s “vision” of the Transformers. However, although I wouldn’t call myself an admirer, I did find the previous three Transformers films enjoyable enough on a pure entertainment level. There are no illusions that Bay has allusions, or metaphors, or other literary aspirations, you watch these films to see tough guys act tough, hot girls be hot, giant robots fight, and stuff blow up real good. And while I know a lot of you hold the 1986 animated Transformers movie in high esteem, if you take off the nostalgia goggles, you will see it as it really is: a 90-minute toy commercial for the then new line of action figures.
That brings us to Age of Extinction, which for some reason I found more annoying than any entry in the, ahem, original trilogy. Bay doesn’t change the formula so much as trim it in places, which means there’s nothing here even slightly surprising in terms of scope, production or characterization. Shia LaBeouf is gone, the army guys are gone, John Turturro is gone, the annoying parents are gone, and most of the robot cast is gone. The most important part though, Bay’s meticulous attention to urban warfare insanity, remains intact.
The shame is that there are some interesting ideas in Age of Extinction. The concept of the Autobots teaming up with a failed inventor with an interest in robotics? That sounds good. The idea that human tyrants want to make their own Transformers that are programmable and controllable? Awesome! I could see it happen. Those same humans creating variations on Autobots like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee except, you know, evil? Good twist, especially since almost all the bad robots were killed in Dark of the Moon. But all that’s just the start of a good script. If the movie had just been about the Autobots versus human-created Decepticons, that would have been fine. If the movie had been about the robot bounty hunter Lockdown coming to Earth to hunt surviving Transformers, that would have been fine. Or if it had been about humans hunting the Transformers to, you know, extinction, that would have been fine too. But all three together…
And on top of it all, we get more of the caricature that Bay and his screenwriter Ehren Kruger think is character. Mark Wahlberg is inventor Cade Yeager, the man you rescues Optimus Prime from a scrap pile, and develops a friendship with the Autobot leader. It’s to Wahlberg’s credit that his own natural charisma compensates for some of the patently stupid things his character is required to do and say, like being laughably protective of his daughter’s chastity even as he has the general of an alien army wanted by the government in his barn. Nicola Peltz gets the thankless job of playing Cade’s daughter Tessa, she at least looks the part because from all appearances she’s the love child of Transformers’ last two leading ladies Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whitely. Newcomer Jack Reynor completes our human hero triad as Tessa’s useless car racing boyfriend Shane.
There are bad humans too. Kelsey Grammer does Sideshow Bob proud as Attinger, a CIA lifer who’s prosecuting a war against all Transformers after entering an agreement with Lockdown, the aforementioned alien bounty hunter. Lockdown must collect all Transformers, Autobot and Decepticon, at the bidding of the mysterious creators. Attinger, and the head of his Black Ops team Savoy (Titus Welliver), are trying to get their hands on “The Seed,” a device that can turn biological matter into “Transformium,” the metallic substance that Transformers are made of, and yes, that’s what it’s called. An inventor named Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) needs the stuff to make his own version of the Trasnformers led by Galvatron, which turns out to be a Trojan horse for the return of Decepticon big bad, Megatron.
Basically, there’s enough plot here for three Transformer movies, and at nearly three hours in terms of running time, this movie’s a hike as we trudge from one enormous action scene to the next. Even the director himself seems to go on autopilot at some point. I know that the Transformers movies are enormously difficult to make logistically when you’re dealing with pyro, visual effects, stunt people, squibs, and explosions, but even Bay seems bored by his own formula.
Of the new robots, a lot of the marketing’s been focused on the introduction of the Dinobots, and they don’t even show up until well after the two hour mark. Also, for Transformers purists especially, you will be utterly disappointed with how Bay’s “re-imagined” them, although, like the rest of this movie, there was a kernel of a good idea in there. Also amongst the new characters is Hound, a big, fat, bloviating Autobot with a cigar voiced by John Goodman, because a robot can be both obese and a smoker. I guess. We also meet Drift who, played by Japanese-born Ken Watanabe, is a samurai who takes to calling Optimus Prime “sensei.” Even George Lucas was watching this going, “Yeah, that’s too much.” The suggestion here, I think, is that maybe Bay overheard something in the editing room for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and thought, “Hey, why not?”
The real disappointment though is in the characterization of Optimus Prime himself. Saved somewhat by the gravitas of Peter Cullen’s delivery, this Prime is disenchanted with humans, and angry that they’ve turned their backs on him and the Autobots after everything they’ve done. Fair enough, but was there a way to show that side of Prime without turning him into a deranged prick that says he and the other surviving Autobots are going to kill all the humans out to get them and then put Earth in their rearview and good riddance. That’s not the Optimus we know, the Optimus who’s basically Superman as a truck, a fine, moral and upstanding leader who knows that sacrifice is necessary and that principles are never bent, let alone broken. In Age of Extinction, Optimus is Jack Bauer, and it just isn’t the same.
In summation, there are no surprises here. If you go to Transformers: Age of Extinction and enjoy the brainless orgy of destruction that unfurls across your 3-D glasses, then more power to you. For those of you hoping Michael Bay might make up for past sins, sorry, he mortgaged those old sins in order to buy brand new ones at a sin store fire sale. I understand that a movie about cars that turn into robots is not going to lend itself to high art, and I used to be okay with that. Maybe I’m getting older, maybe I’m getting wiser, or maybe, just maybe, the way Bay does Transformers just isn’t enough to be merely entertaining anymore.