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There are some movies where it's best to shut your brain off to enjoy them. Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction is definitely one of them. A pseudo-reboot that features much of the same elements of the first Transformers trilogy but none of its established human characters, the fourth entry in this franchise is bloated with plotlines, characters, and action sequences that push its running time to 165 minutes of nonsensical madness.
The good news is you don’t have to have seen the first three films to help you make sense of Transformers: Age of Extinction. It really won't help much.
The basic things you need to know are re-established in the first act. Autobots are good, giant transforming alien robots. Decepticons are bad, giant transforming alien robots. But after their battle in Chicago laid waste to the metropolis, the U.S. government is ignoring this distinction, and hunting all Transformers down. When one scrappy but struggling inventor (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles across a battered and broken Optimus Prime, the government finder's fee is tempting. But Cade Yeager is our hero, and so will never betray his new extraterrestrial buddy – no matter what utter destruction it brings into his life.
I wish Bay had some incentive to cut down his Transformers movies, but as audiences have flocked to them even as they gotten longer and longer (144 minutes to 150 to 154 to 165), he has had no cause. Still, this is a very long film that feels very long. It jumps from the central story of Optimus Prime and crew versus all the human-hating Transformers, to Cade's domestic drama with his obnoxious teen daughter (Nicola Peltz), to Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci's plot of Transformer hunting for homeland security, to a grander, undeveloped plot of Optimus Prime's mysterious origins. Like the Transformers themselves, the latest sequel is full of flashy moving parts, but much of it is for show without much function.
With so many characters, Bay struggles to create heroes we care about. Okay, Wahlberg's inventor is instantly likeable – in part because of the star's innate affability and in part because he is set up as a kind-hearted underdog who strives to help others even when he's desperately broke himself. But unfortunately, Cade's plotline is bogged down by his grating daughter and her snotty boyfriend (Jack Reynor), who are so useless and uninteresting that they could have easily been combined into one character or cut out completely. Daughter Tessa is lovely to look at – and Bay's leering camera often reminds you of this fact – but she does little more than lecture her father and scream for help. She's not a character; she's simply a motivation for Cade to leave his humble life behind and play hero. She also serves this function to her rally car racer boyfriend, whose main function in the plot is to shove in Cade's face that his daughter has grown up, and to engage in a tiresome pissing contest with him.
These two harbingers of boredom are ultimately what soured me on Transformers: Age of Extinction. The overstuffed plot I could handle, but spending so much time with these irritating lovers was more than I could take. Thankfully, there are bright spots in the cast. T.J. Miller gets some early laughs as Cade's surfer bro buddy and business partner, while Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver play convincingly grim government heavies. Chinese star Bingbing Li should help Transformers: Age of Extinction bring in the sought after China market, but she also offers a small but sharp turn that is slick and fun. The real standout is Stanley Tucci, who plays Transformers's version of Steve Jobs: a billionaire tech guru who in this world has the greatest reactions to Transformer-related mayhem. Tucci breathes humor and quirk into this fatuous summer movie, and makes its lengthy finale fun with his screams of terror, snide asides and wildly ill-timed flirtations.
The Transformers themselves get some added flare in the form of a new batch of Autobots. Bumblebee is back with no mention of his buddy Sam. Optimus Prime is bitter following an attempt on his life, but in fighting form that will have fans of the franchise cheering. New to the crew is Hound, a bearded, cigar-chomping, pot-bellied good ol' boy, voiced by John Goodman. Simply put, he's The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak – with PG-13 language – in robot form. There's also a clichéd British gangsta' Transformer, complete with metal trench coat, a samurai, and--as teased in the trailer--dinobots. And they all unite to clash with bad robots chaotically again and again and again.
The narrative loses major momentum when the human heroes squirm aboard a hovering villain spaceship. (I'd say that's in hour five or six). I'm sure there are some that will revel over every moment of Transformer fighting, but after a while it just wore on me. By the final hour, I was hoping every action sequence would be the last. It just began to become a blur of CG metal, crumbling buildings, and mounting human casualties. While I'm all for the occasional mindless action movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction wasn't fun for me. In the end, it just felt long, in no small part because Bay repeats himself in form and function over and over again.
You could make a drinking game out of camera moves (expertly executed) that swirl around the heroes from a low angle, of lustful shots of young Peltz naked legs, and of scenes shot at magic hour. But the biggest problem is that the stakes of Transformers: Age of Extinction feel irrelevant. Every movie it's the same thing. Optimus Prime tries to save humanity – even the jerks – from the big bad Transformers. He might win the battle, but the war rages on and on and on (no wonder some of mankind is beginning to think we won't be safe until both Autobots and Decepticons leave Earth for good). This repetition just begins to feel monotonous and the battles extraneous, which left me trying to find joy and excitement in this film wherever I could. Thank goodness for Tucci and it's truly laughable dialogue like, "I knew you had a conscious because you're an inventor like me!" Without them, Transformers: Age of Extinction would have left me with nothing to cling to.