When you’re talking about the Transformers movies, more often than not you’re really talking about director Michael Bay… and that’s kind of the problem. You’re probably not discussing the action, the characters or the story; you’re likely arguing about whether or not you can stand Bay’s over-the-top scale and utterly chaotic battles. While the gimmick of these warring robots in live-action was enough to get us through the first instalment years ago, neither of the sequels were able to establish much in the way of personality and simply turned up the destruction to keep people coming.
With Age of Extinction the franchise enters a new phase with a fresh cast, a new threat and big status quo change for the Autobots. If ever there were a chance for Bay to shake things up and address the criticisms of the previous instalments, this new jumping on point would be it. So, does the studio look at all the money they’ve made with the last few films and say, “Let’s just do that again,” or can Transformers: Age of Extinction take advantage of this new jumping on point and breathe some life into this stagnating franchise?
The short answer to both, is no. But it does have robot dinosaurs.
Age of Extinction sees America mourning the fall of Chicago and living in fear of another attack from the titular alien robots. Under the direction of Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), the CIA are working with intergalactic bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan) to hunt down their former Autobot allies and gain the tech to build their own militarily controlled transformers with the help of industrialist Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci). When down on his luck mechanic / inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles upon an on-the-run Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), he finds himself thrust into the conflict between the Autobot leader and this new threat along with his 17-year-old daughter and her stunt-driving boyfriend.
To the film’s credit, the plot actually does have a lot of moving parts. The Yeager family drama, the mystery behind Lockdown and his ties to the Transformer’s origins, the commentary on the climate of fear and the danger of an unchecked intelligence agency (though it’s not nearly as thought-out or relevant as we saw earlier this year in The Winter Soldier); they’re all fine threads that could have rounded out the movie if only AoE could see any of them through. Instead, they function only to distract the audience from the contrived plotting and inconsequential cast. It’s tempting to spend this review picking apart the juvenile script from returning writer Ehren Kruger, but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit myself to special mentions of the god-awful introduction of the Dinobots, Cade burying the hatchet with Joyce by hugging it out, and naming the metal the Transformers are made of Transformium.
While Cade is tethered to this story largely by coincidence, at least some solace can be taken in how likeable a lead Wahlberg is. No matter how silly and uninspired the script gets, Wahlberg doesn’t seemed to be dragged down by its shortfalls and does his duty as the human anchor in a movie that is essentially disaster porn (although one slow motion NOOOOOOO! comes damn close to writing him off altogether). Likewise, Grammer seems to elevate himself above the foolishness of the script, grounding the motivation of the various antagonists and keeping the reality of the film somewhat comprehensible. Tucci’s Joyce is less successful, and does little more than serve as a vehicle for him to play an eccentric Steve Jobs allegory. It’s a shame as this was a character they clearly hoped would connect to the audience (and they certainly cast the right man for the role), but given the merciless 165 minute run-time, it’s difficult not to resent how much time you’re forced to waste on him.
Now there are plenty of other human members of this largely throwaway cast, but it’s the Transformers that are inexcusably the most disappointing thing about AoE. What should be fun and creative designs are uninspired and soulless, with generic themes substituting any form of character. They fail to establish any relevant personality or style based on their transformations and instead are simply caricatures that happen to turn into cars. Either because they thought it would look more modern, or more likely because it would save them money on special effects, the new man-made robots don’t even make the metamorphosis from automobile to automaton. They just atomise into a weightless pixel cloud and reform as a gun toting baddy, which, you know, kind of does away with the entire point of Transformers. At the very least, the Dinobots are pretty cool in their design and, once you get past their laughable introduction, they do serve to add a little flavour into what is otherwise a noisy and uninspired final act.
As has long been a problem in this series, the Transformers’ voices continue to feel like they are floating off-screen and not actually coming out of the robots mouths. The Autobots will roll and punch and explode across the periphery and yet their dialogue is flatly looped on over all the commotion. There are points where it’s difficult to tell whether they are talking to Optimus or whether he’s narrating. This is of course worsened by Bay’s inability to sacrifice what might be cool poster fodder for shots that actually focus on what’s happening and make sense of all the action. The blocking and scene construction are terrible, making it often impossible to know whether the good guys are winning or losing without the aforementioned voices explaining what’s happening – despite the roaring explosions and crashes that should trample out their monotone rambling. Bay’s messy action has been well documented and it’s sort of a joke we just accept now, but 4 movies in I’m not really laughing any more.
To sum up, the story is a mess, the robots are a bore and the action is devoid of clarity or suspense. The thing is, while it may not make for the best film, I’m actually ok with all that. I may not recommend the movie, but I’d hardly hold any contempt for the filmmakers because they were maybe a little indulgent and didn’t necessarily succeed in realising their goal. But I draw the line when a movie sells itself to the public as a piece of entertainment, only to spend its needlessly draining 2+ hour runtime blatantly shoving consumer goods and brand names down the audience’s throats. The Transformers property was obviously designed to sell toys and these films have always had their fair share of product placement, but AoE is plagued by an insidious level of marketing. There is actually a point where Stanley Tucci demonstrates his transforming tech by holding a wireless speaker set to the camera, reciting the product name, and then transforming it into a pistol. When the film reached its climax and the soundtrack kicked in to utterly flatten out the tension, I was surprised a Shazam logo didn’t appear on-screen and signal me to browse the artist’s catalogue. There are situations where a little product placement is fine just so long as it doesn’t infringe on the creative direction of the movie, but Age of Extinction isn’t only influenced by product placement, it has entire scenes ruled by it.
All of which begs the question: who are they making this movie for? The themes are too dry and the language is too mature for the kid with the Optimus Prime action figure who just wants to see a cool movie with robots. On the other hand, the script is impossibly adolescent for any adults who wander in and any fans of the property will see nothing of what made them love the Transformers to begin with. Rather, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a film made for themselves. A shameless expression of ego and an attempt to package advertising and sell it as a movie. I understand it’s a business and Paramount, like any studio, is out to make money. But nowhere does it say that just because you’re going to turn a profit, it means you don’t have to give a damn.