In terms of robots falling apart and explosions, Michael Bay set himself a high bar with 2011‘s Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. So much so that Bay stated that he wouldn’t make another one – just as he did after he shot the first sequel, Revenge Of The Fallen in 2009. But having made his low-key, low-budget passion project (the $26m action caper Pain & Gain, starring The Rock), the blockbuster auteur found himself creatively refreshed enough to make yet another Transformers flick. The result is Age Of Extinction: a film somehow louder, more violent and, mind-bogglingly, even longer than its predecessor (the duration’s 165 minutes). Its story picks up a year or so after Dark Of The Moon and its climactic battle in Chicago, in which the entire city was destroyed by warring Autobots, Decepticons and alien ships that looked like massive metal prawns. America has picked up the pieces after that conflict, but the memories are still raw: an anti-robot sentiment has arisen in the months since, and glowering CIA guy Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) is leading a covert operation to seek out and destroy the few surviving Autobots left behind. Enter Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor who builds robots from scrap like a beer-drinking, Texan Geppetto. Cade’s a widower with a teenage daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz) who’s secretly seeing a 20-year racing car driver, Shane (Jack Reynor out of What Richard Did). One day, Cade finds an old truck sitting, incongruously, in a disused cinema, and on dragging it back to his barn, discovers that it’s a battered and ornery Optimus Prime (once again voiced by Peter Cullen). Having Prime in his back garden immediately alerts Harold Attinger’s platoon of gun-toting heavies, led by Lost’s Titus Welliver, and Cade soon finds his house in ruins and his name on a wanted list along with Optimus Prime’s. Meanwhile, a billionaire designer named Joshua (Stanley Tucci) is busily building his own army of fiercely powerful robot machines based on the remains of Decepticons. Unsurprisingly, this experiment has far-reaching consequences for at least two major cities. It’s taken three paragraphs to lay out the bare bones of Transformers 4‘s story, and we’re barely up to the 40 minute mark. Age Of Extinction has plot by the square yard, rolled up tightly like a cheap carpet. Bay unravels it in fits and starts: threadbare bits of narrative are repeatedly interrupted by colossal action set-pieces, to the point where it appears as though we’re just teetering on the cusp of a third and final act. Instead, Bay simply recoils for a few minutes, as though he’s drawing breath, and then unleashes another deafening bellow of disintegrating civic architecture and special effects. It’s appropriate that a fair chunk of the film takes place in China, where gunpowder and fireworks were invented. In Bay’s defence, some of those special effects are genuinely spectacular. There are car chases. Several fist fights. A dozen buildings collapse. Yet it all feels eerily familiar, largely because Age Of Extinction looks and sounds almost identical to the earlier Transformers movies. There’s even a sequence where an Autobot transforms, flinging its occupants screaming into a lens flare, only to be caught by the robot before they land on the tarmac in a gooey mess.
This familiarity wouldn’t necessarily matter too much, but a considerable amount of pre-release hype was put into convincing us that Age Of Extinction wouldn’t be a straight sequel to Dark Of The Moon. Much was made of the more serious tone and the change in cast, with Shia LaBeouf and his various sidekicks having been retired for Mark Wahlberg and Jack Reynor. Yet while Wahlberg brings puppy-eyed enthusiasm and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy as the new leading man, the film around him is simply much, much more of the same. The moments that could hit home – a terrific fight on the exterior of a Hong Kong building, a nervy escape from Titus Welliiver’s enjoyably evil CIA assassin – are simply lost in a sea of repetitive violence. There are few signs that lessons have been learned from the earlier films, either. The dialogue’s still as cloth-eared as it ever was (one character even goes to the trouble to explain how a magnet works during a high-speed chase), Bay’s camera still lingers dubiously over the anatomies of his scant female cast, and the film’s just as cluttered and busy, in every respect, as the previous three films. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger appears to have been influenced by quite a few recent science fiction films when writing Age Of Extinction. There’s a mysterious substance called Transformium which could have come from Avatar, some heavy-handed meditations on xenophobia akin to that seen in the X-Men franchise, while Cade’s relationship with his daughter appears to have been lifted wholesale from Bay’s 90s disaster film, Armageddon. Admittedly, Age Of Extinction is far less crass and obnoxious than Revenge Of The Fallen, but its also less coherent than Dark Of The Moon, a film which, after an extremely slow first half built to an impressively-staged battle in Chicago. Age Of Extinction, on the other hand, meanders from place to place without really building to anything. There are so many actors in here that it’s easy to forget them all. We haven’t even mentioned Sophia Myles’s character, Darcy, who uncovers something mysterious (borrowing a plot point from Prometheus in the process) and then disappears for a good 40 or 50 minutes. Then there are the Dinobots – heavily teased in the trailers and posters – who take an absolute eternity to finally show up, and display a disappointing lack of personality when they finally do. Even less personality, come to think of it, than the Autobot with the pot belly and beard who unaccountably smokes a cigar (Hound, voiced by John Goodman), or the green Australian one who wears a long coat like Brian May out of Queen, or the haiku-spouting samurai one voiced by Ken Watanabe. Then again, the human cast seems to be genuinely enjoying itself. The always-welcome Stanley Tucci shouts, screams and grins, while Wahlberg throws himself around with the abandon of a child giddy on too much orange squash. Some viewers might have a similar amount o ffun with Michael Bay’s latest cavalcade of swooping cameras and grinding mayhem.
Others are likely to consider Age Of Extinction to be the worst kind of dull film: too busy to fully engage with, and too noisy to sleep through. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is out on the 5th July.
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