Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t going to win you over if you aren’t predisposed to the giant robot genre or the Transformers franchise in particular. It’s fair to get this out of the way early. If Michael Bay movies don’t turn you on, then you should probably stay home.
But if you’re of the mind that the Transformers formula of impossible amounts of action, hapless humans running around trying to help and/or survive, fast cars, heavy artillery, light comedy, and dialogue that could only be excused when delivered by Peter Cullen is a fine way to spend a summer evening, then you should be quite satisfied. You certainly aren’t alone. This franchise couldn’t make the barrels of cash that it does, otherwise.
Transformers: Age of Extinction picks up some time after Transformers: Dark of the Moon. “The battle of Chicago” as it’s called, has changed the dynamic between humans and Autobots. Namely, the U.S. government is no longer interested in working with them; they’ve fostered a climate of alien-hating paranoia among the citizens, and have begun hunting down and dismantling Transformers with a special black-ops team. They aren’t terribly interested in the distinction between Autobots and Decepticons, either.
The government’s secret weapon (and the film’s) is Lockdown, an intergalactic bounty hunter who is helping out in the hunt for the Autobots for his own purposes. Lockdown is really a terrific visual, looking at times like an enormous, cybernetic version of Darkseid from DC Comics. He’s handily the best villain the series has yet seen, has an enormous spaceship that might trick you into thinking Unicron is here, and yet somehow he gets lost in the shuffle of this overcooked movie.
The obvious parallels with post-9/11 U.S. foreign and domestic policy aside, for some of the first act, it really does appear that Transformers 4 is trying to make a point. That’s all gleefully swept away before the third act, mind you, but compared to the coming-of-age story of the first movie, the failed sex comedy of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and whatever it was that the humans were supposed to care about in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, this is weighty stuff.
Anyway, it’s Lockdown’s successful hunting skills that have driven the Autobots into hiding and led to Optimus Prime’s eventual discovery by a humble Texas inventor (Mark Wahlberg) and his family. The rest of Optimus’ team this time around are a colorful assortment that includes Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). Bumblebee is here, too, but not in as central a role as previous movies. It’s really Optimus Prime’s story this time around.
As for the non-robot cast…look, nobody goes to see a Transformers movie for them, right? They are, at best, necessary evils that get us from giant robot battle to giant robot battle, and allow the filmmakers to provide the audience with some thin pretense that there’s a real story to be told. But the good news is that without the impossibly irritating antics of the Witwicky family, the humans of Transformers: Age of Extinction have a wheel up on the previous three movies.
Yes, we’re still dealing with characters painted in the broadest strokes possible, but you knew that before you bought your ticket. Mark Wahlberg isn’t exactly in Departed mode as Cade Yeager, the struggling inventor (yes…inventor) with an overprotective streak towards his daughter (Bates Motel‘s Nicola Peltz) that stands out as his defining characteristic. The banter with the young Ms. Yeager’s hard-driving boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and Wahlberg’s almost creepy Dad is tiresome, and in a nearly three-hour film like this, the same beats tend to get hit over and over and over again.
Somewhat better are the villains and the ‘tweeners. Kelsey Grammer is here as the closest thing to a credible human threat we’ve ever seen in a Transformers film. Titus Welliver shows up as a bloodthirsty government heavy who only lacks a mustache to twirl. Stanley Tucci stands in for John Turturro as the “kind of a douchebag but ultimately a decent dude” comic relief, and he is a slightly more subtle (well, by this franchise’s standards), warm presence than Turturro’s Agent Simmons was ever allowed to be. I realize I just used the word “subtle” in a review of a movie that has an element called “transformium” as an essential plot point, so perhaps I should be shot.
Anyway, that’s all well and good, but there are Dinobots in this movie. If you’re of a certain age, the novelty of seeing these creatures realized on screen should be enough to bring a brief smile to the lips of all but the most jaded fans.
In general, the odd bit here and there where the scale seems a little off, the robots on display are genuinely stunning. The franchise has, at least from a visual standpoint, come a long way since 2007. Unsurprisingly, the movie does its best work when it just lets these impressive visuals interact with each other in unfamiliar environments (like spaceships). Between this film and moments in Dark of the Moon, one gets the feeling that screenwriter Ehren Kruger really wants to tell some more cosmic stories with these concepts, if only he could leave these puny humans behind.
Despite all of these fun bits and pieces, Transformers 4 ultimately collapses under its own weight. I understand that complaining about excess in a Transformers movie is akin to climbing into a lion cage and then getting annoyed about losing a limb, but this 166-minute run time is absurd. While these movies always run long, it’s usually easy to spot what could be trimmed, and here, even the good stuff (namely robot-on-robot action, of which there is plenty) is just too much. There are no fewer than three sequences which would have been a suitable climax for any other summer blockbuster, so by the time the ending actually comes, you’re numb and probably hard of hearing.
The Transformers franchise has very nearly perfected its formula here in its fourth installment. The problem is, it may have also exhausted that formula (and this is an exhausting movie). There’s not much here to entice non-fans, and there’s probably too much static to please the purists. With Transformers 5 already promised for summer 2016, let’s hope that they have the good sense to move beyond earthbound concerns for that one and, as Optimus Prime is fond of saying, “look to the stars.”