The first two words that leap out of my brain when thinking about Transformers: Age of Extinction are “long” and “owwww.” At 2 hours and 45 minutes (with no post- or mid-credits sequences, so you can get out of the theater as soon as the credits start rolling), Transformers: Age of Extinction is, quite possibly, the greatest piece of American Trash Cinema that has ever been excreted into existence. Despite its thinly-veiled commentary on our current immigration woes and a sharp backhand towards the Republican party and big business, it’s everything you want out of a Michael Bay film. The trouble is that it’s TOO MUCH of everything you want out of a Michael Bay film.
I firmly believe that Bay has made two great movies – the original Bad Boys and The Rock. Even with his shameless aping of James Cameron’s True Lies in both of those films, those were movies that had a lot of fun while being stylish and action-packed. They also featured great characters and quotable, charmingly silly dialogue. Actors were put to good use, even going so far as to poke fun at their image and legends, creating memorable characters that weren’t just secondary to the scenery and the effects. But then came everything else, which suddenly defined Bay as the king of explosions and what Roger Ebert referred to as “the swinging dick genre.” (Not his term, but another critic’s – I refer you to this essay.)
In that space of “everything else” that encompasses 1998’s Armageddon to 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bay seems to have forgone characters and decent performances in favor of putting people on theatrical roller coaster rides. Owen Wilson summed it up best in the outtakes of Armageddon: “Last week, it was, y’know, they had the spaceship up there, they’re rocking it back and forth, there’s all these flames, there’s ice pelting it, y’know, everything’s shaking, Michael Bay’s screaming, everybody’s screaming, he’s like, ’Cut! Cut! Cut! This is so boring!’” If Bay puts what he thinks ISN’T boring on screen, we must then be prepared for sensory overload. You can’t blame the guy for wanting to top himself with every movie, but when excesses become staples and they start to get in the way of letting people have any fun, one starts feeling like they’re being hit over the head repeatedly with a battering ram with no reprieve in sight.
Which, I guess, is what Transformers: Age of Extinction does with gusto. I honestly went in thinking, “I’m anxious to see what IMAX 3D looks like, and I think this is going to be typical Michael Bay fun.” I desperately wanted to enjoy it, but after the first thirty minutes, I found myself 1/5th of the way through a mirthless, by-the-numbers movie, surreptitiously checking the clock on my phone to see how long we had left. Truth be told, that’s not all of Bay’s fault – he can shoot a damn good-looking movie (and Transformers: Age of Extinction *is* a great-looking movie), but it’s too bad that screenwriter Ehren Kruger can’t write one.
Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 movies that refer to the events at the end of Marvel’s The Avengers as “The Battle of New York,” we are now reminded of The Battle of Chicago, where the destructive finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon played out. The United States has terminated its partnership with the Autobots, allowing them to slip into everyday life in their car forms, hopefully letting them fade into obscurity while keeping a watchful eye for the remaining Decepticons.
However, there’s a government conspiracy afoot to eliminate the remaining Autobots, including Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), who’s just been found by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) in an abandoned movie theater. Upon towing Prime to his nearly bankrupt farm, he discovers Prime has been hunted by another Transformer called Lockdown (voiced by Peter Ryan) who’s cooperating with Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), leader of a CIA Black Ops program. Their mission: recover any Transformers, intact or in pieces, for a business called KSI, where founder Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) hopes to create his own army of Transformers using their own tech. Attinger justifies this by not differentiating between “good aliens” or “bad aliens” – they’re all aliens and don’t belong on US soil. Sound familiar?
Oh, and there’s some side plot about Cade’s daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and how she has a from-out-of-nowhere secret boyfriend, rally driver Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor). There’s a lot of forced “I’m your daddy, you’re my daughter, your mother’s dead, so all we have is each other” kind of repartee between them, along with much of the same father/secret boyfriend stuff we saw in Armageddon between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. What is it about Bay films and the men being in a state of perpetual arrested development? Is it Bay referring to his own childish whimsy?
Or is it just a case of bad, shallow writing? From what I heard coming out of actors and Transformers’ mouths, I’m willing to bet it’s just bad writing. Here, we have Optimus Prime, formerly a very erudite and intelligent being (in both the cartoon and the preceding three movies), reduced to saying “I’ll kill you!” at least five times throughout the film, along with other such utterances that are truly cringeworthy. Characters are merely action sequence transition facilitators, behaving in such idiotic ways that can only lead to some type of explosion or fight. Of course, the only lead female character is sorely underwritten, as Tessa does nothing but fulfill the Rosie Huntington-Whiteley role of the previous movie. (Read: all she does is pout with her mouth half-open and be that person in a group that lags behind and nearly gets the group killed many, many times. Peltz has improved a bit from The Last Airbender, but not by much.)
The film’s three-act structure is timed perfectly to showcase the three different locales in which this film takes place. We start off in Paris, Texas for the first act, followed by a return to Chicago for the second, finishing with a trip to Hong Kong for the third. And with each successive move, the action gets louder and more in-your-face than the scenes before it. An hour into the film, you’ll either be crying in the fetal position from action overload, or your eyes will be popping out of your head in anticipation of the next round of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Although this film is technically proficient – the special effects are astounding and the use of 3D is engaging – it’s not fun. It feels like we’re just going through the motions, only we’re heaping more gasoline onto an already-fueled nuclear fire. The wanton destruction isn’t as fun as it’s supposed to feel – honestly, it gets boring after the first act. The massive loss of human life in this film is glossed over and never given a second thought.
And when I say it’s not fun, I mean that there should be at least some laughs with the jokes Kruger has written into the movie. John Goodman, who voices a gung-ho, NRA-wet-dream robot called Hound, does what he can to be the comic relief, but he’s hamstrung by a script that doesn’t give you enough to care about, much less laugh at. Product placement and plot holes big enough for the Dinobots to fit through abound throughout the film, with the film often reversing itself on its own internal logic (if logic is to be found in this film). And by the time everyone lands in Hong Kong you’re left wondering how much more population destruction you could possibly stand. Marshall Teague described Bay’s Armageddon as “sitting in the front seat of a – of a roller coaster that’s on fire at a 100 miles an hour and you’re running out of track.” Ladies and gentlemen, that track has run out and the train has completely derailed. Obnoxious, loud, out of control, butt-numbingly long and headache-inducing, yet fairly well-shot and often lovely to look at, Transformers: Age of Extinction is… well, if you haven’t gotten the gist by now, you won’t at all.