Going into Transformers: Age of Extinction, I wondered who was excited for this movie? What in the marketing convinced them that, to quote the tagline, “The Rules Have Changed”? If anything, these movies hew closely to the rules of the franchise: Create as much mayhem as possible, make the plot insultingly stupid, the characters should be dull as dishwater, and bonus points for squeezing in any racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Yes, these movies are “criticproof”. They’re not for people who watch movies for a living; they’re for people who want to “turn off their brains”. But the latest Transformers is the most mind-numbing yet. It’s an exhausting experience that tries to do everything, and yet accomplishes absolutely nothing. It doesn’t excite. It doesn’t engage. It just wastes time and space.
Five years after the Transformers saved the world but destroyed Chicago in the process, the aliens are now seen as a threat, and are being hunted down by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and his shadowy government agency, who are being helped by the bad Transformer Lockdown (Mark Ryan). Meanwhile, failed inventor Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) spends his days going further into debt, tinkering with machines that don’t work, and making sure his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) stays chaste. When Cade stumbles upon Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), it puts them in Attinger’s crosshairs, and forces Optimus, Cade, Tessa, and Tessa’s secret boyfriend/race car driver Shane (Jack Reynor) to go on the run. Eventually, they discover there’s a much larger conspiracy involving Attinger and the tech company/weapons developer KSI, run by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who can now create Transformers by manipulating their matter, “Transformium”. But while Joyce is aiming to get rich, Lockdown has a bigger plan to destroy the world because Lockdown is eeeeevil mwahahaha.
After his fourth film in the franchise, director Michael Bay is just coasting at this point, and that isn’t a great approach since the Transformers movies never had all that much to offer in the first place. We certainly don’t come for the characters. No one is feeling the loss of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), and this new batch of characters isn’t worth caring about. Wahlberg is here because he’s buff and can convincingly wield a sword-gun. Peltz’ job is to be helpless, useless, and make Mikaela (Megan Fox) look like Betty Friedan by comparison. Shane exists so Cade can remind us that his daughter’s virginity is just as important as saving the world if not more so. Only Grammer and Tucci seem to be giving it their all as their characters glower and condescend to everyone else in the movie. But with the exception of Cade, I didn’t remember anyone’s name. I had to look them up on IMDb. And I only remembered Cade’s name because it’s stupid, and you will go your entire life without meeting anyone named “Cade”.
The Transformers are just as bad. I’ve now spent four movies with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, and still know almost nothing about them other than Optimus is deadly serious and Bumblebee is cute. There’s a transformer who dies, and I barely remembered he was in a previous film. They don’t have arcs, and the story almost consciously avoids them. Optimus barely wrestles with whether or not he should still trust humans, but since Cade chose to protect Optimus, then all of humanity is worth saving, or at least the ones who are outside the cities that the Transformers absolutely destroy in the midst of fighting the bad Transformers who are either working with Lockdown or have broken free of Joyce’s control.
That’s the real point of Transformers: finding reasons to blow shit up. Everything else is lazy filler. The film drags through Attinger and Joyce’s motivations and Cade making sure that his daughter never even looks at a boy until she’s eighteen (I’m honestly surprised he didn’t try to invent a chastity belt that clamps down when the user thinks about sex). In one scene, he learns that Shane is twenty, but Shane says dating a 17-year-old is okay because of the Romeo & Juliet law, which protects couples who were dated when they were younger, and that’s why he can’t be charged with statutory rape. Shane even carries around a laminated card in his wallet so he can remind people of this particular statute (I suppose it’s useful if a cop comes across the couple having sex, and they need to break out the law). This is a 157-minute movie, and this scene tells us zilch about the characters. I didn’t need to know that there’s an age difference between Tessa and Shane. Reynor doesn’t look significantly older than Peltz. But this is what passes for character development in a story where the main objective is relentless action.
In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you could feel Bay’s excitement in getting to use IMAX and 3D. He had new toys, and he played with them well. The plot and characters were as worthless as the rest of the movies, but at least the set pieces popped. In Age of Extinction, he has nothing left. I saw the movie in 3D, and although it was in fake-IMAX, I could at least observe the shifting aspect ratio. I have no idea why Bay came back for a fourth installment when it’s clear he’s run out of ideas. This is the same smashing we’ve seen before; there’s just more of it. I can’t remember a single cool action shot. I only remember the unbelievably goofy ones like when Cade uses a football as a weapon.
The widespread destruction makes me side with Attinger. The Transformers are a threat, although to be fair they become more of a threat when Attinger decides to work with one of them to take out the others, and also doesn’t question why Lockdown would care about eliminating his alien brethren. I also find it difficult to believe the Autobots have any regard for humanity when they’re carelessly tearing up office buildings in Chicago and homes in Hong Kong. At least the Autobot Crosshairs (John DiMaggio) openly states he’s indifferent to the plight of the humans and is reluctant to fight alongside Optimus. Again, there’s a hint of an interesting conflict between characters, but the movie is more interested in the conflict between Transformers and buildings.
But this is what audiences show up for, right? Massive, widespread destruction caused by alien robots fighting each other? Except that’s no longer novel, and all Transformers: Age of Extinction has to provide is more mayhem plus Dinobots. This is the longest Transformers movie, but it feels even longer than previous three, especially since it’s not really doing anything new. Other blockbusters have stolen Bay’s thunder. Even though Superman destroys Metropolis in Man of Steel, we cared enough to debate the ramifications of his actions. We expect city-leveling chaos from the Transformers because that’s how they roll, but eventually all destruction blurs together. One more smashed building is as unimportant as another.
There are so many questions circling Age of Extinction. Why does the movie veer wildly between dusk and midday in the middle of the same scene? Why does a gigantic spaceship keep sneaking up on everyone? How do the human characters get tossed around like rag dolls but not die or even break a single bone? We’ve come to expect this nonsense from the Transformers movie, and it’s not only tolerated by audiences. It’s embraced.
Shouldn’t ticket-buyers want these movies to be better instead of just more of the same? Or are these pictures just fast food where you know what you’re getting, and even though they aren’t fine cuisine, at least they’re nourishing? The problem is that the food has gone stale. There’s nothing fresh about the series, or at least as far as Bay is concerned. Age of Extinction isn’t just redundant; it’s transparent. The movie exists to sell toys, and that’s why Joyce has created a bunch of new Transformers. China is an expanding market, and worldwide box office is where studios make their money, so that’s why the characters go to Hong Kong even though we’re already exhausted from the Transformers destroying Chicago again.
I’m sure I’ll be accused of being out of touch with the mainstream, and that I’m just another snooty critic who can’t appreciate dumb fun pictures. The problem is that we can and should demand more from our blockbusters. Godzilla was a huge hit, and although it also features citywide destruction and paper-thin characters, it had tension and atmosphere. Transformers: Age of Extinction is the same old noise, but longer and louder. It’s a tiring experience, and I’m tired of this franchise.