Summer blockbusters are far from an exact science, but for the most part, there are two constants you can rely on year in and year out: Michael Bay loves to blow things up, and critics love to take down his movies. But much like Optimus Prime and the Autobots continuing to fight for humanity after swearing off it in every single “Transformers” movie, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from coming back to these movies again and again.
And so, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” marks the fourth film in Bay’s blockbuster franchise and the start of a whole new trilogy starring a new human cast. Picking up four years after the events of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” Decepticons and Autobots alike are being hunted down by a CIA Transformer death squad called Cemetery Wind (apparently all the cool black ops names were already taken). But the tides turn when broke robotics engineer Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz) stumble across a beat-up Optimus and help bring him back to life. At least until an even bigger threat shows up that could spell the end for the Autobots and humanity as we know it. You know, if they didn’t already have another two sequels planned.
And since, let’s be honest, any movie that features a giant robot riding a fire-breathing robot dinosaur is pretty much critic-proof, instead, let’s play devil’s advocate and point out some of the positives from Bay’s latest blockbuster blow-’em-up:
It could’ve been even longer.
Yes, 165 minutes is an awfully long amount of time to spend watching giant CGI robots pound one another. But even though “Age of Extinction” is 11 minutes longer than the already-bloated “Dark of the Moon” and the longest of the franchise to date, Bay’s made longer. Lest we forget “Pearl Harbor,” which clocks in at an epic 183 minutes. So he’s never exactly had a thing for brevity. Plus, it’s hard to cut down on runtime when every other shot is filmed in slo-mo.
It’d be more forgivable here if Bay had a complex, intricate plot to set up and/or work through, but in reality, “Age of Extinction” basically translates to our characters chasing a MacGuffin that doesn’t even show up until the second half. That means the rest of the time can be used for crucial “character development,” which is really just code for more lingering shots of Peltz in short shorts, endless bickering, and added explosions.
It only features one painfully racist caricature this time.
Give Bay a little credit: he heard your complaints, he just may not have understood them. Because after famously offending viewers with two walking, talking blatantly racist stereotypes in Mudflap and Skids in “Revenge of the Fallen,” this time, Optimus’ ragtag team features Ken Watanabe as Drift, complete with samurai armor, broken English and a habit of calling Optimus “sensei.” Oh, and there’s also a fat, e-cigar-chomping Autobot voiced by John Goodman (yes, really), but at least he’s only offensive for other reasons. Apparently the vague hints of self-awareness that pop up in “Age of Extinction” (like poking fun at Hollywood’s love of sequels) didn’t extend to its characters. Then again, this is a director whose idea of giving a blockbuster “international appeal” involves demolishing Hong Kong once he’s done with Chicago.
It could’ve starred Shia LaBeouf again.
Make no mistake, Mark Wahlberg is a serious upgrade as the main (human) protagonist here, even if he’s significantly more believable firing a giant alien gun than as a down-on-his-luck inventor. He’s not given much more to work with in the dialogue department than Shia’s Sam Witwicky was, but thanks to Wahlberg’s built-in action hero chops and charm, it’s somehow easier to buy him giving pep talks to Optimus and going toe-to-toe with evil alien robots. The only thing missing is Wahlberg reprising his “Boogie Nights” rendition of the classic “Transformers” theme “The Touch,” but maybe they’re saving that for the next one.
It’s actually intentionally funny at times.
Credit the casting director for this one, but between T.J. Miller as Yeager’s dim-witted assistant and Stanley Tucci as a pseudo-Steve Jobs type building his own army of Transformers, “Age of Extinction” features some honest-to-goodness comic relief to go along with the usual cheesy one-liners. Granted, 99 percent of that is likely ad-libbed, but the few genuinely funny lines offer a welcome respite during the sensory-assaulting dullness of all those overstuffed action set pieces. There’s a lot you can question about this latest “Transformers” installment (like pretty much the entire third act, or why they thought a statutory rape joke made for a hilarious “gag”), but the decision to swap out the entire human cast was a smart one.
It’s even possible to tell what’s going on during some of the fight scenes.
Not all of them, of course, but again, it’s an upgrade from the disorienting CGI mayhem of the last few movies. And even if Bay’s still taking a kitchen sink approach, packing every frame with as many fireworks and as much clashing metal as they can handle, he at least slows down the action at times to make sure the movie gets the most out of those expensive money shots. Of course, the increased coherence isn’t always a bonus: during one early-movie car chase, the pursuit improbably cuts directly from the Yeager homestead to a cornfield, then back to the Yeager’s lawn, and seconds later, onto their Texas town’s main streets.
And while Optimus pays a lot of lip service (do Autobots have lips?) to his oath to never take a human life, apparently that doesn’t extend to CIA officers or the ridiculous amount of callous collateral damage the nearly 30-minute long final fight causes. So instead of being thrilling and awe-inspiring, the extended CGI, pyrotechnic and product placement onslaught just gets exhausting after a while, and you wish Bay & Co. would just hurry this whole thing along. But wait, isn’t the point of all this eye candy that it’s fun to watch? Somewhere along the way, this franchise seemed to forget that part. Oh well. Maybe the fifth time’s the charm?
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” is now playing in theatres.