The Transformers franchise has never been about humans – or, at least, it’s never been about Michael Bay’s on-screen humans, who have now proven to be wholly interchangeable even after a seemingly complete trilogy of films. Bay has restarted his weirdest franchise (sorry, Bad Boys, you’re just not strange enough) with Transformers: Age of Extinction, a final-sounding feature (what could possibly come after extinction? Bay’s answer is, of course, at least two other films) that abandons both the human characters that populated the first trilogy and the upbeat conclusion that seemingly wrapped it all up in satisfying fashion.
Set four years after the battle of Chicago (billboards declare “REMEMBER CHICAGO!” in locales as far away as Texas), Age of Extinction picks up in a world still reeling from the revelation that there are aliens in the universe who are so technologically advanced that they can turn into vending machines at will (oh, and who can also kill without prejudice). Inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t seem too put out by the news that we’re not alone in the galaxy – he’s too busy trying to program robots that can deliver beers, keeping his teen daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) from the opposite sex (like her secret boyfriend Shane, Jack Reynor), bilking his only employee (T.J. Miller) out of his cash and pretending he’s from Texas.
The Yeagers may be rich in big ideas, but they’re poor in their bank accounts, so Cade and Tessa need something major to happen in order to pull them out of debt. Few things could be as major as finding a Transformer – but it’s the danger of such a discovery that’s poised to change their lives. Though Cade has a flair for technological creations (he yells, “I’m an inventor!” frequently throughout the film, as if we could ever forget) and a thing for robotics, it’s just dumb luck that he comes into possession of Optimus Prime, who has been hiding out since the humans he vowed to protect turned against him.
Turns out, the CIA (and a terribly named black ops crew, Cemetery Wind) have been waging a private war with all Transformers, one that the rest of the government and military apparently have no idea has been in action for years now. Although the battle of Chicago should have sealed the Autobots’ fate on Earth forever – they are friends and protectors, and that’s certainly the stance that even the unseen U.S. president takes – Age of Extinction imagines a world where a rogue CIA higher-up, the vaguely nefarious Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar, not chomping nearly as much scenery as he should be), has the power not only to hunt down all Transformers, but to destroy them and toss their remains to a private tech company tasked with building new ones (headed by Stanley Tucci, apparently cast as Steve Jobs’ second cousin). Apparently, in the world of Michael Bay, there’s no such thing as checks and balances.
Attinger has it out for the Transformers (though it’s never clear exactly why…), and he’s determined to bring out the big guns to kill them all – even if that means using a mercenary Transformer (Lockdown, voiced by Mark Ryan). There are other Transformers dispatched to kill the Transformers, too, human-created ones that contain their own secrets, and Age of Extinction eventually becomes a murky stew of someone trying to kill someone else and also another robot alien that looks like another robot alien and then maybe also a plotline ripped from Prometheus and even a rare element called “Transformium” and yes, yes, all of this is delivered with a straight face.
Sure, Bay’s cheeky style is still readily apparent in this new outing, though the jokes certainly don’t fly nearly as fast as we’ve come to expect from the franchise. The first act is the punchiest, thanks to both Miller’s doofy wit and a few tongue-in-cheek plot points (Optimus, for instance, is found hiding in broken down movie palace, located only after some easy cracks about how bad movies are these days), but that all eventually fades away. The film is the least amusing of the franchise – a behemoth that started with significant slapstick, thanks to the hapless Witwicky family – though both Miller and Tucci turn in occasionally funny asides and observations.
As the action sequences in the Transformers franchise have gotten bigger and badder (remember the days when a major sequence involved the Autobots squatting on Sam Witwicky’s front lawn and attempting to avoid his parents?), they’ve also gotten increasingly more incoherent, and Age of Extinction is the worst of the bunch.
The basic geography of the film’s largest action set pieces is inscrutable, with people and places and robotic modes switching in and out without any regard for causation or understandable location. Optimus zips along a highway as a truck, until the next scene, where he’s suddenly in his humanoid form in a densely packed warehouse. A large spaceship lurches from the sky, slow-moving and covered in smoke, somehow unseen until it’s suddenly on top of everyone and in the center of the frame. Time moves back and forth, as the sun sets, at least until the next scene, when it’s daylight again. Pitch-black night turns into bright midday without pause or a sequence change. It’s all so loosely connected that even the film’s third act location change, moving the action to China (because why not? probably because the Transformers franchise is one of the country’s favorites), doesn’t scan as out of place – but that’s not a good thing. Age of Extinction breaks your brain until nonsense is normal.
The film is bloated with backstory and expanded mythology, little of which makes much sense, all of which adds up to a muddled narrative that’s so hard to follow that it makes the film’s strengths – a limited introduction to the Dinobots, Wahlberg kicking ass, Tucci screaming – hard to enjoy, even while they’re very enjoyable on paper. A strong first act is promising enough, with Wahlberg proving game for the role, the Transformer reveals popping off the screen and a genuine sense of excitement permeating the entire pre-adventure, but that energy and fun doesn’t hold.
Think of it this way — the drama of the last act temporarily hinges on the apparent unreliability of Chinese elevators, and not one single Transformer even tries to transform into a better elevator. Why bother having Transformers at all? No, really, why bother having Transformers at all?
The Upside: Classic Bay-styled robot fightin’ action, a brief taste of Dinobot insanity, humorous asides from both Miller and Tucci, Wahlberg’s extremely serviceable takeover as franchise leading man, a strong first hour.
The Downside: Incoherent and geographically nonsensical battles, frequently recycles past material, not nearly enough humor from the entire cast, an inscrutable second half, muddy narrative, supporting characters that are never fleshed out.
On the Side: Per Transformers canon, Autobots have blue optics and Decepticons have red optics. This time around, both Lockdown and Stinger have green optics. The Dinobots also run the optic rainbow – two have green, two have red, and one has green.