Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo
Running Time: 165 min.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Peter Cullen (voice), John Goodman (voice), Frank Welker (voice), Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, Ken Watanabe (voice), T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Review published June 27, 2014
It's becoming more difficult by this fourth entry in the Transformers series to criticize it when it delivers exactly what its fans expect, namely, incessant explosions, sparkly bits, gratuitous cheesecake, and a plot and dialogue written at a third-grade level. The basic premise with each outing is that its man-child director gets $200 million in order to play in his own cinematic sandbox with all of his CGI toys that he proceeds to smash together from time to time for the benefit of those who enjoy seeing lots of things smashing together.
So, how does Transformers: Age of Extinction compare to the first three? I would say it is comparable, in that they are all quite terrible when viewed with any kind of objective eye. It is just as dumb in its concepts, just as hokey in execution, and features an abundance of shots where director Michael Bay (Dark of the Moon, The Island) is merely regurgitating entire scenes wholesale from his own earlier works. However, this fourth film is a bit less jokey and features more appealing main actors (i.e., less irritating) -- in fact, there's no reference at all to Shia LeBeouf's character at all, despite his past association with saving the world three times with the Autobots at his side. It is also less confusing when it comes to tell the various robot factions apart, especially since the amount has been pared down, and among those who are left, they all have colorful and distinguishing characteristics. However, the handling of the female cast members have fallen back to form from Frances McDormand's character from the last film, back into the same old pinup-worthy leering crafted merely to me gawked at lasciviously (you get the sense that Bay would follow the camera all the way up the back of Peltz's shorts if he could), which is particularly troubling in this case because the actress Bay has expose the most skin is playing a not-quite-legal teenager.
The plot? As if you care! This one features Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor, 2 Guns) starring as Cade Yeager, a widower father and out-of-work robotics engineer living in a rural Texas farm, doing his best to raise his beautiful teenage girl Tessa (Peltz, "Bates Motel") and keep her away from the prying eyes of drooling young boys. When he isn't admonishing Tessa for wearing short-shorts and wanting to have fun with her friends, he is tinkering with fixing up junk machinery and electronics in the barn he has made his workspace. His latest big project involves an abandoned heap that was once a Mack truck, which turns out to be none other than Optimus Prime in hiding and in desperate need of repair. However, the power-hungry CIA director, Harold Attinger (Grammer, An American Carol), with assistance from billionaire tech corporation CEO Joshua Joyce (Tucci, Muppets Most Wanted), is out to snuff out the entirety of these alien robots, and he's got his goon squad out in force looking to smoke OP out. With daughter and her newly revealed boyfriend Shane (Reynor, Delivery Man) in tow, Cade and Optimus gather the remaining Autobots to save the Earth from annihilation once more.
As with the other Transformers movies, the robots, who all hail from a planet completely independent of any knowledge of Earth, somehow conform to our native stereotypes based on their chosen form. There is an Autobot named Drift who has the form of a samurai, so, naturally, he is voiced by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (Godzilla), and does Japanese things like write haiku. The racist subtext is not as egregious as the ebonics-spitting Mudflap and Skids from Revenge of the Fallen, but it's not all that far off.
Moronic though it may be through and through, what kills any possibility of Age of Extinction being at least passable fare for anyone who isn't an avowed fan is its brutal run time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, the longest of the series to date. Its excessive length drew the only comments I overheard among the crowd I viewed the film with as we exited the theater. This has been a crowd so perpetually bored by the film, they could scarcely keep from peeking at their cell phones throughout, in what had been the worst example of audience indifference to other viewers' enjoyment I've ever witnessed in all of my many years of attending theatrical screenings. No one was even admonished by their neighbors for rudeness; I guess they didn't mind distractions, or perhaps most likely, thoroughly understood why someone would be so disengaged with what was happening on the screen to the point where they need to look at something else for a minute to keep from losing consciousness.
This is a film that not only numbs the mind early, but batters you over the head with pure monotony for an extra hour in length than it needs to. About 85% of this movie is not even necessary to follow, as it is either a prolonged sequence of smash-ups and slo-mo in order to titillate audiences who just enjoy viewing destruction and mayhem, or it's a cutesy family moment trope about a dad having to come to terms that his daughter is all grown up, and the boy she's seeing isn't that bad of a guy. You could literally walk out on just about any fifteen minute stretch of this movie, come back, and realize you haven't missed a beat. On the positive side, it might be about 3 hours with trailers, but you can create your own intermission at any time you like. Or better yet, never come back.
While many praise these Transformers films for their special effects, I have never understood why. The effects in all four of the films are ugly, with grotesque robot designs, nonsensical character flourishes (a cigar? a trench coat?), and far too many moving parts to get a handle on basic movements without the need to engage in gratuitous slow motion, followed by close-up quick-cut action scenes where we can't tell just what's going on. It's not so much as a story but a nearly three-hour pummeling of sensory stimuli, all crafted to elicit base reactions completely independent of your investment with the plotline at hand.
Though they are featured in nearly every marketing advertisement for the film, the debut of the Dinobots doesn't even occur until the final twenty-five minutes or so -- so late in the game, you may even forget that they are supposed to appear. Only those nostalgic for the shape-shifting spinoffs introduced to toy store shelves in 1985 will get a lump in their throat at seeing these creatures that somehow have been on Earth since prehistoric times. If seeing a robot shaped like a man riding a robot shaped like a reptile is enough to make you cheer in your seat, you're watching films on a level so superficial I cannot even begin to fathom why you'd bother reading a review.
It's hard to complain too much that a franchise that is not much more than an advertisement for a line of popular toys would itself be guilty of some very flagrant product placement, but the way Bay injects them here borders on parody. In one scene, while Joyce is demonstrating the ability to create anything out of the space-age substance he is developing known as "Transformium", he creates a 'Beats by Dre' bluetooth speaker (pretty hip for a middle-aged billionaire, one would gather). Another scene sees a space vehicle smash into a Bud Light truck that spills out an array of blue-colored bottles out on the street, followed by the seemingly contractually obligated shot of Cade picking up a bottle, opening it, and taking a big swig. While American audiences will not recognize it, there is even more product placement set in China and Hong Kong, as this film injects these locales in a blatant attempt to market the movie to Chinese audiences -- a fact compounded by the casting of Bingbing Li (Resident Evil: Retribution), as well as the superfluous appearance of Zou Shiming, a famous Chinese boxer for audiences to cheer on as an elevator passenger who suddenly gets in on the fist-smashing action for a few seconds before he disappears.
It's a bit of a telling statement that, after four epic-length films released, we still have no idea who these Transformers are and what they're really all about. They're just on Earth to smash each other into buildings, either for or against humans in an arbitrary fashion delineated by the toy line. Along those lines, if all it takes for you to plunk down your spare dollars is to see a lot of buildings, cars and bridges destroyed in fiery glory, nothing I can ever say will dissuade you from seeing (and likely enjoying) a film like Age of Extinction. Unfortunately, it's all more of the same, save for a new cast with an eye toward the international market. Though the main protagonist has changed from a high schooler to a 40-something dad, this soulless, senseless, and mentally punishing fourth installment shows that things don't always get better with Age.
©2014 Vince Leo