Movie Review: 'Transformers: Age of Extinction'

As a young fan of sci-fi, horror, and action films, I used to bristle when a critic would say some movie I enjoyed was “un-reviewable,” impervious to rational analysis, and bound to be a hit with the people who wanted to go see it no matter what professional reviewers said.  I thought it was a condescending attitude at the time, but now I’ve got to throw in the towel on the “Transformers” series.  Either I grew up, these movies got too infantile, or more likely some combination of the two.  I’ve heard it said that most big-budget cinema is pitched at 14-year-old boys.  This movie was evidently written by 14-year-old boys.  Heavily caffeinated ones, at that.

Suffice it to say that “Age of Extinction” offers more of the series’ signature sweet cars, hot chicks, silly comedy, and giant robot battles, except this time some of the robots are neither Autobot or Decepticon – the former hunted almost to extinction by their former human allies in a dark reversal of the third movie’s upbeat “we’re all in this together” ending, the latter apparently pretty much out of business these days – and some of the really big, ancient bots transform into dinosaurs, because it turns out the Transformers and their enigmatic creators were here 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.  Far from serving as a random hiding place for the Transformers’ power source as we were told at the beginning of the first movie, it turns out they’ve been visiting Earth frequently since before there were mammals.  Which makes it kind of weird that it took them almost a hundred years to figure out that their vital power source, and the Decepticons’ leader, were buried in the polar ice.  

Oh, and remember how the mystical Allspark power source could turn soda machines into Transformers in the first film?  Forget about all that, because it turns out Transformers are actually made from a special unstable metal dubbed “Transformium” (because “unobtainium” was already taken – thanks a lot, James Cameron!)  And Transformium is made from organic matter, a mixture of irony and cosmic horror that isn’t remarked upon nearly enough by the characters in the film.  I mean, hey, Optimus, did you know all along that you guys were made of mulched animals and – gulp – people?

But given the attention span this movie is targeted at, it’s probably safe enough for the writers to assume nobody remembers the first film (or, for that matter, Shia LeBouef, whose previously vital character’s emotional arc with his Transformers car Bumblebee is summarily dismissed in “Age of Extinction” without even a single line of dialogue.  Even Megan Fox was at least briefly referenced after she got booted out of the franchise.)

The last spoken word of dialogue comes about 20 minutes into this nearly three-hour film; after that, everything is shouted, occasionally by characters who have seized hold of each other’s lapels.  The original film seems like a model of restraint in retrospect – it was practically the “My Dinner With Andre” of giant robot movies.  John Turturro escapes from the series, to be replaced by Stanley Tucci as the respected character actor who runs around yelling like a lunatic, even though he’s supposed to be a billionaire genius.  John Goodman voices an Autobot who is fat enough to get his butt stuck in the side of a building during a fight scene, because of course he is.  The Japanese sports car Autobot transforms into a samurai robot who recites haiku and sounds like Ken Watanabe, because of course he does.  (Mr. Watanabe delivers the single wittiest line of dialogue in the film, after he sees what the giant prehistoric warrior robots discovered  by Optimus turn into.)

The heroic military forces and responsible Pentagon commanders of the first three films are gone, replaced by Kelsey Grammer as a psychotic paranoid genocidal CIA black-ops guy, which is kind of depressing.  The rest of the military responds to the appearance of a giant spaceship over the previously alien-ravaged city of Chicago by flying helplessly in circles around it, which doesn’t really match up with the sense of fear and alien war fatigue that supposedly swept the entire world after the Battle of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” but it’s possible the people writing this movie forgot what was said in the first act by the time they started on the script for the third act.  The only real remnant of the signature Michael Bay patriotism is a gigantic American flag hanging conspicuously in Mark Wahlberg’s barn.

Speaking of which, Mark Wahlberg is supposed to be a big upgrade from the now-forgotten Shia LeBouef, but actually the latter’s brand of fast-talking panicky improvisation worked better for a “meatbag” (John Goodman-bot’s term) trapped in a millennia-long war between alien fighting machines.  Wahlberg gets to shoot things with an alien gun, squat on his property after failing to pay his mortgage for a year, yell at his teenage daughter a lot, and trade semi-hostile banter with her older race-car-driver boyfriend that would be considered racist if the kid wasn’t Irish, because calling Irish people “Lucky Charms” is okay.  The boyfriend abruptly changes from a nerves-of-steel stunt driver to a cowardly shrieking ninny at one point, for absolutely no reason at all, other than that the writers apparently lost the Post-It note that had his character traits written on them.  

Once upon a time, there was a smidge of character development in the “Transformers” films – the first movie is, cleverly, a coming-of-age tale about a young man accepting the responsibility of his first car at its heart – but now what little personality these characters possess is flung out the window to make quick jokes.  Even Optimus Prime doesn’t really get out of “Age of Extinction” with his dignity intact, because his idea of showing respect for the sixty-five million year old legendary warrior-heroes of his people involves beating them up and then riding them around and screaming “CHARGE!”

Amazing visual effects aren’t enough any more, not when we all know CGI artists can show us anything.  The second “Transformers” film had a rocky script because of the writers’ strike, but the first was far better than it really needed to be, and the third was able to settle down enough to dramatically stage a few awesome scenes, like the wing-suit jump into Chicago.  “Age of Extinction” is just an exhausting rush from one robot wrestling match to the next.  The sad thing is, a few truly interesting ideas are buried inside the Crayon-covered pages of the script, including the notion that the aliens who created the Transformers are still around, and not very nice people. Why would they have created an entire planet full of awesomely powerful shape-shifting robots and then vanished for aeons, leaving the Autobots and Decepticons to fight each other in an endless apocalyptic war?  But “Age of Extinction” is all about exclamation points, not question marks.