Transformers: Age Of Extinction starts off as the story of Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a scrappy inventor living in rural Texas and trying to make ends meet for his fledgling company and his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), who’s trying to fly the coop for college by fall. Before the film ends it’s also about a revisionist version of evolutionary theory, the U.S. government’s efforts to destroy all Transformers, the introduction of a new element called Transformium (fucking Transformium) that offers infinite possibilities for creation, Cade’s trepidation over his daughter’s older boyfriend (Jack Reynor), shameless product placement, and shadowy talk of the “Creators,” the possible gods of all Transformers. Plus, you know, loud fighting robots and hot chicks. Mostly those last two.
Age Of Extinction is not a good movie. It’s hideously overlong at 166 minutes, there’s nary a single likable character in the entire thing, and the whole enterprise is so undeservedly self-serious that one couldn’t be faulted for longing for the simpler days of hacky weed and piss jokes that characterized the first two installments. What’s perhaps the worst thing about it, though, is that the typical rejoinder of “it’s fine, it’s loud and dumb and knows what it is” no longer applies. While Age Of Extinction characterizes those first two things in abundance, that third point has been lost at this point. Michael Bay appears to have abandoned whatever pretenses of structure he once enjoyed, distilling the franchise down to its basest appealing elements.
But for all the money this thing will inevitably make, it’s hard to imagine what about it could be appealing to anybody. Cade is pitched in equal parts as a bumbling moron, a goofy idealist, a swinging-dick alpha male, or a Real American Hero depending on the scene. The film follows along in similar fashion, the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts from screwball comedy to hopeless violence characteristic of a film that hasn’t the slightest clue what it wants to be. Where the first Transformers at least tried to constitute a full evening’s entertainment for audiences, offering up everything you could ever want in a summer movie in one blaring package, the fourth franchise entry is a movie where an early source of comic relief is dissolved by a wall of fire into a burning corpse, and the camera lingers on his screaming visage before moving on to a bit of breezy comedy involving Wahlberg’s consternation over Tessa’s handsy young lover.
The film’s lack of identity is hardly surprising, though, given that it’s a component of a larger brand strategy first and a movie a distant second. Where vertical integration once used a movie as a starting point for a larger rollout of ancillary products, movies like Age Of Extinction are now just another cog in a much larger, more lucrative machine. And because this is a movie that has to play to the widest possible audience, it paints only in the broadest strokes. American flags are prominently displayed onscreen so frequently that it’s actively distracting, Transformium (FUCKING TRANSFORMIUM) is used to build a Beats pill, giant robots crash through objects prominently placed for maximum logo awareness, and the film eventually escapes to China in the final act for no discernible reason outside of optimized global market appeal.
At this point in the franchise, Age Of Extinction could be forgiven for playing to its audience and none other if the whole film wasn’t so ugly, so interminably long or so insulting. The best things you can possibly say about the film all land as faint, hollow praise, that Ken Watanabe’s samurai robot isn’t too racist or that Bay’s longstanding issues with nonsensical editing and a total lack of spatial continuity aren’t as bad as in the last few films. There’s nothing physical to the CGI used to bring Optimus and company to life, nothing that captures the wonder of the best Spielberg creations. The human characters are as perfunctory as anything else in the film, each given one trope to play until the film abandons even those for the sake of destroying property in mass quantities. For a film that asks audiences to “Remember Chicago,” an allusion to the events of the previous installment, the film doesn’t seem concerned if you remember anything in this year’s model, let alone any of the other ones. As long as Age Of Extinction can meet its market projections, Bay will see you again in a couple years.