What do you want out of a movie? I mean seriously, why do you go to the cinema? Sure, sometimes it’s sweltering outside and you just need to be somewhere dark and air conditioned, and sometimes you’re on a first date and really want to see how well you and this other person can sit silently near each other, but those are answers to why you went to a movie, not why do you go to the movies. It’s something worth thinking about. Something that I don’t believe is easy to answer, but a real consideration if you consider yourself any sort of aficionado. And while you’re thinking about that, think about this: Michael Bay is someone who knows exactly what he wants out of a movie.
He wants that camera at a low angle and constantly moving. These are motion pictures! These are a big deal! Look at the grandeur, the sheer epic-ness that is Mark Wahlberg walking around a barn or Kelsey Grammer sitting at a conference table or Thomas Lennon making a phone call. What are you going to do, film badly written conversations as if they are actual dialogues between people? Fuck no! Spin that shit around, blow the colors out, fill the frame with detail – people will pick out whatever bits of exposition they can. And even if they don’t, who cares? This is a ride, baby, and it don’t stop just because you’re not following.
He wants to do the same fights over and over again, hoping that changes in locale or the precise identities of the hunks of metal pummeling each other will make them feel different. Where do the bad transformers keep finding all these disposable grunts? Even if you’re a giant robot, if you’re almost beaten to death, surely it takes some time to recover, right? At a certain point, aren’t cities just leveled? Like, how many skyscrapers are there really? It doesn’t matter, pay absolutely no mind to logistical concerns. As long as there keep being explosions, gun shots, punches, stabs, and fireballs, everybody wins.
He wants these things, and Michael Bay keeps getting them too. Because everyone else wants them. There’s a safety in knowing exactly what to expect, and it’s what’s made Transformers one of the biggest franchises in the world. If anything, this new one, Age of Extinction, is the safest bet yet, because by switching leading men from Shia LaBeouf to Mark Wahlberg, they’ve eliminated the chance for a remarkable performance. What I mean by that is that at least Shia always gave us a central character to hate, a human piece of shit whose terrible behavior could distract us from the hollow spectacle around him. Mark Wahlberg is a great actor, undoubtedly, but he’s not someone who typically elevates material, and as you might expect, he just coasts through this movie like Schrodinger’s actor, simultaneously giving a good and bad performance, just another cog in Michael Bay’s terrible machine.
At a menacing 165 minutes, this is the longest Transformers movie thus far, so buckle up. And I’ll give Age of Extinction this: of all the movies in the series so far, this one’s flashback opening is both the shortest and the coolest. Way back in dinosaur times, a giant-ass spaceship shows up and starts blasting all the thunder lizards with metallic goop. Done.
Cut to: present day. Wait, what? What was that shit? What was happening? Were those transformers in that ship? They didn’t look like transformers. No time for questions: A geologist played by Sophia Myles is walking onto some dig site and this guys like “you can’t go there, it’s forbidden.” And to prove he’s telling the truth, some other guy points a gun at her. But she’s all, “I’m a geologist,” as if that makes her important, “you can’t shoot me.” So she presses on and finds a weird dinosaur skeleton covered in that metal goop. And I guess this means that transformers caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. “What about all the other dinosaur fossils in the world,” you might be inclined to ask, but we’re already moving on.
It’s now revealed that it’s been a few years since the events of Dark of the Moon destroyed Chicago, and in that time CIA Agent Kelsey Grammer has stepped up with a new Black Ops squad called, ominously enough, Cemetery Wind. We see Grammer’s team, led by The Man in Black from Lost, track down an Autobot, hard to say who, and shoot the shit out of him. The Autobot begs for his life, explaining that he’s always been on humanity’s side, and then a transformer, whose face turns into a giant gun, blows him up. Oh no! The transformers sure are in trouble and I certainly would hate for the movie to suddenly lose all its momentum for a bizarre reason.
Enter: T.J. Miller, a surfer dude inexplicably living in Paris, Texas, walking down the street yelling at people. He goes to some run-down movie theater where he and his boss, Cade (Mark Wahlberg), have been hired to fix things up. There are some bad jokes with the owners of the theater, after which Cade basically just loots the place for anything he could fix up and sell, including a shitty old semi that is somehow inside the building.
Over at some farm, we meet this movie’s hot young blonde, Cade’s daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz of Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender fame). Like the others that came before her, she wears tight, revealing clothing, but this time there’s the added creep factor of her being a 17-year-old high schooler, which I guess Megan Fox was in the first movie too now that I think of it. But more on that later, Cade comes back with the truck and his daughter expresses concerns about their financial situation. They dwell on this for a while, including a scene in which a real estate agent brings people to check out Cade’s land and he threatens them with physical violence. Michael Bay must have thought that’s hilarious, and so did America, probably.
Anyway, Cade is an inventor and so that gives him the skill to determine that the truck he basically stole is actually an alien. And sure enough, Optimus Prime eventually reveals himself and tells us a bunch of stuff we already know; particularly that Kelsey Grammer is out to kill all transformers, not just the Decepticons, like the president asked him to. T.J. Miller and Tessa tell Cade that they should turn Optimus in for the big cash reward, since they so desperately need it and Optimus is dangerous (there is a scene in which Prime shoots a missile into Cade’s house while Tessa is inside, but it doesn’t explode so it’s funny, I guess). By now we know Cade is a fucked up dude, we learn that his wife is dead and that he constantly reminds Tessa that she was a mistake. That they keep drilling home the mistake angle makes you think they might be setting up a “happy mistakes” theme for the movie, but they’re not. Also, Tessa’s not allowed to date anyone and Cade wanted to be the one to take her to prom, like as her date. There’s a really twisted situation going on here, but T.J. Miller called the feds and now they’re here so let’s just keep moving.
Optimus ends up fighting with all the people at Cade’s home, which results in Cade’s house exploding in a massive fireball and the trio of humans being saved by a mysterious stranger driving a rally car. Well, it’s not that mysterious, since his name, “Shane,” is printed in giant letters on his car door. Shane (Jack Reynor) is Tessa’s secret boyfriend, which he makes clear by all the sexual innuendo he uses in front of her father while they’re running for their lives. The car ends up getting wrecked and T.J. Miller gets killed by a missile fired by Gunface that covers him with goop like the dinosaurs. The rest of the group escape in Optimus and they get a moment to rest and mourn, but mostly Shane takes this opportunity to show what a stand-up guy he is by revealing he carries around, in his wallet, a copy of the Texas statute that says it’s OK for a 20-year-old to have sex with a 17-year-old.
Later, as Optimus is driving down the road, another car drives by a shoots something into him, suddenly healing all the damage that had been done and giving him back his sweet red and blue flames paint job. What was that, and why don’t the Autobots do it more often? Beats me. But that car turns out to be Bumblebee, and he leads Prime to meet with the other surviving Autobots.
I will give the movie this much credit: this is the only one in which I’ve been able to keep track of all the good transformers. There’s Prime and Bee, obviously, and then there’s John Goodman as a fat, commando transformer, Ken Watanabe as a samurai transformer, and John DiMaggio as the green one. Worth noting, by the way, that Bee still speaks in audio clips from other things, which this time includes a line of John Goodman’s from The Big Lebowski, even the John Goodman is in the cast so they shouldn’t… Whatever.
Optimus catches up with everybody and they come up with a plan that ends with my favorite line in the whole series. Prime, the noble, wise, beloved leader of the Autobots, the Christ figure of this franchise, says, in reference to the company that is financing Cemetery Wind, “I have sworn to never kill humans… But when I find out who’s behind this, he’s going to die.” Holy shit you guys! If I was a little kid, hearing Optimus say that would have scarred me for life.
So they attack this company, which is basically Apple I guess? It’s run by Stanley Tucci, doing an egotistical, petulant, wimpy CEO character, who was financing that geologist lady from hours ago when the movie began. He’s had his company studying the metal and it turns out it’s basically the stuff that transformers are made from, so he created his own robots and even his own transformer: Galvatron.
I’m gonna just skip ahead on this part of the plot, because it doesn’t really matter. All the robots free themselves from corporate control (hell yeah, we are the 99 percent). This means that there will be more crappy robots for the the Autobots to easily dispatch for the rest of the movie, even after Gunface runs out of guys. It’s hard to tell who belongs to whom. Galvatron was built from Megatron’s disembodied head, and so now he’s Megatron reincarnated and he fights Optimus a little bit but pretty much up and leaves in the middle of the final battle, saying something to the effect of “I wanna be in my own movie.” Visually, he looks like Megatron and he turns into a semi, just like Optimus, but it’s a sleek, sinister silver. Him being an evil version of Prime is never explored, because at this point Optimus basically is evil. Oh, and Galvatron’s actually voiced by Frank Welker and not just phoned in by Hugo Weaving.
So our heroes trash this basically innocent company and threaten Stanley Tucci’s life, then they fight in Chicago again for a while. Let me explain: Gunface has been working with these humans because he’s collecting transformers for some mysterious overlord (I guess the things from dinosaur times?) and he really wants Optimus. So now that Optimus is back, he tries super hard to capture him, and gets as far as to put Prime on his spaceship. But the Autobots and humans get up there too and help Optimus escape by stealing half the spaceship which just pops off and slowly flies away while the rest of the ship goes into hyperdrive seemingly without noticing it split in half. All the while the heroes are fighting thousands of indistinguishable grunt robots who die super easily. Cade finds what must be a dagger for a transformer that works for him as a giant rifle. Even though it would be a pretty tiny weapon when wielded by these mighty machines, it is more than capable of killing them in one hit. Shane and Tessa are there too, they accomplish nothing.
Then everybody goes to China! Why? Because fuck you, China’s the place to be now. Even Louie went to China, you think Michael Bay’s too good for that shit? Hell no! Stanley Tucci has this thing called THE SEED which has some greater purpose but as far as we’re concerned it’s just a big bomb that someone doesn’t explode during this whole movie. He’s on the run now too, because Kelsey Grammer ordered his troops to take out everyone who knows what’s going on even though like everybody knows what’s going on, transformer fights are not subtle. Fortunately, Tucci has a kick-ass Chinese lady protecting him now somehow… I think she’s his girlfriend maybe? I’m not even sure she had a name, but, you know, it’s a big win for China. Also, there’s a scene when a random guy on an elevator helps them win a fight with sweet kung fu, so I guess this movie is leaning into the idea that all Asian people know martial arts, at least a little bit.
So Stanley Tucci joins our heroes on the run and Cade viciously kills that dude from Lost with his bare hands. Evil transformers are attacking as well, and John Goodman and Bumblebee are there to help fight them off. The other Autobots are off with Optimus, who pulls a sword out of a stone in the half of the spaceship they have, and suddenly the Dinobots are here. I don’t know man. What happens next is inexplicable: Optimus beats the shit out of the leader of the Dinobots, Grimlock (which I only know because I had the toys this is not covered by the movie) then proclaims this non sequitur: “We’re giving you freedom! Defend my family or die!” You don’t know what freedom is, do you Prime?
So the Autobots ride the Dinobots into the final battle with Gunface who came back and also at one part Optimus Prime shoots Kelsey Grammer, delivering on his promise to change one of my greatest childhood heroes into a coldblooded killer. They also kill Gunface, and Optimus takes THE SEED, saying it’s too dangerous because it will attract the guys Gunface was working for (I just looked it up, by the way, Gunface’s real name is Lockdown). This doesn’t make sense, since Gunface freely gave THE SEED to the humans earlier in the movie, but I guess we’re just taking this on faith. Suddenly, and for the first time I can remember in the series, Optimus starts flying. He flies up and into space, off to find more people to kill. And so ends this chapter of the Transformers odyssey.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is not the worst movie in this series, in part because expectations were already lowered so far it just can’t hurt me as much anymore. Also because visually it was easier for me to follow than previous entries in the franchise… I knew what was going on even if I still didn’t know why. None of the performances are notably bad, in fact I’d dare to say Stanley Tucci is handling his weird character with aplomb. A massive step up from the demented performances we’ve gotten from Johns Turturro and Malkovich in the past.
There aren’t any terribly racist robots or weird scenes to make Age of Extinction intolerable or in any way memorable either. There are some weird lines, all the characters are unlikable, and the whole thing barely makes sense on the most basic level, but that’s pretty much par for the course. Even the product placement is fairly restrained, save for a scene in which Cade destroys a Bud Light truck, yells at an innocent bystander, picks up a pristine bottle of beer and takes a swig, then goes back to the movie.
Anything that made the first three Transformers movies distinct at all has been bred out of this titan. There’s no Bernie Mac, no bumbling Kevin Dunn and Julie White, no weird, unnecessary side stories except the overarching story about a father who really, really wants to have sex with his daughter. Everything has been smoothed out and streamlined so that not only can the lowest common denominator in America enjoy it, but so can anyone in the world. There aren’t cultural references for you to miss; there isn’t even culture.
What more can I say? If I told you the above summary only scratches the surface of Age of Extinction, would you believe me? It’s so boring, so exhausting that this two me two separate sittings to finish. I got to a point where I thought things were about to be over and realized I wasn’t even half way, and I quit for the day. Came back the next. I don’t know how people can power through this shit. But of course I do – it’s easy if you don’t try. If you don’t ask any questions, if you just accept everything as it unfolds, if you don’t consider anything – the story, the series, the medium – in any greater context that exactly what is given to you, it’s very easy. But if that’s what you do, what are you really doing? Why are you doing it? And really, what do you want out of a movie?