Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer
Michael Bay is Hollywood’s most reliable lightening rod, consistently drawing visceral hatred from critics and pots of money from everyone else. Returning with Transformers: Age of Extinction, the latest in his Saturday morning cartoon franchise, there is nothing on display to suggest that is likely to change. For all the opprobrium that comes, the man is no hack. He knows his way around an action sequence and has an instinctive grasp for constructing money spinning blockbuster fare. Therein lies the problem (depending on your definition of problem) with Age of Extinction. It’s not a good film. In fact, it’s pretty poor. But it seems almost churlish to judge it as a film. This is pure corporate product and dull as it is to sit through, it will liven up all manner of different balance books.
Watching the fourth in his money spinning yet banal series, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what you’ve just been exposed to is an extended presentation setting out Paramount Pictures business plan for the next decade. There’s a nice crossover with a toy company (Hasbro), product placements galore (just try separating Mark Wahlberg from his Budweiser) and a concerted effort to crack the Chinese market. Gigantic action sequences, rugged male heroism and an unpleasant focus on scantily clad teenagers provide the advertising campaign overlaying it all.
With such an unvarnished focus on the financial potential Age of Extinction presents, it’s no wonder story takes second place. It’s not that the plot is bad. Rather, Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seem content to almost entirely dispense with it. Picking up several years after the events of Dark of the Moon, humanity has turned on their robotic alien friends after the chaos wreaked in Chicago. Autobots and Decepticons alike find themselves sought by a secretive CIA unit led by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) who feeds the scraps to Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), scientist and corporate kingpin of KSI with grand plans for the salvaged technology.
Hunted by those he’d previously protected, Autobot leader Optimus Prime is forced into hiding, choosing an abandoned movie theatre in Texas to lay low. Presumably, he could have stayed there quite happily if Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), impoverished inventor and single father of the almost permanently underdressed Tessa (Nicola Peltz frequently shot from uncomfortably low angles), hadn’t have stumbled across him and accidentally reawakened humanity’s saviour. From Cade’s small farm in the countryside, Bay then whisks the Yeager’s plus Tessa’s improbable Irish racing driver boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) through a never-ending series of explosions that pit them against the Government black-ops team, Lockdown, a sinister transformer bounty hunter on a stolen spaceship, a collection of robotic dinosaurs and Joshua Joyce’s purpose built army led by a transformer that looks worryingly like an old foe.
If that sounds like too many tangled threads, that would be because it is. There are so many villains floating around that it’s almost impossible to tell which one Optimus Prime and his hastily assembled team of remaining Autobots (plus Mark Wahlberg) is taking on at any one time. They fight across land, sea and air, criss-crossing the globe in an attempt to avert whichever catastrophe it is that humanity is facing this time. By the end, it’s hard to know if the Autobots even won. 165 minutes of largely non-stop action acts like a mild anaesthetic, gradually numbing all feeling. Given that Bay feels content to film small fragments of different stories rather than working on one coherent plot, there really seems no need to have made a film running close to three hours. Presumably, this extravagant running time is required to fit in the copious trans-Pacific product placement and attractive shots of China, the venue for an extremely extended finale.
It’s a shame he falls back so quickly on his tried and tested action acumen as the first 45 minutes plays out rather enjoyably. Mercifully shorn of all but the occasional metallic skirmish, the opening sees Mark Wahlberg, an infinite improvement on previous series lynchpin Shia LaBeouf, bring a nice line in snappy banter as he spars with Tessa, Shane and his business partner/employee Lucas (T.J. Miller). This continues throughout, eventually introducing an equally strong Stanley Tucci (the only other actor aside from Wahlberg to actually add to the film), but the moments of comic relief fall by the wayside, consumed by out and out spectacle.
Bay also struggles considerably with the tone. Giant alien robots that transform into automobiles, military weapons and now apparently dinosaurs really have to sit in the pulp cartoon category. Age of Extinction recognises this part of the time, playing fast and loose with the set-up. Autobots throw themselves into battle in true Saturday morning serial style quipping while they attempt not to be annihilated. Wahlberg does his bit, obsessing over his daughter’s love life when there really are bigger things on the line. And yet Bay still lets his film play up the sombre threat of looming extinction, the rhetoric becoming ludicrously portentous at times. Like a confused transformer, he seems unclear when he needs to be a steady, dependable truck rather than a war machine.
For all the other flaws, the biggest sin Age of Extinction commits, and one that has played out in the past two iterations of the franchise after the mildly diverting first film, is that it’s boring. Like bad horror, it shows too much too early. While the initial special effects laden action sequences are genuinely gripping, by the end they are a torpid waste. It’s like staring at a fireworks display for several hours. There’s only so much anyone can take before they start to crave peace and quiet again. Still, it will make a lot of money and plug even more products so Bay and Paramount won’t care. And at least this time he’s had the decency to stop inflicting Shia LeBeouf on us.