Sitting through Transformers: Age of Extinction is like binge-watching the death of the human spirit. It is a crushing and relentless experience, one where even the comedic relief bits are nihilistically hateful. In between these cruel and unfunny segments are boring and repetitive action scenes, sequences that feel unmoored from space-time itself. The whole movie is basically a giant fucking disaster, and it’s about two and a half hours long to boot.
I saw the movie last night and I’m not sure I can give you a reasonable accounting of the plot. It’s been five years since the battle of Chicago in the last movie, and a secret CIA task force headed by Kelsey Grammer (!) is exterminating Autobots. On the secret, though - it eventually becomes (barely) clear that he’s only supposed to be hunting Decepticons. He’s working with some kind of a Transformer bounty hunter; such is the state of this series that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know who Lockdown is - had we seen him before, was he mentioned earlier? - but everybody in the movie knows about him, seemingly just because.
Just because is the main plot motivator of this film. Sequence after sequence happens ‘just because.’ In a shorter movie this could give the feeling of breathless stream of consciousness, an approximation of the way children play with Transformers toys (it’s hard to remember in this, the fourth in a series of hyperviolent, politically neolithic films, that this shit is supposed to be for little kids), but at an unbearable two and a half hours this ‘just because’ plotting makes the whole film a disjointed heap of shit, like a five hour movie where all of the connective tissue was removed.
Mark Wahlberg is awful as Cade Yeager, a home inventor whose line deliveries are The Happening-level bad and whose character arc is to go from being pro-science to shouting ‘Some things shouldn’t be invented!’ Yes, this character learns the comfort of ignorance. It’s just part of the film’s reactionary Tea Party politics.
Wahlberg looks good in the many slomo and hero shots director Michael Bay gives him, and he convincingly inserts himself into the nonsense action far better than the unctuous Shia LaBeouf - the franchise has certainly traded up in terms of leading men. He still has no true plot function except to be mostly a pain in the ass for the Transformers - four movies in and they still haven’t figured out how to truly integrate the humans into the plot.
Or that maybe they shouldn’t try. The rest of the film is littered with humans - Nicola Peltz is Wahlber’s daughter, whose Cheeto-like complexion indicates her mother was an Oompa Loompa, Jack Reynor is her adamantly useless boyfriend (he literally surrenders at one point, probably because he’s not an American) and Bingbing Li shows up to guarantee some extra Chinese box office. TJ Miller appears in the beginning to offer some personality and comedy, and is promptly punished by Michael Bay for it.
The only humans worth a damn in this movie are Stanley Tucci and Titus Welliver. Tucci just don’t give a fuck, and he’s doing whatever it is that pleases him in the moment. That makes his character a complete psychopath who pivots from wanting to save the world from an apocalypse he accidentally started to a guy who thinks they should run over a crowd of Chinese people… IN THE SAME SCENE. Tucci screams a lot (sometimes just random words, including a sure-to-be famous scene where he yells “Algorithms! Math!”) Meanwhile Welliver, playing the badass lead of the Autobot-killing CIA team Cemetery Wind, just dials everything down to slightly above catatonic, and it totally works. He’s mostly grumpy in a way that makes him feel believably deadly.
There’s a whole new group of Autobots this film, and for once Bay has given them celebrity voices, which helps with telling them apart. As, to be fair, do their designs, which lean towards a more cartoony and anthropomorphized look. John Goodman is a John Milius-like warmongering bot, while Ken Watanabe does the voice of a samurai robot who calls Optimus Prime sensei and whose name is… Drift.
Well, you can tell them apart, a welcome change from the previous films when I often had no clue what was happening in scenes featuring many robots. The problem this time is now that they have looks screenwriter Ehren Kruger has decided to give them ‘personality,’ which means they bicker all the time and shout out one liners in battle like video game characters. Each is irritating and dumb, and I shudder to think that when John Goodman passes away there are going to be people on whatever form of Twitter we have at the time who are like “I loved him as Hound.”
The other new group of robots is the Dinobots, but don’t get excited. They suck. They’re ‘legendary warriors’ who have been captured by Lockdown, and Prime frees them at the climactic battle before beating them into servitude in the name of ‘freedom.’ He literally tells one of the Dinobots that he is giving him freedom and follows that up with ‘You will defend my family or die!,’ which is a sentence that fairly well demonstrates not-freedom.
The Dinobots are defeated by the film’s general slack action. There is a TON of action in this movie, but almost all of it is shockingly flat. Actions in one shot don’t seem to carry over to the next shot, and while the fights aren’t hard to follow visually - Bay uses more long (for Bay) and fluid takes here - they’re impossible to follow logically. I often didn’t know where a character was coming from, who they were fighting or what the tactical situation was. Each of the individual shots of the action scenes are beautiful, and will make wonderful gifs when some asshole film nerd in 2035 argues for the quality of these movies, but they’re just blips in time, not segments of a whole. Each shot on its own looks great, but the individual action shots don’t cut together to mean anything at all, and it’s actually disorienting at times. There’s a chase scene where Optimus is suddenly engaged in a rooftop brawl with Lockdown and I couldn’t quite figure out where we had transitioned from cars to fists.
Even if the action scenes made any real sense they would be so overwhelming as to have no impact. There’s a sequence towards the end of the movie where the bad guys are dropping things on the heroes, and they drop at least four boats on them. When Stanley Tucci has a huge “HOLY SHIT!” reaction to a boat falling from the sky you wonder what he was paying attention to the last three times boats careened at them. It isn’t the only scene where boats get thrown around, by the way - it’s like Michael Bay saw the Pacific Rim boat-as-bat scene and wanted to fuck it into oblivion. Also worth noting is that during the ‘dropping stuff’ action scene no less than two giant boat propellers almost cream the heroes, leading me to think that Bay simply threw in every single piece of pre-viz he was given, even alternate angles on the same action.
There’s a sense that Bay simply doesn’t care running throughout Transformers: Age of Extinction. He’s a master filmmaker, and while many of his shot compositions are stunning (especially in the golden hour-soaked first act) he’s unable to put impact into any of his action scenes. Even a sequence in the beginning which shows ALIENS EXTERMINATING THE DINOSAURS is decidedly ho-hum. He’s throwing things at the screen - literally in some sequences - but never takes the time to build tension or drama or excitement within those sequences.
What he does seem to care about is the film’s bizarre, Tea Party leaning politics. There’s a strange segment of the American conservative population that jingoistically adores the United States… while desperately hating the government that is the United States (without a central government we’re just a bunch of people living on a continent). These people love the military… but believe the military will be used to wipe them out in a coming New World Order type of takeover. And Transformers: Age of Extinction is all about that. Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager is a small town Texas inventor (the only person who would be less convincing as a Texan is Gerard Depardieu, by the way) who threatens with violence everybody who steps foot on his property. He’s trying to raise his daughter in a Taliban-like non-sexual environment. He’s trying to make ends meet using just his American ingenuity and belief in himself as an inventor, but he just can’t make his payments.
This speaks to the trailer park constituency of the Tea Party, and when Titus Welliver and his black ops team storm the property and hold a gun to the daughter’s head - this is literally the dream of all these people. Wahlberg’s not ready, though, and it isn’t until he gets a big alien gun (a lot of time is spent commenting on how very much Wahlberg loves these guns) can he stand up for himself properly (including threatening a man whose car he wrecks while escaping an alien ship. Bay likes jokes like that, which hinge upon the idea of bullying innocents). You can stand up to tyranny if you have a big alien gun! (Or, an incongruous football that shows up in a Chinese tenement apartment.)
In Age of Extinction the president is absolutely incompetent (shades of the Benghazi conspiracy theory, which has Obama sleeping through the event) and the real threat comes from rogue elements in our government working with outside forces in the name of ‘the globe.’ Lockdown and the mysterious Creators which he serves might as well just be wearing UN logos. In the film Optimus and the Autobots - brave warriors who have fought for the US - are branded as terrorists by the government simply because they want to stay weaponized in the face of the globalist evil that is hunting them down. Optimus is pretty much Cliven Bundy.
There’s even Tea Party-esque economic theory in the film; Tucci plays a billionaire Steve Jobs type who unwittingly helps the resurrected Megatron get a foothold in the world but who selflessly foregoes profits to save us all. It’s this sort of naivete that makes these people such proponents of the ‘free market,’ because they believe that given the option to make money or do the right thing our capitalist masters will opt to do the right thing without being regulated into it. In a movie that features an alien zoo and shapeshifting robots, this might be the hardest part to swallow.
Few movies will ever be as bad as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but Age of Extinction gives that incoherent load of shit a run for its money. One thing is certain - with Age of Extinction the Transformers franchise has fully staked its claim to being the absolute worst series in cinematic history.