Transformers: Age of Extinction

Cast:
Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager
Nicola Peltz as Tessa Yeager
Jack Reynor as Shane Dyson
Kelsey Grammer as Harold Attinger
Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce
Titus Welliver as James Savoy
Li Bingbing as Su Yueming
Sophia Myles as Darcy Tyril
Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime
John Goodman as the voice of Hound
John DiMaggio as the voice of Crosshairs
Ken Watanabe as the voice of Drift
Mark Ryan as the voice of Lockdown
Frank Welker as the voice of Galvatron

Review:
With his fourth bite at the “Transformers” apple, director Michael Bay escapes from the dungeon of the actively insulting and scales the giddy heights of the mildly obnoxious. Gone are the endless mugging and inane attempts at humor which drug the previous entries in the franchise down. Without them there is now nothing to distract from the stultifying explosions and increasingly pointless mayhem which rounds out much of the last hour, but, you know, baby steps.

It’s not a completely new day, of course; Bay is apparently very comfortable with the narrative groove he’s been in and is only willing to move so far from it, so if you have seen any of the other “Transformer” films you have basically seen this one. Transformers land on Earth in the ancient past, again (they were responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs). Remains are found in exotic locales, dug up in secret and discussed in hushed voices, again (what do you mean what is it? It’s a Transformer. They’ve been here like a decade now. They’ve blown up three cities). An everyman living inside a Norman Rockwell painting discovers a Transformers living in his garage and they become best buddies, again. Gradually the world awakens to the menace (still) living amongst it, thanks to the comings and goings of black ops units, as death and destruction rain down on a major city. Again.

I’m sorry, two major cities this time. It’s totally different.

The changes that Bay and writer Ehren Kruger have come up with, when they’ve bothered, are generally for the better. Putting Mark Wahlberg at the head of the cast makes for a much stronger film, which is certainly a sentence I never expected to write. Unlike previous leading man Shia LeBeouf, he has no need to try and fast talk his way to cleverness or stardom, opting instead to lumber through his scenes with his particular Wahlbergian charm. More importantly, with LeBeouf went most of the desire for ‘humor’ (if that’s what you want to call it) including most (not all, but most) of the racial stereotype Transformers or the increasingly obnoxious supporting cast, leaving Bay to play this iteration mostly straightforward. At least until Stanley Tucci starts screaming and laughing at everything.

It also allows him to reformulate the character relationships, making the new primary human-Transformer paring Wahlberg and Optimus Prime, which works much better than the previous films, not least of all because is he’s obviously the only Transformer Bay actually cares for. Giving him the screen time he should theoretically get as a co-lead not only keeps the narrative from the herky-jerky stop-start motion of the previous films, it also gives one of the Transformers something approaching a character arc as Prime must decide whether human beings are actually worth all the trouble he’s been going to for them.

In the time since the last film, certain elements of the US Government (Grammer) have been hunting down any Transformers they can find, good or bad, to melt them down for raw material they are made of (Transformium!) as part of a plan for humans to begin building their own Transformers for fun and profit. Once the Autobots discover the very people they have been protecting have turned on them out of greed, they react in the predictably subtle way Bay has mastered all these years.

Besides the (mild-) existential dilemma it gives to the Autobots, it also erases the huge military infrastructure, and various soldier characters, attached to them as Cade (Wahlberg) and his clan goes on the run from the rogue government groups trying to hunt down the Autobots. One of the only good lessons taken from the last film was that the human characters need human villains to contend with as it is neither believable nor cathartic when they try to contend with a Transformer (not even after Wahlberg finds a conveniently human sized, über-powerful sword gun) and Grammer makes for a great villain. Actually he makes for the best villain of the four in the film. What? Four you say?

Because one film with a semi-coherent plot and decent motivations just isn’t enough for Michael Bay, he’s slapped a couple more on top of it. The humans are this close to turning on their first Transformer prototype–Galvatron (who’s more of a Motor Master expy than anything else, for all you old school TF fans)–but he keeps coming out more like evil Decepticon leader Megatron than Optimus Prime, plus he has the ability to corrupt other man-made Transformers and make them do whatever he wants because… no one actually knows why, he just can so the Autobots have some giant robots to fight. ‘Cause that’s what these films are really here for, right?

Of course it is, which why Bay and company have added in yet another giant robot from outer space – a bounty hunter sent to capture and return Prime to his creators for some reason, and he’s promised Grammer and company a bomb that can make all the Transformium their hearts could desire in exchange for him. And I’ll be honest; at this point I’m just looking for excuses to write Transformium again. Transformium.

Anywho, a ton of villains in a Transformer film has the same problems it does everywhere else; they come and go regularly, creating a strange pace and making it difficult for the film to create any sort of connection between the heroes and any of the villains except for Grammer. Instead one replaces another and another and mainly they just serve as an excuse for Bay and company to firebomb first Chicago and then Hong Kong. With so little to hang on to – certainly nothing in the hackneyed family dynamic as Cade tries to protect his daughter (Peltz) from everything including dating – and too much to tie together, the lack of any sort of emotional resonance (not even anger over terrible jokes) eventually leaves you numb as you are rocked by ever-increasing explosions.

“Age of Extinction” does fix a lot of problems the previous films had, but I’m not certain the new look is that much better. “Transformer” films have previously been guaranteed to provoke some sort of emotional response – usually it’s derision, but at least that’s something. For one to provoke nothing at all suggests the people making it still haven’t quite figured out what’s not working. Probably time to put a different mechanic on it.

But hey, Optimus Prime rides on a fire-breathing dinosaur wielding a giant sword, so what else do you need, anyway?

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