You have to give Michael Bay credit: the director sticks to his guns ... and his explosions ... and his slow-motion, low-angle tracking shots and his uncomfortable racial stereotypes and his awful one-liner dialogue and his copious product placements and his excessive running times.
Need I go on?
You could play a pretty good game of Michael Bay bingo with “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The good news is that the second Transformers film (2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen”) is still the worst in the series. The bad news is that if it wasn’t for a mess of a third act, “Age of Extinction” might have been a half-decent movie.
“Age of Extinction” picks up after the events of 2011’s third Transformers installment, “Dark of the Moon.” The good relations between the government and the Autobots (i.e. the good-guy Transformers) have soured, and a shadowy CIA black ops figure named Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has teamed up with a Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown to hunt down Optimus Prime (the Autobot leader) and the rest of his crew.
Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) has holed up in Texas (at least until Texas morphs into southern Utah), and is discovered by a robotics inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Wahlberg is taking over the human protagonist role from Shia LaBeouf, which is a plus for the series, and Nicola Peltz takes over the token female eye-candy role that used to be handled by the likes of Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Unfortunately, Peltz plays Yeager’s 17-year-old daughter Tessa, which gives Bay’s leering camera work an even creepier vibe than usual.
A third dimension is added to the plot by way of Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who has discovered the substance the Transformers are made of (“I call it Transformium!”) and plans to use it to create his own army of super-soldier robots.
Eventually, all these elements combine in a chaotic clash of CGI mayhem, complete with the aforementioned Bay tropes. Admittedly, the CGI is outstanding, and for the first two hours of the film’s near three-hour running time, you can actually tell the different Transformers apart. But that’s about the time you realize that you aren’t invested in any of the characters, human or otherwise, and though you technically recognize a need to complete a narrative arc or two, you’re not feeling enough suspense to really care.
In short, over the course of 165 minutes, a film with some promising elements devolves into a confusing CGI smackdown that’s at least a half-hour too long.
But where “Revenge of the Fallen” was guilty for not trying, “Age of Extinction” often feels like it’s trying too hard, lambasting its audience with numerous set pieces and an overly complicated plot. From time to time, “Age of Extinction” even seems to be trying to make some kind of statement about the nature of the soul or man’s inhumanity to man. But after a few ponderous seconds, something else explodes or someone shoots something and we’re back to the mindless popcorn material.
At these points it’s fun to point out the obvious product placements or flag the best lines of dialogue, which veer from unintentional comedy (“My face is my warrant!”) to unnecessary exposition (“It’s sucking up metal and dropping it!”) to vaguely religious (“This seed belongs to our creators whoever they are”). Optimus Prime is king of the guilty pleasures here, as Cullen reads his dialogue with the kind of conviction and gravitas that suggests he expects each line to be typed up in a frilly font and superimposed on a picture of a sunset.
The best genuine pleasure is the long-awaited arrival of a few classic characters, though they feel painfully underused. The film also features a murderer’s row of exotic supercars, though for some reason the German Bugatti transforms into a Samurai warrior complete with heavy Asian accent.
Be certain: “Age of Extinction” has its good points. You just might feel like you’re digging in the bottom of the cereal box to find them.
Still, in spite of its mind-numbing eye rolls, “Age of Extinction” is bound to make hundreds of millions of dollars, and a third act set in China is a virtual guarantee of overseas success. Even without the transparent foreshadowing that closes the film, it’s obvious that we’ll be treated to “Transformers 5” in a few years.
Just make sure to bring your Michael Bay bingo card.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” is rated PG-13 for non-stop CGI action violence, profanity (including one use of the “F-word”), vulgarity and some sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.
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