The battling, metallic heroes have never looked better, but Michael Bay's choppy, dissonant storytelling methods remain as audience-punishing as ever
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” feels less like a movie than a product of the cinema-industrial complex: it's loud and stupid enough to be easily translated into every language on the planet, it's got overt product placement for everything from Oreos and Bud Light to Asian bottled water, and the final act takes place in China for no apparent reason except that, as the man said when asked why he robbed banks, that's where the money is.
This fourquel is hardly an anonymous product, however: it bears the trademark of director Michael Bay through and through. Whether or not that's a plus is up to you.
Unlike the earliest of Bay's mega-budget adaptations of the popular Hasbro toys, “Age of Extinction” features visually coherent giant robots; we can tell where Optimus Prime's fist ends and Lockdown's jaw begins, and that's still a big step up for this franchise. At the same time, however, these vivid CG creations are still adrift in Bay's cognitively dissonant editing, lost amidst the visual flotsam that leaves us baffled as to who is fighting where, and why, and with whom.
After whining his way through the previous installment, Shia LaBeouf‘s Sam Witwicky has been sent packing with no explanation. “Age of Extinction” begins with CIA black ops teams hunting down the remaining Autobots, despite the fact that these good-guy Transformers have now thrice saved the earth from annihilation. Pulling the strings in the background is Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan), who's obsessed with finding Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen).
CIA shadow chief Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) talks about “aliens” like an anti-immigration Tea Partier, and exploits the destruction of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” to stoke the public's fear of terrorism, but Ehren Krueger's screenplay doesn't have anything to say about either of these timely topics, it just throws them in as a way to make the film seem relevant. Heck, when the action makes it to Chicago midway through the movie, the Windy City doesn't look any the worse for wear, despite all the talk about the havoc wreaked in the previous Autobot-Decepticon battle.
Meanwhile, in rural Texas, unsuccessful inventor and widowed dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his goofball assistant Lucas (T.J. Miller) go on a scrap run and come home with what appears to be an old truck that is actually Optimus Prime, badly wounded in battle. Stung by humanity's betrayal, O.P. wants nothing to do with us, but Cade nonetheless helps get him back into working order.
The CIA gets wind of Optimus Prime's whereabouts and comes after Cade, Lucas, and Cade's sheltered daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, “Bates Motel”), and the three are luckily rescued by Shane (Jack Reynor, “What Richard Did”) who is, unbeknownst to Cade, Tessa's boyfriend.
(For those playing along at home, that's South Boston's Wahlberg, surfer-dude Miller, and the very Irish Reynor, all playing alleged Texans. This movie desperately needs an infusion of Margo Martindale or Beth Grant or anyone with a remotely convincing twang.)
Then it's chase, chase, conspiracy, explosion, twist, deathtrap, capture, escape, ka-blam, ka-blowie. While “Age of Extinction” offers up any number of potentially thrilling moments — from our human leads flying through the air during a “Fast and Furious”-esque highway chase to the sight of Optimus Prime on the back on a robot dinosaur – the film suffers from the usual migraine-inducing editing (looking at you, Roger Barton, William Goldenberg, and Paul Rubell, even if you were just following orders) that renders all of Bay's cinematic output so singularly unwatchable.
Even with all this cutting, “Age of Extinction” lasts a posterior-punishing 165 minutes, which is a lot of time to spend watching Wahlberg give his most embarrassing performance since “The Happening,” Peltz becoming another in the franchise's series of pneumatic sex-doll heroines, and Stanley Tucci as a Steve Jobs type who yells things like “Algorithms! Math!” at his underlings.
Throw in the usual dollops of macho posturing (Cade and Shane fight over Tessa until they finally bond over firing big guns together), casual racism, and sexism (the women here are either slinky supermodels, overweight caricatures, or annoying senior citizens), and you have yourself yet another “Transformers” money-making machine. It's no doubt going to be good for business, but it's yet another paper-cut on the soul of the movies.