By Greg Popil
At this point, criticizing the work of Michael Bay, particularly when he’s playing with his giant robot toys, is kind of like screaming at a hurricane or nitpicking the destructive capabilities of a supernova. Less a filmmaker than a pure force of nature, Bay clearly does not care in the slightest about his critics or their disdain for his unstoppable juggernauts. He has reached the rare pinnacle wherein he can make exactly the movies that he wishes to make, because the movies he wishes to make are always going to make a ton of money. But the pure, undiluted incompetence he displays at virtually every turn has become damn near breathtaking.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” the newest chapter in the robots-in-disguise saga, is apparently taking the same “not quite a sequel, but not quite a reboot either” track that the X-Men franchise took to great effect after the dismal receptions to “The Last Stand” and “Origins: Wolverine.” References to the previous film’s Battle of Chicago sequence abound, but every major character from the previous films have been done away with. The Transformers franchise had been slowly improving, mostly via addition through subtraction. Gone by the third film were the incomprehensible shaky-cam cinematography, the stupefyingly awful racial stereotypes and large chunks of the cringe-worthy attempts at comedy. Add to that a capable, intelligent female character (played by the always awesome Frances McDormand) and you had a movie that was borderline passable.
So naturally “Age of Extinction” throws all of that out. You would think that the exclusion of boring main character Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf ) and his loathsome family would be the final piece of the franchise’s restoration. But here’s the rub: Witwicky, and his friendship to sidekick Transformer Bumblebee, formed the center of each of the past three films. Disposing of that center isn’t impossible, but it would be far easier to do away with a human element entirely and focus on the heroic Autobots as characters.
Instead, after a prologue showing that the Transformers were the ones that wiped out the dinosaurs (a running tally now shows that they caused the dinosaurs’ extinction, interacted with cavemen, built the pyramids, caused the space race and were a huge part of the Cold War. Stay tuned for “Transformers 5,” where we learn that Jesus was crucified by a Decepticon), we head to “Texas, USA” (seriously, that’s how it’s captioned) to meet Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, in stoic good-guy mode), a down-on-his-luck genius inventor/collector of spare parts/guy that looks like he’s about to be visited by the “American Pickers” production team, as he and his uncomfortably sexualized 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nikola Peltz) come across an abandoned semi-truck, and take it back to their barn to repair. They soon realize that the truck is a lot more than it seems, and if you have not yet guessed exactly what it is, well, you probably haven’t been watching these movies, and for that I salute you.
Once the inevitable and endless exposition about the Yeagers and Cade’s anger over Tessa’s boyfriend (Shane Dyson) is finally over, the movie can finally focus on the giant, sentient robot-shaped elephant in the room. In the wake of the Battle of Chicago, the Autobots and Decepticons alike are fugitives, on the run from a shady government leader (Kelsey Grammer) and his corporate partner (Stanley Tucci), who are hunting the Transformers because we as a race have decided that we are better off without them on planet Earth. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the third sequel in a row to use that exact same story. A couple weeks ago, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” gave us a sequel with characters that had grown and evolved past the problems they had in the first movie while still being human enough to encounter new obstacles within themselves that did not feel like a retread. Seeing Bay play out the “We don’t need the Transformers!/We have to trust the Transformers!” plot yet again so soon after that makes it doubly insulting.
Of course, a Transformers movie does not exist for plot mechanics, it exists as a delivery device for huge battle scenes and special effects. And that’s perfectly fine, except for one thing: it also completely fails on those fronts as well. This review has twice mentioned the third movie’s Battle of Chicago sequence, and with good reason: that Decepticon attack was the first time this franchise had allowed a real sense of horror to creep in, where the full impact of giant, nigh unkillable robots with advanced weaponry attacking us was actually viewed as the catastrophe that it is. Unfortunately, Bay has once again retreated into the mindset of a hyperactive 11-year-old, making sure that characters in the middle of a life-or-death gun fight, with no actual combat training to speak of, get off a line about how “kick-ass” the situation is. When The Incredible Hulk beat the ever-loving crap out of Loki in “The Avengers,” it was exhilarating and hilarious. But part of the reason that the scene worked is that despite his one-liner after the assault, the Hulk didn’t need to point out how awesome it was to the audience. Cool doesn’t advertise.
The visual effects, as well, remain a complete mess. The robots have no weight or dimension to them and look like they were plucked from the cartoons that spawned them and unceremoniously dropped into a live-action movie. The design of the Transformers is similarly chaotic and inelegant: a creature that can perfectly imitate any human machine should not look like a bunch of spare parts put through a blender when in its natural state. The only relief comes in the final minutes, when a new form of Transformer arrives (it’s been heavily spoiled in the film’s advertising, but I won’t say what kind of ’bot it is here, in case you live in a cave). The sequences with these new creatures genuinely soar and briefly lift “Age of Extinction” out of the gutter. The film ends with a character finally leaving Earth, to quest for answers and vengeance. It’s a chance for the Transformers series to leave behind the silly trappings of its previous entries. Tune in circa summer 2017 to see how Michael Bay squanders that chance.