“I know you have a conscience because you’re an inventor like me”
There’s a problem when the first, expository-heavy hour of a three-hour Transformers action extravaganza shines above the rest. Michael Bay has looked upon this franchise from the start as an excuse to put explosions and destruction onscreen alongside cheesy and sometimes offensive comedy to satisfy the young children of parents (uninterested in shielding their ears from the oft swear word) that grew up in the 80s. He excelled at this mix with the first installment, casting the sarcastically affable Shia LaBeouf as every-kid USA amongst military heroes and cartoonish side characters. It helped that Bay had to introduce this world, set-up the good versus evil dynamic, and place humanity completely on the side of the Autobots. It was exposition tempered by action. And it all ballooned from there.
Parts two and three of the original trilogy became bloated monstrosities of metallic shrieking, Victoria Secret sex appeal, and wholesale annihilation. They became tedious while remaining entertaining. The comic relief endeared thanks to overbearing parents and over-the-top redemption stories of disgraced government agents despite earning more eye-rolls than guffaws. Autobots and Decepticons were dismantled with visceral brutality, but the tone still somehow erred on the side of “family friendly” regardless. The question concerning the latest sequel/reboot Age of Extinction therefore became whether or not Bay would stay the course or make some changes. Would he streamline things? Darken things? Or would we simply receive more of the same? The answers: No, yes, and more or less. Dark of the Moon changed Earth itself and this is the result.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger returns from the previous film, the devastation of Chicago’s downfall very much accessible since he was the one who wrought it. That moment forever altered relationships and alliances by proving exactly what aliens could do no matter what side they said they were on. These are the themes Avengers and Batman v Superman center upon: the aftermath of a war we cannot quite fathom despite finding the ability to combat future carnage a necessity. Gone are the friendly faces of Lennox and Epps. Gone are politicians with the capacity to have their minds changed like Frances McDormand‘s Mearing. The genie left the bottle and fear took hold of humanity just as dollar signs entered their eyes with greed. Safety makes way towards power.
So we have a black ops team leader in Washington DC spook Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), a man who wields control over black-hearted operative James Savoy (Titus Welliver) to do the dirty work of alien bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan). A deal was struck wherein Attinger gets a bomb called “the seed” in exchange for Optimus Prime’s (Peter Cullen) head. This means the US government has green-lit a kill order on all Transformers regardless of their allegiances. The Decepticons deserve to die and Lockdown can torture the Autobots for Prime’s whereabouts. Humanity has now put itself first, enlisting engineer Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) to even create its own army of robotic monsters to compete and control. It’s time to get serious because the fun and games are over.
Our every-man USA serving as the entry point into this story is no longer Sam Witwicky. His replacement is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor and single dad trying to stay afloat despite numerous past-due bills. His daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) is days away from high school graduation, her boyfriend (Jack Reynor‘s Shane Dyson) a secret she’s not allowed to spring on her father until the diploma is in her hands. T.J. Miller enters as his business partner Lucas Flannery, comic relief to contrast Yeager’s unwavering severity and seeming lack of humor. The four stumble upon an old beat-up truck, uncover the fact that it’s Prime, and watch as Savoy’s crew rains down hellfire. They become the only human allies the Autobots can afford to trust.
This background plot history is the finest the franchise has ever been—more engaging than even the original. I love the evolution in scope to allow for mankind’s true evil colors to be revealed. I liked the idea of a family struggling to survive as our leads rather than a cocky kid destined to be in the right place at the right time with the right family tree. Lockdown proves more formidable and ruthless than Megatron ever was and the motivations on all sides aren’t muddied by ham-fisted deception. Attinger will stop at nothing to get that “seed” no matter the collateral damage left behind. Casting Wahlberg as an inventor is almost as bad as The Happening‘s science teacher, but it works here because of the father angle.
And then it falls apart. Fast. This is in no regards a slight on where Kruger takes us, but in the length of time utilized to get there. Age of Extinction feels like two movies cobbled together because there’s so much that needs to happen. This wouldn’t be horrible if Bay didn’t insist on milking every action sequence of every last drop of entertainment. We labor through an extended car chase that brings us to Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), and newcomers Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio)—the latter pair with human faces despite the old Autobots still looking blocky. We labor through the infiltration of Lockdown’s spaceship for no other reason than giving the Dinobots an entry point and to seemingly set-up the sequel.
I say labor because these sequences are fun for the first five or so minutes. But then they sprawl out for another ten each only to end in soft resets before the next giant skirmish. We don’t need to constantly be reminded about how bad humans are and how done with Earth Prime is. We don’t need Sophia Myles and Bingbing Li as faux eye-candy (Bay really tones down the sex appeal here) since their characters add little to the story besides sad excuses for lecherous pick-up humor on behalf of Tucci’s Joyce. By the time everyone gets to China for a climactic blowout that rivals Chicago, we are fatigued to the point of drowsiness. I assumed who’d live and who’d die and prayed we’d get there quick.
Rendering the mood darker and grittier is a step in the right direction, but you can’t remove the light air of the original trilogy and drag things out longer. The levels of overwrought drama are too much to bear, especially when we never get to empathize with the characters embroiled in the action. Yeager is the exception: a man we respect and cheer on throughout. Everyone else is ancillary. Tessa and Shane are props to be victims and rescuers when convenient, Savoy and Attinger are two-dimensional baddies being used at the whim of Lockdown, and Joyce is written to be whatever the script needs and in turn devoid of integrity, good or bad. Even the Transformers are made into window dressing. They fight and that’s about it.
And for every cool effect like the man-made Transformers morphing as though nanobots separating and merging rather than fused metal blocks rotating comes an uninspired fight with two behemoths locking horns in mid-air. It’s as though Bay sent a helicopter out with the orders to soar the camera up and down while spinning generically so the artists could worry about the characters later. Some of the choreography is more exciting than that, but not much. In the end all this extra footage could go to make the whole at least an hour shorter without losing coherence. So little happens plot-wise in the final two hours that we start to forget each battle’s purpose as soon as it concludes. Age of Extinction epitomizes the phrase “more is less.”