We have only ourselves to blame. As an audience, we’ve been packing out the cinema in droves to lap up the Transformers movies. Each one made more money than its predecessor, with Transformers: Dark of the Moon grossing over $1.1 billion. It’s easy to forget that Michael Bay was initially reluctant to take on the series at all, dismissing it as a “stupid toy movie”, well, he was certainly right on the money there. However I recall the first Transformers being moderately well-received upon its initial release, with some critics labelling it as ‘Bay’s best film yet’ (it’s not even close, The Rock and my beloved Armageddon are his best). But then came Revenge of the Fallen, a terrible film in almost every way which was universally panned yet still made a truck-load of cash, even Michael Bay himself described the film as “crap”. But that’s the thing with Michael Bay, his films may be stupid, but he’s not. He knows he can churn out a monstrosity like Revenge of the Fallen and still pocket millions. What would you do in his position? Naturally his next move was to make a third Transformers, which wasn’t quite as horrible as the second but came close, yet it further added to Bay’s swelling bank account. He looked to be done at that point though, very few big-name directors stick with a series for 4 movies at the (commercial) height of their career. Bay changed pace to make the mid-budget curio crime film Pain & Gain and guess what? No-one showed up. Pain & Gain made less than a tenth of Transformers 3’s haul (I’m not exactly recommending it but it’s an interesting failure). Bay had been talking about the film for a some time, and doubtless knew it wasn’t going to destroy the box office, people don’t want to see him trying out something new, so he’d signed on for an inevitable fourth shot at Transformers. (I checked box office mojo as I was writing this and Age of Extiction has already made over $100 million in 2 days).
Transformers: Age of Extinction does offer Bay the chance for a fresh start on the series though, it dispenses with all the human characters from the previous instalments. While everyone’s basically going to be in agreement that losing Shia LaBeouf and his vacuous girlfriend is a positive, who they really should have replaced is screenwriter Ehren Kruger; the script for this thing is an atrocity
New lead actor Mark Wahlberg plays the ridiculously named Cade Yaeger (has anyone ever actually been called this?), a handyman and inventor living in rural Texas, struggling to make money fixing up old bits of tech. Following the events of the third film, the CIA is trying to hunt down and eliminate all Transformers on earth, aided by a bounty hunter who is himself a Transformer. Cade purchases an old truck one day that turns out to be you-know-who, leading the CIA to turn up and send him off running with the Autobots.
Bay films the early scenes like they’re some kind of parody of a Texas tourism commercial. Cade’s home lies between lush fields perennially basked in sunshine, and his house and workshop are all liberally coated with American and Texas flags. Then his unnaturally tanned teen daughter soon shows up wearing the shortest of short shorts, and the first bout of terrible, soapy domestic problems rears its ugly head. As you can probably guess, Cade is a single father so naturally he must then be over-protective and not want his daughter dating anybody, while she’s already got some older boyfriend behind his back who’ll turn up to save the day later, leading to infighting between Cade and the boyfriend. It’s every bit as awful as that sounds, the dialogue would sound bad on daytime TV.
Mark Wahlberg’s a curious actor as I really can’t decide if he’s any good or not, he’s done excellent work in the likes of I Heart Huckabees and The Departed, but also has a great deal of rubbish on his résumé. It often seems that he’s only really as good as the surrounding film, and here he’s fittingly dire when delivering his lines, and there’s a slo-mo shot of him yelling that’s quite hilariously bad.
He’s got nothing on the younger actors though. It’s almost like this series is throwing down a gauntlet for terrible lead actresses; you thought Megan Fox was bad, and then the third film’s Rosie Huntington-Whiteley managed to be even worse. Well, as Wahlberg’s daughter Tessa, Nicola Peltz almost manages to make Fox look like an Oscar-contender. She’s atrocious, it’s one the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie. She’s so irritating that when a CIA agent threatens her in the first act you almost wish he’d just pull the trigger so we don’t have to listen to anymore of her whining. As her boyfriend Shane, Jack Reynor poses a serious challenge to be almost as annoying as she is. He’s an Irish (cue leprechaun jokes!) rally driver whose presence in Texas is never explained. His spats with Wahlberg over who gets to ‘protect’ Tessa are among the film’s awful attempts at comic relief within the action scenes. You could call it misogynistic if the girl wasn’t so darn useless, not that Shane is any less so. Cade jokes about how Shane’s lucky he didn’t ‘put a bullet in him’ when he first turned up, and like with Tessa, I almost wished he had (it would make for a subversive dynamic too). In his first Hollywood role, Reynor’s appalling work manages to make his impressive debut in Irish film What Richard Did look like a total fluke.
The cast is rounded out with a number of recognisable performers both in human and robot form, Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver are serviceable in their bad guy roles but Stanley Tucci as a billionaire inventor who’s cracked the Transformers’ material to make ones of his own is the only actor who seems to know he’s in a terrible movie and is just going to have some fun with it. Among the new Autobots we have Ken Watanabe as a samurai (what else?) robot, and John Goodman as a fat one who somehow has a beard and smokes cigars even though he’s a robot.
Any signs that Bay or the producers cared about the script have long evaporated before the first action sequence even comes in, but while action is what Bay knows best, editing unfortunately, is not. Of the numerous chase and fight scenes that appear throughout the film, there are clips of 30 seconds or so that if viewed individually would look very impressive. Bay utilises several Peter Jackson-like sweeping shots within battles, but there’s just too much of it pummelling you in that it becomes monotonous.
And speaking of ‘too much’ as I’m sure every single review of this film will point out, it’s running time approaches the three hour mark. There is just no excuse for making the film this long, but all the previous ones were long too, so no-one’s going to hold Bay back. If he truly were trolling the audience post Pain & Gain, he’d be saying ‘you only want to see my Transformers movies? Well then have all the Transformers movie you can take!’ It’s punishingly long.
That’s not the last of Age of Extinction’s problems though, it’s the latest blockbuster to really shove its product placement in your face (though I guess Bay isn’t exactly the one to blame for that). There are several close-ups of characters consuming drinks, making sure the brand name is front and centre (some of these are Chinese). In the most shameless instance, a large explosion takes place in a road with a large truck bearing ‘Victoria’s Secret’ right in the middle of the shot. A lot of the movie takes place in China and it’s box-office related pandering to Chinese audiences also includes getting a couple of touristy Great Wall shots and adding a superfluous character played by Li Bingbing (I’m all for more Asian characters in Hollywood movies but this isn’t the way to do it).
The several storylines of the film, none of which are worth caring about, sort-of come together in loooong finale that doesn’t just try and recreate the massive battle of the third film but also doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It’s hard to keep track of who’s fighting who and why. This also extends to Optimus Prime’s abilities. He often appears to be indestructible, no matter how much damage he takes, he can recover, but we don’t know how. He’s worn down and dirty when the film begins, saying that the Autobots can fix him, but then randomly turns into a sleek, shiny new truck again when just driving down a road. Also, at the end he reveals a previously-unseen ability that would have been extremely useful had he remembered he had it at the start. And really, nothing much is resolved; one character’s final line is a blatant bit of sequel baiting.
Oh and I left out mentioning this until the end of my review as it felt appropriate to do so. Why did this movie give a spark of hope to jaded fans of the old cartoon? What has its marketing campaign been based around? Dinobots! Like the previous films, Age of Extinction reveals that yet another significant event in the Earth’s history was in fact due to Transformers, in this case the extinction of the dinosaurs. I wasn’t keeping track exactly but I’d bet it was over two hours into the film when it dawned on me that we hadn’t actually seen the Dinobots yet. They’re only there for a few minutes at the end. Literally the only area where the film shows restraint is the thing some people wanted to see the most.
I saw an interesting questioned posed the week before this movie opened; ‘Even though it’s one of the most popular film series in the world, do you actually know anyone who loves these films?’ The only people I know who like them are kids, but Transformers movies, like Pirates of the Caribbean, are just going to keep on making tons of money, and as long as they do, the studio is going to want more and more of them. As for Michael Bay, let’s not pretend we wouldn’t do the same if we were in his position, but I don’t even think he’s trying to make a good film out of this. He’s giving us a load of explosions and giant robot battles without a thought to the human story or script, he sees no need to edit it down or make sense of it, and the box office is vindicating him. It looks like the decision lies with him and him alone. Mr Bay; how much money is enough to decide you can move on?