by Kathie Smith
Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay’s fourth iteration of the franchise, fails to make good on the auspicious promise of its title: nothing becomes extinct. There is no end to the robots, and there is no end to the humans; Megatron lives, despite what you saw in Dark of the Moon; and even the dinosaurs rise from the ashes in the form of dinobots by the end of the movie. This is, of course, only the beginning—a new, bigger and better beginning—because I guess this is how blockbusters go: you finish one trilogy and then you begin another. However, much like The Amazing Spider-Man, Age of Extinction earns its reboot status in cast names only and churns out much of the same, for better (in box office business) or worse (in reviews like this one).
Director: Michael Bay
Producers: Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Cinematographer: Amir Mokri
Editors: Roger Barton, William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, Li Bingbing, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon
US Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The Autobots, who risked mechanical life and limb to save the humans from the Decepticons, are in hiding and being hunted down by a lawless CIA black ops team, outfitted in trench coats and designer shades and flanked by badass transforming bounty hunter Lockdown. The CIA led by senior politico Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), has formed an iniquitous alliance with Lamborghini Lockdown who wants the head of Optimus Prime, and billionaire inventor Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who is developing his own patented transformers from disemboweled parts of Autobots and Decepticons and a newly discovered element called Transformium (roll eyes here).
Enter our new white knight and friend to all Autobots, amateur inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, a charismatic upgrade from Shia LaBeouf) who makes his meager living as a scrapper and fix-it man on his idealistic but bankrupt Texas farm with his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). While rummaging through a dilapidated movie palace looking for worthwhile gadgets, Yeager comes across a dusty semi truck randomly parked in front of stage left. Back at the farm, he discovers that the large lump of scrap metal is none other than Optimus Prime, public enemy number one, only to have a couple dozen military vehicles (and one well-armed Lamborghini) swoop in for annihilation. Optimus and Yeager are having nothing to do with it, however, and, joining forces with Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), who shows up out of nowhere, they put on their rally caps for a distended and egregious second act propelled by the unimaginative motto of not going down without a fight.
You would be well advised to enjoy the amiable introduction of Yeager and his daughter by way of Texas folktale, because once Optimus Prime breaks out of his hiding place, Age of Extinction does not let up on the gas until the waning moments of its behemoth 165 minutes. The experience, as we follow an inane chase (which, for the fan files, includes Optimus, Bumblebee, Hound, Drift, and Crosshairs) from Texas to Monument Valley to Chicago to Beijing and finally to Hong Kong, might be similar to being slapped for a couple of hours—the first blow might cause a rush but by the 500th it’s no more than a dull thud that you wish would stop.
The Transformers series started out as unapologetic propaganda for unrestrained military but now feels like a muddled analogy for patriotism that only surfaces for air between explosions. Concocted by loosely defined tinker toy mythology, Age of Extinction serves up a steaming pile of rhetoric that rarely knows if it wants to be devilishly ironic or brazenly proud. Nationalistic and entitled slogans (“human freedom is at stake” and “freedom isn’t free” and “innocent people die all the time”) pour from the mouth of our presumed villain—Attinger who seems modeled after none other than Dick Cheney—with a certain amount of sympathy, and the White House is represented by an ineffectual and bumbling chief of staff in what feels like wholesale derision. The movies also takes some time for a little self-mockery when the proprietor of the movie theater where Optimus Prime is found claims that big budget sequels were responsible for his shuttered business and now obsolete 35mm projectors and celluloid. In different hands, this might be played off as nuanced pastiche but in this case it feels like simply tossing random emblems in the pot.
We created this summer movie phenomenon, but it’s a hungry beast fed in part by a fertile global economy. Chinese interests funded somewhere around 80% of Age of Extinction’s $200 million bottom line, a deal that no doubt included the site-specific Chinese shooting locations and casting of star Li Bingbing. More significant is that the Mainland’s co-production byline which allows the film to skirt around China’s import quota so it can be treated as a domestic product. The massive production itself had its own life as well as its own narrative, illuminated by the fascinating layers revealed in Kevin Lee’s video essay Transformers: The Premake. The extratextual information, somewhat paradoxically, makes the Transformer series, current release included, far more interesting.
Age of Extinction might be loaded with dodgy metaphors and incongruous characterizations, but it stands pretty firm for the pure and triumphant ethos of the American dream, bifurcated but equally idolized between Joyce’s polished tycoon and Yeager’s homeland idealist. In the end, these two very different versions of self-reliant capitalists come together in an unusual partnership between the one percent and the so-called working poor whose honest pay isn’t enough to keep the bank from knocking with an eviction notice. Even if this is a little slice of uninformed optimism, its aura is resolutely pulverized in the deluge of absurd slow-motion dramatization, non-stop engine revving, and go for broke worldwide collateral damage from some combination of robot vs. human vs. robot. Humans play second fiddle to the sensational gravity of the Transformers, both physically and emotionally. What Age of Extinction hints at (with its effective opening sequence) is a much larger role of the Transformers in life on Earth, and, by extension, a foreboding god-like hand in Creation (with a capital “c”).
But this is merely facile context for a movie that simply wants to blow shit up with a little product placement. Writer Ehren Kruger (also responsible for the previous two Transformers) provides a quippy script with at least a couple actors, notably Wahlberg and Tucci, who would be able to deliver if it weren’t so vapid. The movie is desperate to build the relationships between Yeager and Tessa as protective single father and mature single child, not to mention their third wheel, Shane and his playful antagonism with Yeager. Whether these characters are back for the next installment or not, the time spent sketching superficial superficial personalities feels wasted. Transformers, special effects and popcorn—this is the winning combination that will, unfortunately for audiences worldwide, likely remain unshaken.