Fourth "Transformers" Film Finds Modest Creative Success

A Michael Bay film isn’t merely released into theaters. It’s lobbed like a rusty hand grenade, unpredictable in its efficacy but prone to leave half its audience in a puddle of white-knuckled exhilaration. Those immune to Bay’s brand of cathartic carnage typically walk away disappointed, offended, or both, but his work has consistently evoked a fiery passion from moviegoers worldwide. Few have ever left a Michael Bay film without feeling something, compelling evidence of his talents as a filmmaker. Whether he uses his powers for good or evil is an argument for another time, but most would agree that he wears his divisiveness on his sleeve. Come for the explosions, stay for the casual sexism, racism, and general misanthropy.

As such, “Transformers: Age Of Extinction – the series’ fourth entry – is something of a surprise. It’s the most innocuous movie Bay has made in a decade, which will frustrate many. It’s mostly coherent, light on controversy, and pretty tasteful, at least by Michael Bay standards, making for a streamlined experience that’s more likely to breed indifference than any kind of fervor. But as a soft reset of the series – the pic’s human cast is all-new to the franchise – it does a reasonable job of resurrecting a property that, three films in, had yet to find any semblance of creative footing.

Mark Wahlberg headlines as Cade Yeager, a struggling robotics inventor who arbitrarily stumbles upon the mud-stained shell of a Transformer in hiding. Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, is essentially in stand-by mode as the US government hunts down all surviving Transformers. After the mass destruction of “Dark Of The Moon,” humans have largely tired of the metallic alien creatures, indiscriminately labeling Autobots and Decepticons alike as threats to humanity. CIA Agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) leads the genocide against the Transformers, striking up a shaky partnership with a Steve Jobs-like tech entrepreneur (Stanley Tucci) and a particularly malevolent Decepticon.

Always amusing comedian T.J. Miller (“Cloverfield”) is on hand as Cade’s assistant, Lucas Flannery, before being unceremoniously jettisoned from the narrative at the hour mark, while Nicola Peltz (“The Last Airbender”) plays Tessa, Cade’s 17 year-old daughter. Bay’s depiction of the short-shorts clad teen is typically lascivious, marking the pic’s only real uncomfortable spot. Add in her 20 year-old boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who actually cites “Romeo and Juliet” laws as to the appropriateness of their relationship, and the film’s unnecessarily creepy love story becomes even less palatable.

The plot, however, is much easier to take. Tucci’s character has discovered the element that Transformers are made of – Transformium, a name that suggests that screenwriter Ehren Kruger isn’t familiar with the concept of placeholders – and has begun to produce a knock-off robot line for the highest bidder. In this case, the aforementioned CIA Agent. It’s a relatively clever subplot for a film based on a toy line, and Bay attacks it with vigor. As one of the forefathers of modern day movie spectacle, he certainly knows a thing or two about being ripped off.

In writing the story around the Transformers instead of the human characters – the past three films struggled in this regard – the stage is finally set for some meaningful visuals. And apart from a monotonous spaceship-centered setpiece, the action is memorable. Gone are the murky, indecipherable visuals of the LaBeouf “Transformers” era, in its place a colorful, clear, well-assembled array of robot-centric setpieces. Bay’s shot composition and editing choices are unexpectedly wonderful here, displaying a newfound patience in shot length. More rewarding still is the director’s undeniable visual eye as seen through high-resolution IMAX cameras, shots that make up the majority of the film’s running time.

About that running time, though. What’s the upside of a 160-minute “Transformers” film? It means fewer showtimes, which translates to lower box office, inevitable audience fatigue, and lower rewatchability. These movies are inherently dumb – this one’s about a group of aliens designed to blend into their surroundings that don’t seem to be very good at hiding – and nearly 3 hours of silliness is a lot harder to swallow than 2. Consequently, the pic hums along nicely for a while before inevitably overstaying its welcome. A late, token appearance from the Dinobots is enough to rise above the noise, but barely.

As the series’ least terrible entry to date, “Age Of Extinction” is all at once refreshing and generally pointless. Wahlberg is a massive upgrade over Shia LaBeouf, as is Bay’s sudden realization that audiences want to be able to make sense of what they’re seeing. But what’s it all building to? There’s very little heart here, very few signs of the stormy creative drive that made Bay a household name in the 90s, suggesting that he’s only sticking with the franchise for the paycheck. It’s also remarkably violent – as films about genocide are bound to be – marking a sad new low in action films aimed at kids. But for all its faults, “Age Of Extinction” isn’t a bad movie – a welcome twist in the ongoing saga that is Michael Bay’s career.

J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 27, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, T.J. Miller, Titus Welliver, Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo)