Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Transformers: Age of Extinction acts as a reboot for a franchise that was best left dead. As the Transformers films grow bigger and more expansive, they become increasingly inconsequential. The latest chapter puts character development to the side in favor of bombarding every one of our senses (except common sense, oddly enough), something that’s all too common in the franchise. It’s an unpleasant, grotesque display of commercialism mixed with ambivalence toward making a film worth seeing. It’s a callously empty effort on all fronts, from the misogynistic and sexist creations that come standard in these actioners to the stereotypically vapid, boring human characters to go along with the inherently cold, bland robotic ones. It’s as if Michael Bay and Paramount know the formula to making their films: create more action, make a longer running time, add more locales to sell globally, and have as much optimal product placement as possible. It’s genius!
To describe the plot of the film would probably work better than what plays out on screen, so I’ll attempt to put it as simply and thrillingly as possible: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is an automobile mechanic that is struggling financially after his inventions fail to reach their potential. His daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), is introduced as all Michael Bay females are: by her bombshell looks and the way she can wear short shorts. Tessa wants to party and go out with boys, cannot wait until school is out, but also wants to go to college to ensure a future for her and her father. Cade’s business partner, Lucas (T.J. MIller), goes with him to a run-down movie theater to buy parts, discussing the uselessness of much of the old media and how things have changed. Oh, how right they are. They find an old truck that Cade can strip and sell for quite a bit, a steal in his eyes. He soon finds out that it’s Optimus Prime, one of many Transformers that the government has been hoping to find after the battle in Chicago a few years ago.
Remember all the destruction from that battle in Dark of the Moon? Well, C.I.A. man Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) wants to track the robots down and coordinate with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), an inventor who can create Transformers-like technology, to expel those harmful aliens from this Earth. While that undoubtedly sounds like more than enough plot for the common viewer, there’s more: the opening scene establishes that all that we know about a meteor wiping out dinosaurs is wrong because the Transformers were totally behind it. At this point, it’s as if Michael Bay and Co. know that they are trolling all of the United States and want to get away with as much inane narrative as possible. Did I also mention that Tessa has a boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor)? So naturally Cade has to be the protective father figure and berate Shane while simultaneously understanding that he makes his daughter happy and therefore shouldn’t interfere with love. I mean, this stuff practically writes itself.
The first Transformers was respectably campy fun that took a hokey premise and turned it into a fun, engaging spectacle. The second and third films wore the premise thin and added even more nonsensicality to the growing visual assault. The newest in the series amps everything up: the last 100 minutes of its bloated 165 minute running time are filled with non-stop special effects that pummel every shred of visual engagement; there are characters talking about “important” things like past nights when Shane might’ve snuck into the house to be with Tessa; villains deliver monologues before attempting to kill the protagonists; and the Michael Bay Misogyny™ we know and love comes into play. Peltz and Reynor simply can’t act, with the former being defined by her Barbie-like looks and the latter being asked to be a hyper-masculine, seemingly perfect male presence. Just another movie reminder, girls, you’re only good if you’re pretty. Even Stanley Tucci’s character falls in love with an Asian character only to point out that he thinks “she’s hot,” failing to point out that she can kick ass and command her own.
Mark Wahlberg works hard for a paycheck, I’ll give him that. He’s a good actor that couldn’t be more out of place; he stands in front of an American flag multiple times in a ten-minute span, seeming to signify his narrative importance as the all-American, hard-working individual that deserves to succeed in this country. There’s an effort in Ehren Kruger’s script to communicate something about American culture here, but it never comes together to make anything other than an incoherent mishmash of scenarios that allow for things to blow up really well. The special effects are undeniably impressive and lavish, but they’re numbing and fail to complement the story. When the story asks to move to China, it feels like a maddening ploy to grab a global market to make the film more successful. Finance is all that matters nowadays with these big blockbusters. It’s a shame, because we’re stuck with films that recycle old ideas rather than move them forward, and perpetuate stereotypes that should no longer linger in a medium as advanced and sophisticated as film.
Grade: ★ (out of 5)