Transformers: Age Of Extinction – Review
In the shockingly underrated Kevin Smith sequel Clerks II, there’s a moment in which the token fanboy character of Elias declares that nothing can shake his good mood, due to having learnt that a live-action Transformers movie is going into production. It’s a moment that now quite dates the 2006 comedy, yet weirdly it serves as a crystallised statement of the optimism fans of the old Transformers cartoon once held. For if we’d known then how the Transformers movies would turn out under the care of the increasingly visually-derranged Michael Bay, it’s fair to say Elias’s attitude would have been portrayed very differently; and with a Clerks III allegedly headed our way in the next few years, you can’t help but wonder if it might come up.
Fresh off his “smaller, more personal project” Pain & Gain (which was neither small, nor in any way personal), Bay returns to helm the fourth instalment of a franchise that has now ultimately reduced its fanbase to the largest case of Stockholm Syndrome ever witnessed. This time around, the US government have set about indiscriminately hunting all Transformers (good or bad) with the aid of their own reverse-engineered Cybertronian technology. Hiding in the guise of an abandoned wreck, a war-torn and devastated Optimus Prime finds a new human ally in the form of struggling inventor Cade Yeager; with whom he reassembles his Autobot forces to begrudgingly save the human race from an evil alien bounty hunter and his forces.
While the first Transformers movie had fleeting moments to qualify itself as almost enjoyable, it was the almost gleeful mess that was Revenge Of The Fallen that gave way to the diminished expectations which boosted fanboy opinions of third movie (and the first 3D effort) Dark Of The Moon. Now, to be clear, Dark Of The Moon is no way a good movie. You may have enjoyed it, but the first rule any critic learns is that just because you enjoy something, does not make it any good. If that were the case, G.I. Joe would be regarded as brilliant; which it isn’t. Dark Of The Moon was, at best, a serviceable yet radically overlong CGI smash-em-up made marginally better by the 3D format forcing Bay to briefly slow his visuals down during action sequences – which, of course, he did in his now tiresome brand of CG-enhanced slo-mo for as long as humanly possible.
With that in mind, Age Of Extinction is – on the whole – no better or worse than Dark Of The Moon. It suffers just as many narrative flaws, with this outing reaching a natural conclusion a hundred minutes in only to restart in China for the glaringly cynical justification of actually selling the film to Hollywood’s much-coveted Chinese audience, while the plot itself makes next to no sense whatsoever. There are Dinobots in this movie (Transformers that become dinosaurs instead of cars), yet their presence is in no way really explained or justified on a creative level. The central storyline of the US government xenophobically hunting the Transformers also makes no sense once the plot introduces the collaborative element of a transforming bounty hunter. There was genuine mileage to be gained from a story about the government’s response to the events of the last film, an almost brilliant parable on the likes of the Mujahadeen or even Iraq, yet any semblance of an intelligent subtext is immediately swept aside with the addition of yet another mind-numbing “evil Transformer arrives to destroy the rest” story. That they actually take the fight back to the locale of the last movie’s climactic battle for, again, no justifiable reason whatsoever is only a minor flaw in a film with more faults than the geology of the Californian coastline.
In the film’s defence, the removal of Shia LaBeouf adds at least 1% credibility to proceedings, with Mark Wahlberg proving as engaging a screen presence as we’ve come to expect of him. But whilst it is nice to see a bonafide movie star leading a Transformers movie, it’s somewhat saddening to see that Bay’s bizarrely juvenile sensibilities have him resorting to the sort of panto-level theatrics that involve putting on comical glasses whenever he has to (implausibly) remind us that he’s playing an inventor. You don’t hire Mark Wahlberg to play an inventor. Ever. You hire Mark Wahlberg to play the soldier who fights/aids the Transformers. Which makes the dichotic use of his character opposite (the unfathomably talented) Titus Welliver even more cringeworthy; yet still less cringeworthy than the use of characterless blonde Nicola Peltz as a hotpanted underage teen upon whom Bay prowls with leering slo-mo glory shots in some sort of unspoken product placement for Maxim magazine. That each use of this genuinely drew laughs at the press show speaks volumes about just how far Bay’s shtick has devolved at this point.
Credit is due for giving the Autobots (the good robots, if you’re not keeping score) actual characters to play this time around. Yet aside from a surprisingly developed role for Optimus Prime, the rest of the squad – bar fan-favourite Bumblebee – amount to nothing more than caricatures with faintly rounded edges. There’s a John Goodman Transformer (with the voice of John Goodman and the character of John Goodman from The Big Lebowski), there’s a Ken Watanabe one (voiced by Ken Watanabe and with the character of Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai) and there’s a Mockney Gangster one (voiced by…somebody, and with no character whatsoever. But he has a metal trenchcoat built into his design, so I guess that counts as creative thought). With the heroes the underdogs for a change, there is genuine creative ground to be tread, yet the end result is exactly the same as times gone by; with yet more major cities levelled in the exact same manner as before. This surely has to have started to bore even the fanbase by now.
At only fourteen minutes short of three hours, Age Of Extinction feels like a fetishised mechanical assault on every one of your senses. A porno-technological slap across the face dragged out for 166 minutes in IMAX 3D. At best, it’s more of the same. At worse, it represents literally everything wrong with the Hollywood franchise-generating machine. If Elias saw this movie he would weep, and if Clerks III opens with the character having hung himself from the roof of the Quick Stop then Kevin Smith will finally have overcome the rift he’s created for himself with film critics, by giving them a moment they can completely empathise with.
Catch Van Connor’s reviews in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.
Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver