Around two hours into Michael Bay’s eyeball-splitting Transformers: Age of Extinction, Nicola Peltz’s on-the-run Tessa Yeager tells her dad Cade (Mark Wahlberg) that she’s tired of all the running and the sleeping they’ve been doing. This was the only time during this entire shebang that I actually sympathized with a character. Because yes, Tessa, we are all tired of you guys running around, because you’ve been doing it forever. I think I still have jetlag.
With several predictable and straightforward plotlines happening in successive order, Transformers: Age of Extinction is almost three different movies, and in each one, the bad guys’ motives are far more understandable than those of our central heroes. At 165 minutes, this is Bay’s second-longest directorial effort, behind Pearl Harbor. (Say, there’s a movie with relatable villains.) It actually feels longer, as I kept looking at the clock on my phone, assuming that I’d already been watching the movie for three hours, hoping that my phone would suddenly morph into a slang-spewing Transformer to keep me company and deliver exposition when needed.
Poor old Cade Yaeger is a down-on-his-luck amateur roboticist/mechanic/engineer/doohickey-user who only wants to gain respect in his daughter’s eyes, while also remaining firm and demanding. With the help of “comic relief” T.J. Miller, whose character name might as well have been T.J. Miller, Cade spends important family money on an old big rig relic, because sure, why not. Around 13 tinkers later — including a sequence where a missile flies around Looney Tunes style — he utters the trailer’s most enjoyably hammy line: “I think we just found a Transformer!” Cue Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) powering up and somehow not completely destroying the barn he was being kept in.
It’s no surprise why Cade would be happy to find a Transformer, and he does let the audience know he wants to use the technology to design his own shit, but not everyone feels that way. After Chicago got all blowed up in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, humanity got fed up with the giant alien robots and brought in Kelsey Grammer to put his foot down. He plays Harold Attinger, a former CIA guy who has “dirty tricks” written all over his face, and one of those tricks is hunting down the Autobots under the guise of only hunting down Decepticons. For this, he uses the cannon-faced Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan) and one of the smarmiest black ops agents you’ll ever see, played by Titus Welliver. (At one point he delivers the line “My face is my warrant.”)
The entire movie is basically one big chase scene, with the black-suited, gun-toting bad guys trying to track down the Yaegers, who are soon joined by Tessa’s inexplicably Irish boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor). Cade don’t play that boyfriend shit, and the dull but rapid-fire dialogue between the three about their respective relationships is intolerable at best. Because when Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t delivering flammable spectacles and CGI knock-em-ups, it’s forcing us to listen to Cade want his little girl to stay his little girl, while Tessa wants him to take responsibility for his eviction-filled life, and Shane is just…there all the time. He’s the driver.
At some point, we arrive at Stanley Tucci, the one truly and consistently enjoyable part of this plot marathon. He plays Joshua Joyce, an inventor who figured out how to extract and manipulate “transformium,” which gives the Transformers the ability to morph. This plot point gives Michael Bay the chance to work more wonky transforming CGI into the movie through the manufactured Transformers that Joyce has created, though most of it just looks like pixelated DNA strands. Tucci isn’t as completely unhinged as he is in The Hunger Games movies, but he’s pretty loose here at all times, perhaps best described as “whimmish.”
I’m not saying the humans should have been the most important part of this movie, but they definitely had the chance here. Optimus Prime is almost solely in exposition mode, while John Goodman’s Hound is a cliche-spouting, classless, bearded(!), giant metal cigar-smoking(!) waste of space. Ken Watanabe’s Drift isn’t as terrible, and gives us two of the pic’s best lines. And we didn’t even get to the actual main enemy yet, Galvatron (Frank Welker), born as Joyce’s most efficient prototype. (Or was he?) In any case, there’s nothing fun about Galvatron either. He’s just plodding evil for evil’s sake.
Obviously it’s impossible to sit through an entire Transformers movie wearing only a critical hat, as one could go wall-bouncingly insane trying to make sense of how Cade Yaeger manages to stay alive despite being only capable of leading his daughter into danger. (His near-perfect alien-gun-shooting skills, maybe?) But this isn’t even a fun movie to watch, as almost every attempt at comedy falls flatter than everything Optimus Prime lands on. Make no mistake, Bay tries to give his audience’s eyes and ears everything they can handle, but none of it is tethered to a head with a brain inside of it. The action and fight scenes are perhaps better choreographed than I expected, and it wasn’t impossible to follow them, but it’s just the same old “skyscrapers getting demolished” stuff we’ve seen before.
For those wondering what the last straw is: the last 45 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction detours into China, so that Hong Kong can face the wrath of Transformer mayhem. I thought for a brief second that we might get some badass fight scenes out in the forested hills surrounding the city, but that was all kept to a minimum so that we could watch the Transformers destroy buildings shaped differently from the American ones that blew up earlier in the movie. Was that worth having a 16th act added to this plotline? Not in the least, guys. Not even for Dinobots.
And yet, there’s a pretty good movie to be found here, within this hulking pile of noise, though it’s impossible to recommend anyone sit through 167 minutes of this mess while looking for it. Beyond Tucci, the cast never quite reaches a level higher than “acceptable,” though they’re all still worlds more accessible to sober viewing than Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. It’s technically the best “live action” Transformers movie I’ve ever seen, but that’s like saying a prostate exam is the best sex I’ve ever had. I’m not saying that, by the by.
I had relatively high hopes for Transformers: Age of Extinction, betting against doubts that the fourth time would be the charm. Maybe it’ll happen in the next one, because — Spoiler alert! — this movie does not end with all of the Transformers being eradicated. Perhaps that makes this a tragedy as well as an action movie.