I feel defensive just writing this review. “It’s not like I don’t have an appreciation for film history,” I want to say. “I’ve gone through Chaplin and Hitchcock and Fellini and Kurosawa…” I turn to broader means of justification, drawing upon personal traits. “Look, I’m a reasonably intelligent human being. I’m just open-minded.” Still anxious, I rifle my brain for a proper analogy. “Just because I like both steaks and Big Macs doesn’t mean I equate the two.” But maybe none of that really matters. Maybe there is no defense. I liked Transformers: Age of Extinction. A lot.
I don’t claim that Age of Extinction is high art. Like the rest of the series, the movie is wretched on many levels. Director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger approach dialogue like they do action: everything is underlined, thrown in our faces, punctuated by a blaring score. Characters speak their traits: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is an inventor, so he only talks about inventing or how inventors think. His daughter (Nicola Peltz) is pragmatic and responsible, so she is always very frustrated with him – all capitals. Every sentence is a broad platitude or a one-liner.
It’s impressive how none of the characters are remotely relatable. Yeager prohibits his 17-year-old daughter from having a social life to the point of saying, “You don’t date, I don’t date” as though that wasn’t incredibly weird. Thomas Lennon plays a White House Chief of Staff (no character name, because who needs one?) who literally shakes in his boots and never gets information the President wants, which seems very likely. That and other meager attempts at humor fall flat: the script has no comic sensibility or timing.*
*It does manage to be much less cringe-worthy than the previous movies, thanks to the absence of the LaBeouf character and his parents.
The plot is of course ludicrous. Because humans no longer trust the Transformers, CIA Head of Black Ops Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) hunts the survivors by working with one – Lockdown, a bounty hunter who is never introduced and randomly has a giant spaceship. Lockdown really works for a mysterious employer who destroyed the dinosaurs. Also don’t forget Galvatron, even though the script does: he’s Megatron reborn and wants Lockdown’s technology to create new Decepticons, which he can do by setting off a bomb in a large city. Or something.
In every way, Age of Extinction is merely the latest formulaic entry off Michael Bay’s Transformers assembly line. The characters are annoying, the dialogue is awful, the humor is non-existent, the score is overwhelming, the acting is forgettable, and the plot manages to be both convoluted and stupid at the same time. The movie clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes, interminable for the genre, and is rampant with the sexism, flag-waving patriotism, and stylistic flourishes that have become directorial trademarks. I neither dispute nor defend any of that.
Age of Extinction is a spectacle. It is a spectacle in the way that only Michael Bay can make spectacle. As with the previous movies, the action scenes here exist on a scale entirely unto their own. There is no doubt that movies like Independence Day, Godzilla, even Pacific Rim are vastly superior as a totality than anything in the Transformers series. But only the destruction offered in the latter has elicited genuine awe from me. The action scenes give me chills. They make me whisper “holy shit.” They make The Avengers look like child’s play.
There’s something to be said about spectacle. There’s something to be said about going to a movie and feeling like it’s a fucking movie, one that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and required a billion computers to make. Age of Extinction is that. A couple of smaller set pieces whet the appetite, setting up a climactic sequence in Hong Kong. And that scene is memorable and awe-inspiring and exhilarating and breathtaking and unique – the way the Chicago sequence was in Dark of the Moon, the way the Harvester fight was in Revenge of the Fallen.
I don’t think I have a soft spot for the Transformers series. But I definitely have one for the idea of a true theatrical experience. Of course I should be more demanding. I should want a story to care about, characters to empathize with. But sometimes, I just want shit to explode. I want the seat rattling and my ears ringing. I want crazy fights with giant robot aliens, as people flee and buildings collapse. I want a last stand against dozens of Decepticons, and I want Optimus Prime riding in on a Dinobot – a fucking Dinobot – to save the day. Never seen that before.