By Anthony Breznican
April 11, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Don’t call it Transformers 4. Not unless you want to be stomped on by one of Michael Bay’s big metal friends. The bombastic filmmaker bristles at the numeric moniker, and considers Transformers: Age of Extinction not a sequel but a reboot of the shape-shifting alien-robot series. “It’s kind of like a new Transformers,” Bay says. “We had three, the first trilogy, and this is going to be the next one.” The next…trilogy? “Yeah, it’s the first of a new trilogy,” he says after a moment of hesitation. “I’m not necessarily sure that I’m doing [the others], but that’s what it’s meant for.”

If that seems hard to wrap your brain around, it’s because Bay is still on as director, having turned the Transformers films into nearly his full-time job after helming the first one in 2007. Revenge of the Fallen followed in 2009, and Dark of the Moon in 2011, and each time Bay promised something bigger. Critics sneered, moviegoers turned out in cheering droves anyway, and after his iron-pumping crime saga Pain & Gain cleansed his palate last spring, he dove back into the endless battle between Autobots and Decepticons. What kind of filmmaker blows up his own billion-dollar franchise and starts over? One with a lot of firepower.

Bay’s reboot doesn’t scrap the previous story line — the destruction of Chicago in the last film has turned humans against all alien robots. And Peter Cullen, who started doing Optimus Prime’s voice on the 1984 cartoon series, returns as the stentorian Autobot leader. But most of the cast is new.

That means no Shia LaBeouf, he of the recent paper-bag-over-the-head performance-art meltdown. “He’s a good guy, but three movies, the same guy, it’s time,” Bay says. “You know what I’m saying? It’s always good to freshen it up and change the story.” Taking over the lead human role is Mark Wahlberg, playing an aspiring inventor who discovers that the battered Freightliner truck he’s about to dismantle is actually a dormant Optimus in disguise. The new — or, rather, old — vehicle design is an homage to the ’80s Hasbro toys. Another tribute to yesteryear: Age of Extinction features fanboy favorite Grimlock, a rambunctious Dinobot who shifts from robot form into a metallic T. rex-like creature.

While the villainous robots remain under wraps, Kelsey Grammer joins the fray as a shadowy government op determined to rid the planet of mechanical invaders. When he sets upon Wahlberg’s farmhouse, the blue-collar hero finds himself siding with the bots instead of his own government. “They basically want to wipe out all the Transformers, all the Autobots,” says Wahlberg, who becomes a de facto diplomat. “Optimus has lost all faith in humankind, and I’m trying to convince him there is still good in the world and we need to work together.”

Nicola Peltz (A&E’s Bates Motel) plays Wahlberg’s short-shorts-wearing daughter, who is first menaced by Grammer’s goons, then scooped up accidentally by hostile robots in midbattle. Her rally-car-racing boyfriend (Delivery Man‘s Jack Reynor) joins forces with her old man to rescue her. Reynor, an Irishman who’s worked primarily in indies, says it was a big adjustment performing with costars who were MIA on set. “The first day I’m acting opposite a giant robot that’s not there,” he says, “so that was something that took me out of my comfort zone.”

What else made Reynor squirm? Something the detonation experts on Transformers movies call “Bayhem.” “Probably the most outrageous thing we did was run through an incredible explosion,” he says. “You can see it in the trailer. Everything around us blew up. Absolutely terrifying. But you don’t really think of the terror until afterward. It’s one of those things where you just run and all of your basic instincts as a human kick in. You get out on the other side of it and you feel like a different person, really.” It’s not just the bots who emerge from the Michael Bay battlefield…transformed.

Meet Grimlock
Origin Story As revealed on the cover of Marvel’s Transformers #8 (Sept. 1985), Grimlock was the leader of a special-ops team that were camouflaged as dinosaurs when they visited prehistoric Earth.

‘Toon Time In the 1984 animated TV series, the Dinobots were introduced as weapons created by the Autobots, who took inspiration from some fossils they’d discovered.

CG Whiz! Age of Extinction‘s Grimlock is an all-digital creation, but he’d be 150 feet long from tail to nostrils, 63.5 feet tall from the ground to the top of his horns, and weigh 850 tons.

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