Sitting in the theater, watching the end credits roll on Transformers: Age of Extinction, I was certain of two things: 1. That I’d just witnessed the stupidest movie of the year; and 2. It will make a billion dollars. Did I mention it’s nearly three hours long?
Let me be clear, I’m not one of those knee-jerk Michael Bay haters. I’m not even against the Transformers movies. I thought the first one was kind of fun in an inane, unleash-your-inner-child, rock-’em-sock-’em way (Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon, less so). But Age of Extinction is lazy hackwork. It isn’t just narratively incoherent. It’s one of the tackiest and crassest blockbusters I’ve ever seen, wasting no opportunity to shamelessly plug products such as Bud Light, Chevy, and Beats by Dr. Dre. It doesn’t even try to conceal its cynicism.
The film kicks off in the time of the dinosaurs, which are shown happily roaming the earth until they’re zapped into extinction by alien spaceships hovering overhead. Unwelcome news, no doubt, for creationists and evolutionists alike. Cut to several millennia later, and a sexy blonde scientist (hey, it’s a Michael Bay movie, what did you expect? A lab coat and a librarian’s bun?) arrives in the Arctic to examine the remains of a T-Rex fossilized in a mysterious outer-space element called ”Transformium.” This will become important later, when a rogue CIA black-ops heavy (played by Kelsey Grammer, huffing and puffing like the bastard child of Dick Cheney and Darth Vader) hatches a scheme to forge this magical metal into his own personal army of Autobot- and Decepticon-slaying robot warriors. Stanley Tucci plays his partner in crime as a billionaire tech mogul who briefly gooses the movie to life with his flustered-weasel shtick before (groan) growing a conscience.
Meanwhile, in Texas (helpfully labeled on screen as ”Texas, USA” for the geographically challenged), a teenage girl named Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her cash-strapped inventor father (Mark Wahlberg) struggle to make ends meet on their ranch. The American flags billowing in the wind and the film’s Friday Night Lights bath of warm, Lone Star state sunlight signal to us that these are good people. But Bay doesn’t let that stop him from tarting up Peltz in Daisy Dukes and creepily leering at her with his camera. As for her dad, well, all the semaphore in the world won’t help you buy Wahlberg as either a Texan or the brainiac tinkerer he plays. While rummaging for old technological flotsam in an abandoned movie theater, he stumbles upon a beat-up semi truck that he takes back to his barn. While monkeying under the hood, he discovers that it’s no truck at all. It’s Optimus Prime. And he’s not doing so well. Wahlberg busts out his ratchet set and nurses him back to cherry condition. Optimus is in his debt.
That debt comes due almost right away, when Grammer’s band of CIA sadists raid Wahlberg’s compound looking for the Autobot leader. For their crime of aiding and abetting the intergalactic enemy, Wahlberg, Peltz, and her boyfriend (played by the generically hunky Jack Reynor) are forced to go on the run — first in ”Texas, USA”, then in Chicago, and finally in Hong Kong. This last setting seems almost exclusively designed for the film’s sizable audience in Asia. After all, Bay’s not the kind of guy to leave any potential money on the table when it comes to his will to worldwide box-office power.
But enough about the puny humans. You didn’t come to see them. You came to see giant sentient robots smack the snot out of one another and make crap blow up. And blow up it does. For the first hour, Bay’s baroque orgy of ear-shredding, eye-dazzling destruction is impressive. Then you realize there’s almost two hours left to go, and the movie becomes numbing, exhausting, and migraine-inducing. (A great missed opportunity: a scene in which one of the characters twists open a bottle of Excedrin.) Ultimately, Age of Extinction is an endless barrage of nonsense and noise. You almost don’t even care who wins, just that it ends. Bay has said that this film will kick off a second trilogy of Transformers movies — and I think he’s serious. That means there will be (at least) two more of these things. God help us all. D+