There have already been a lot of pleasant surprises this summer, especially in how some old favorites have found new life. Godzilla and Tom Cruise returned to prove they can still anchor a good old fashioned thrill ride, while 22 Jump Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past and How To Train Your Dragon 2 showed that not all summer sequels have to be derivative.
But of course, just when there was hope that Hollywood can breathe good life back into summer franchises, Michael Bay and his version of the Transformers have arrived with their counterargument. At the very least, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the most ironic title of the franchise, since Bay just does not know when to let things end.
Technically, this is a Transformers reboot, now that Shia LaBeouf is too busy plagiarizing short stories and getting arrested on Broadway to fight with the Autobots. In fact, no humans are fighting with Optimus Prime and company, as the world has turned on all Transformers after the destruction of Chicago in Dark of the Moon. A bitter Optimus takes refuge in Texas, where aspiring but broke inventor and father Cade Yeager finds him in rundown truck form. By the time he figures out what he’s found, Cade has a secret CIA task force – complete with vicious Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown – on his tail. Once Optimus rescues Cade, his daughter and her boyfriend, they and the last remaining Autobots discover the threat doesn’t end there – and includes a robotics company, an element called Transformium, a reincarnated Megatron, and the Transformers’ very creators. There’s even room for robot dinosaurs by the time the third hour is over.
Bay was on his best behavior – or what passes for it – with Pain and Gain and new Transformers leading man Mark Wahlberg last year. Since he actually went one entire movie without blowing up $200 million worth of CGI, it seems he’s decided to fall back off the wagon with a vengeance as a treat. Once he starts Age of Extinction by depicting the truth behind why dinosaurs went extinct – in what ultimately brings back memories of Prometheus, of all films – it’s clear that Bay is back in his insane, eye rolling element.
Admittedly, the IMAX 3D does work wonders in that scene, and in a few others. Once Optimus returns, Bay and writer Ehren Kruger get fair mileage out of making him more broken, bitter and less eager to save humanity – although Optimus was already getting pretty bloodthirsty by Dark of the Moon anyway. The fact viewers can actually tell the difference between the non Optimus/Bumblebee Autobots this time is also a mild plus – even if one of them is Bay’s latest borderline racist caricature [in this case, a Ken Watanabe voiced Samurai bot] and another is a robotic cigar chomper with the voice and build of John Goodman. And there are some visual thrills in the sheer gigantic space of Lockdown’s ship as it hovers over poor Chicago.
But by the time those moments come, it truly sets in that Transformers: Age of Extinction still has over an hour left to go. From then on in, Bay’s lack of knowledge about what editing is – to say nothing of Kruger’s – is more punishing than ever before. All told, the four Transformers movies now have a combined length of over 10 hours, although virtually no one other than Bay and Paramount Studios execs can really argue why.
Bay has never been one for restraint, which was one thing when his Transformers movies were close to two-and-a-half hours long. It’s quite another with Age of Extinction going up to 165 minutes, and feeling like it is well over three hours. What’s more, Bay and Kruger borrow the worst trends of other superhero action movies, in that they are overloaded with villains and basically become giant teasers for even more bloated epics to come. By the time Transformers 6 comes along, audiences will be lucky if it isn’t three-and-a-half hours long at this rate.
Before the length becomes too oppressive, however, Bay and Kruger’s biggest sin is merely with their new human characters. While Wahlberg is a big leap forward from LaBeouf on paper in every way, and did great goofy macho work with Bay in Pain and Gain, he is given absolutely no favors at all in Transformers land. Beyond getting the most mockable character name of the summer in Cade Yaeger – even topping Ford Brody in Godzilla – Wahlberg is saddled with all the most annoying, hypocritical clichés of an insanely overprotective dad.
Worse yet, it makes Bay more hypocritical than ever in still leering over young women more than cars, this time over 19-year-old Nicola Peltz and her 17-year-old character Tessa — even with her boyfriend ‘innocently’ pointing out the law that makes her legal in Texas. It becomes hard to remember that Tessa even has an upper body at times, considering all the leg she’s showing in the first half. But the family dynamic isn’t much more bearable once they leave Texas and she puts on a pair of long pants.
In fact, by the time Cade goes into full on, barking mad dad mode when Tessa struggles to walk across a giant midair anchor, Bay has done the impossible and made us actually miss LaBeouf and Megan Fox. For that matter, when Imagine Dragons plays over the climactic fight scene, it almost makes one long for Transformers soundtracks laced with Linkin Park. When thoughts like that sound plausible, one knows something is really wrong.
Although Wahlberg, Peltz and Jack Reynor are utterly defeated by Bay’s direction and Kruger’s script, Stanley Tucci at least gets to entertain with his most over-the-top freakouts since his climactic scene from The Core, while Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver get to add some real human menace. But as usual, the most notable Transformers performer is durable vocal veteran Peter Cullen, now 30 years into voicing Optimus. It’s also welcome to hear original Megatron voice Frank Welker pop up to voice new incarnation Galvatron, although it’s a gesture about three movies late.
To be fair with Transformers: Age of Extinction, little on its own qualifies as the worst of the series, save for the patience testing Yaeger family drama and having a few subplots too many. Bay blows up everything in over the top fashion, but that is by the numbers for him – and is almost more dull than anything else by now, even with Dinobots and new versions of Decepticons.
If Bay and Kruger had cut all this down to at least around two hours, Transformers: Age of Extinction could have got away with just being the same old, same old. But because they insist on padding out material that in no way needs to be padded out – to a point that gives the Pirates of the Caribbean and Hobbit franchises a major run for their money – it’s hard to give them much more mercy than they show their own audience.
Perhaps Bay has more trouble with the even numbered movies in this franchise, which might promise some competency for Transformers 5, just like with the original and Dark of the Moon. But if he lets Kruger or any other screenwriter fill three more hours with annoying daddy-daughter-boyfriend triangles, gadgets like “the seed” “Transformium” and unseen homicidal robot gods, and waiting until hour number three to spend another hour destroying a major city, it’ll be more clear that the “restrained” Pain and Gain Bay is too extinct for even Transformer technology to revive.
There have been old summer friends that have found new ways to survive and adapt this year, with the rulers of the Planet of the Apes looking likely to join them in two weeks. However, Michael Bay and his Transformers still appear doomed to be a critical punching bag for as long as possible – with an emphasis on long.