Transformers: Age of Extinction is nearly three hours long. (It runs two hours and 45 minutes, to be exact.) Can we start there? When I saw how long this movie was, it seemed like a challenge to the audience. I almost didn’t want to see this thing.
I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about seeing the fourth installment of Michael Bay’s Transformers saga anyway, as I thought the last two movies — 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen and 2011’s Dark of the Moon — were incoherent messes that pummeled the eyes and ears of anyone who watched them.
Whether it was Bay’s quick-cut style, plots just meant to hold action scenes together, characters that were terribly uninteresting, or robots whose designs were snarled up with so much metallic clutter that it was nearly impossible to tell what they were doing on screen, the films were borderline unwatchable — even just as pure special-effects spectacles.
Bay is one of the most self-indulgent directors working today, and a 165-minute movie doesn’t indicate he was showing much restraint with his latest endeavor. But then again, we’re talking about a summer blockbuster whose marketing campaign was built around Optimus Prime riding a robot dinosaur while holding a giant sword. So holding anything back was never going to be part of the equation.
Please understand that I’m not looking down my nose at movies like this. If you’ve read my reviews here at The AP Party or follow me on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve made it clear that I love big summer movies based on the toys and comic books I enjoyed as a kid.
I grew up watching the Transformers cartoons and played with those action figures. I loved the idea that we were getting live-action, big-screen versions of the battle between giant robots that turned into cars, trucks, jets, helicopters and cassette tapes. If I drive by a car with an Autobots or Decepticons logo, I’ll try to give an approving nod of affirmation. Let that geek flag fly!
Maybe that nostalgia for the Transformers is another reason I haven’t liked these movies. (Though I enjoy the first one, if for no other reason than giant transforming robots were on the movie screen.) There’s nothing particularly noble about the heroes or devious about the villains.
Optimus Prime comes across more like a batshit-crazy homicidal maniac who decapitates his enemies when they ask for mercy, ripping out their spines or slicing them in half. Sure, that’s badass, but it’s hardly heroic or inspiring. It feels like each movie catches that in the end and gives Prime a droning monologue in which he talks about defending the people of Earth and fighting villainy — just to remind viewers (especially the children!) that the unhinged, ruthless killing machine they’ve just watched for the past two-plus hours is supposed to be the good guy.
So is Transformers: Age of Extinction any better than its recent predecessors? Well, I’d argue that it actually is. The action is easier to follow (at least until the end, when Bay throws everything against the wall like he typically does) because the robots have a sleeker, more humanoid design. The story is more coherent, though it kind of veers off uncontrollably into a few directions by the third act.
The human villain — played by Kelsey Grammer — has some valid motivation, heading a CIA black ops outfit tasked with exterminating these aliens to protect the human race (or, at least, America). The robot villain, Lockdown, wants to wipe out humanity and remake Earth into a planet more suitable for his species. And the other sort-of bad guy, a Steve Jobs-alike played by Stanley Tucci, wants to use the alien’s raw materials (which he unfortunately dubs “Transformium”) to create the technology that’s never been created before.
Bringing in Mark Wahlberg to take over as the lead was a good idea that freshens up the franchise, as Shia LeBeouf’s character had been played out (and his offscreen antics have made him increasingly unlikable).
Yes, Wahlberg’s backstory of being a widowed single father raising a teenage daughter is tapped for sap, though his overprotectiveness does create some humor. You also have to buy into Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager being an inventor and tinkerer who tries to make ends meet by repairing his neighbors’ broken electronics, but is just one great innovation away from cashing in, paying off his mortgage and putting his daughter through college.
Yeager is a down-on-his-luck, barnyard Tony Stark who spends all of his time tinkering with gadgets in his barn. And we know he’s smart because he occasionally wears glasses. Yet Yeager also has the jacked-up physique of Mark Wahlberg, whose arms straining against the sleeves of his t-shirts are their own special effect. Just in case we doubt that he couldn’t build up those superhero muscles, we see him drinking a plant protein shake later in the movie.
Regardless, Wahlberg is someone who can carry a film, who we’re willing to follow for more than two hours, even if he eventually has to play sidekick to Optimus Prime and his traveling gang of Autobots. He was great in Bay’s last movie, Pain & Gain, and clearly doesn’t mind the director blowing all kinds of shit up around him real good to get those beautiful shots on screen.
I do think that Bay gets a bad rap as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with American movies. Yes, these Transformers movies are largely ridiculous and he seemed to make Pearl Harbor just for the money shot of the camera following the first bomb dropped from a Japanese fighter plane.
But Bay is really good at what he does, creating some of the best, coolest action seen on screen during the past 20 years. (I also think The Island is criminally underrated and deserves your attention.) Every one of his movies have iconic imagery, filled with sunsets, American flags and soaring jets. The man can film a car chase scene. Hell, the Transformers movies are car porn. They’ve surely sold a bunch of Camaros over the past seven years.
Bay might actually be too good at what he does, so much so that he becomes a parody of himself. Does he think it looks cool when he puts the camera right up to Nicola Peltz’s ass with her shorts cut all the way up her leg? Or is that done with a wink, because he knows it’s what his audience — perhaps even his detractors — expects? Bay just might not be able to help himself.
Then again, who says he has to? Bay doesn’t care about what the critics think. I’m not even sure he cares what moviegoers think, so long as he gets to do what he does and audiences buy bunches of tickets. He’s not trying to create deep, meaningful drama that wins Academy Awards. He unleashes spectacle. These movies are hugely successful. Are we not entertained?
If you’ve enjoyed the previous Transformers movies, you will undoubtedly have fun with this latest one. If you like big, loud, widescreen action with clashing robots, massive explosions and wooden acting that makes your eyes boggle and your ears rattle, you will love Transformers: Age of Extinction. I was with this movie for two hours. But then it goes on for another 45 minutes.
Ultimately, this movie doesn’t feel like anything different — yes, even with the robot dinosaurs — because the filmmakers are ultimately giving us more of the same. There’s obviously no reason for Paramount to change a winning formula. But producers did see the need to reboot the cast to keep the franchise fresh. It’s too bad they didn’t take the same approach behind the camera.
I’d love to see a Transformers film directed by someone else besides Bay and written by someone instead of Ehren Kruger (who just seems to crap these scripts out), with a whole new team of designers and CGI artists. Maybe we’ll get that eventually. That’s when I’ll be excited about one of these movies again, maybe even if it’s nearly three hours long.