'Transformers: Age of Extinction': Film Review

Occasional glimpses of hope for a fresh reboot are extinguished by a generally bloated and dull spectacle.

Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci head a completely new (human) cast in Michael Bay's fourth installment of the intergalactic robot film series.

"The age of the Transformers is over," announces counterintelligence agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) in the fourth entry of the Paramount/Hasbro-backed fighting-robots film series. But don't you believe it: He's the villain of the piece, and, given Paramount's recent announcement that a fifth installment will ship in 2016, it's clear the mutating androids' reign, onscreen and at the box office, is far from finished.

Some viewers, though, will probably side with Attinger as they leave theaters after Transformers: Age of Extinction finally draws to a close. True, there's a lot of state-of-the-art 3D chicanery, and the film is a marked improvement over the wholesale inhuman chaos of the last two installments, 2009's Revenge of the Fallen and 2011's Dark of the Moon. But the bloat of this latest entry — at 165 minutes, the longest of the lot — suggests that Michael Bay and his team are struggling to rejuvenate the whole premise.

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Despite boasting an entirely new human cast and many a new onscreen mechanical warrior, plus a half-hour grand finale set in very different Hong Kong locales, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn't the breath of fresh air vitally needed by an aging franchise. No matter that these films set the tills ringing — all things come to an end, and if this is a reboot, Extinction promises the series will go out with more of a whimper than a bang further down the line. Still, the current film is very well-placed to rake it in big time in China and could surpass Dark of the Moon's record takings.

Sadly, Age of Extinction is neither controversial nor disturbing, but mostly just dull and middling — which is just so not done with a sci-fi action blockbuster designed to blast and titillate. It has neither the first film's sporadic comedic pleasures born of the interactions between its humans and robots, nor does it attain the hyper-sensationalism that makes the second and third installments utterly over-the-top showcases of gratuitous demolition.

It's perhaps not a good sign that Ehren Kruger's screenplay is laced with a slew of ironic, self-reflexive gags about the film's premise and its director. In an early scene, a former cinema operator laments how "crap" sequels bring disrepute and ruin to the business; later, a camera-wielding geek is heard dissing Armageddon — one of the hits that cemented Bay's standing as an ace in unleashing onscreen mayhem. Such attempts at whipping up a cheap laugh reflect a lack of confidence in the film overall. In the same way, the script aims for kudos in its allusions to John Ford when the honorable robots team up in iconic Monument Valley, and Stanley Kubrick when, in the opening scene, a prehistoric, dinosaur-populated Earth is visited — and decimated — by a phalanx of alien warships.

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Though converging fanboys may not tune in to The Searchers or 2001: A Space Odyssey homages, they should connect to the broad sentiments shaping Age of Extinction: that times (in the U.S., at least) are tough, the government is bad, and men (and only men) should fight for their heath, home and automobile. All this is embodied in Bay's new protagonist, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Unlike the middle-class, suburban Sam Witwicky — whose mix-up with the Transformers began when he bought a flashy car to fish for a hot date — Cade is a broke Texan who gets into trouble buying a patched-up truck he intends to dismantle and sell off to pay the rent and future college fees of his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz).

But the vehicle is none other than Optimus Prime (again voiced by Peter Cullen), the leader of the Autobots. Set several years after Dark of the Moon, in which the Decepticons were defeated by the human-robot alliance, Optimus and his world-saving colleagues have been shunned by those in power for being a threat. They are hunted down by Black Ops squadrons led by Attinger and Captain Savoy (Titus Welliver), not to mention the harrowing Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan). Their patriotic veneer naturally conceals a darker motive — they are hocking parts of the captured robots to Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs-like egomaniac hoping to build "better" Transformers.

What follows is a de rigueur runaround as the good guys (with Tessa now joined by her race car-driver boyfriend, Shane, played by Jack Reynor) are caught and freed a couple of times in the midst of screaming and carnage. They then travel to Hong Kong, where they join their robot friends in pursuit of Joyce and his dangerous energy source.

Being the only character whose personality arc actually changes within the film, Tucci is given a wealth of opportunities to ham it up, just like John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand have done before; his clownish antics while racing for survival in a Hong Kong tenement block are probably the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, Wahlberg is given far less space to maneuver. His troubled interactions with Tessa and barbed exchanges with Shane are cliched or underwritten, and his ability to morph into a bazooka-wielding warrior ("This alien gun can really kick ass!") limits his register further.

Maybe it's no surprise that the robots keep asking each other why they should care about these silly humans. The clatter of metallic mano a mano remains Bay's calling card, while the robot dialogue (from the good guys, at that) includes lines like "Die, bitch!" or "This one's for you, A-hole!" as they cannonade their targets into, well, extinction.

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Even when the action switches to Hong Kong — a twist designed to qualify the film for Chinese co-production status and a bigger slice of the Asian box-office pie — the noise never abates. Though basically superfluous, the last 40 minutes of the film should please the Chinese co-financiers, including the state-owned China Movie Channel, as well as the authorities. For a change, there are no Chinese villains and the one significant local character, Joyce's English-speaking deputy Su Yueming (Li Bingbing, Resident Evil: Retribution), is presented as a swish executive and a dexterous fighter who saves her American boss. The fictional Chinese defense minister can also be heard proclaiming the country's ability to protect Hong Kong, as he promises to send fighter jets to the city in a show of Beijing's military might. 

True, the film never actually shows the jets being dispatched to fight: Age of Extinction is, like all the other Transformers films, not about details but about the grand scheme of things. Its grandiose mission statement is, "The biggest robots fighting the biggest fights" — and it does the job by reducing everything to a drone. Aurally, Steve Jablonsky's nearly omnipresent musical score merges with the sounds of CGI pyrotechnics in one giant cacophony. Visually, the product placements eventually begin to blur, and not even the glimpse of a Chinese bank's ATM in the middle of Texas or the meaningless scene of Joyce drinking a Chinese soft drink while being pursued by deadly killing machines comes as much of a surprise.

Belying its ominous title, Age of Extinction barely skirts the idea that humankind and planet Earth are about to be totally annihilated. What is extinguished is the audience's consciousness after being bombarded for nearly three hours with overwrought emotions ("There's a missile in the living room!" Tessa hollers — twice), bad one-liners and battles that rarely rise above the banal. A trio of editors make a technical marvel out of the fight scenes, but can do little to link the story's multiple threads into something coherent.

Production companies: A Paramount Pictures presentation in association with Hasbro of a Di Bonaventura Pictures, Tom DeSanto/Don Murphy production
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro's 'Transformers' Action Figures
Producers: Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner, Mark Vahradian
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Costume designer: Marie-Sylvie Deveau
Editors: William Goldenberg, Roger Barton, Paul Rubell
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Special effects supervisor: John Frazier
Rated PG-13, 165 minutes