Here's the thing… you're going to read a lot of reviews of "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" that will exist primarily to give the critic writing the review a chance to entertain other critics. That drives me crazy. Even when a film is as over the top horrifyingly awful as, say, "Winter's Tale," I'll still try to engage with the material, because that's only fair. I may hate everything about it, but if I'm not willing to treat the film with the same level of scrutiny that I treat everything else, then why bother writing about it?
The "Transformers" series so far is, by far, one of the strangest giant franchises in production. I've reviewed all of the films, and I think they are genuinely worthy of examination, not only in the context of Michael Bay's career, but also within the framework that the films have created for these stories. The first film is probably the easiest one to like. It was a fairly clever concept to hang the entire thing on the story of a boy and his first car, which just happens to turn out to be an intergalactic warrior robot who is part of a war that has found its way to Earth. The film is really, really busy, and the story tries so hard that it gets irritating, but it benefits from a handful of solid comic performances and a sense that there is something awesome about these giant shape-shifting mechanical creatures. The second film…
… man, the second film. What can you say? It's a product of the Writer's Guild strike. It went into production without anything like a coherent screenplay. It's jazz as performed by a 14-year-old boy who has porn running on his laptop while playing "Grand Theft Auto 5" on a bigscreen TV. It's wildly stupid. It's got a few solid fight scenes and Shia LaBeouf is doing exactly what they paid him to do again and Megan Fox looks irritated by most of the film except for when she's running for her life from on-set pyrotechnic eruptions. Then she just looks terrified.
The third film is one that I reviewed here at HitFix and then took some heat for from… well, from you, the audience, actually.
And can I digress for a moment? "Transformers" is, in my opinion, the single best brand/IP that Hasbro ever created in-house. I know saying words like "brand" and "IP" is gross, reducing art to things that can be stripped for parts, but this is a toy company first and foremost. When Hasbro took the Diaclone and Micro Change toy lines and mashed them up into one pretty cool thing, they created something they could not possibly have envisioned. They launched Japan's first real toy and commercial invasion, and it basically got a hold of the imaginations of the kids who watched the TV show in America in a particularly vivid way, and it became a kid-level phenomenon.
Until I walked into the giant 3D IMAX theater in downtown Hong Kong, I hadn't really given this film any thought. Even as someone who liked the last one, I'd barely paid any attention to what they had in mind for this film. Overall, I think this is a big step in the right direction. It's visually just as wild as the last few Bay films have been, with the director pushing ILM to their breaking point. It is amazing to me that Bay keeps finding a way to somehow make this these things even bigger than they already naturally are, but he is a man whose career can be seen as a series of escalating aesthetic decisions. He knows that these films exist largely to give fans a chance to watch giant robots beat holy hell out of each ether, and on that front, boy, does he deliver.
I'll say this for the script by Ehren Kruger… there are some big new ideas that this film tries, and they suggest some pretty radical new directions for the series if they pursue those ideas. The film begins several years after the events of "Dark Of The Moon," and the US government appears to be hunting down all remaining Transformers. Autobots. Decepticons. Doesn't matter. We've decided we want all of them off our planet, for good, and there's a fairly brutal scene at the start of the film where Ratchet is torn to pieces by a team of black ops soldiers led by Savoy (Titus Welliver) and assisted by the mysterious Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan), a Transformer who seems to be unlike any Transformer we've met so far in the series.
Seeing how even the good guys are being treated, it makes sense that any other Transformers left on the planet are in hiding. That includes Optimus Prime (played as always by Peter Cullen), who was ambushed and almost killed. He's been trapped in truck mode, damaged almost beyond repair. That's when he is discovered and purchased by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an amateur inventor who is facing financial ruin. He has a side business of refurbishing junk, and when he buys the truck, he has no idea what he actually is. It's only once he does some work on the core unit that seems to fuel the truck that he realizes what he's found. Both his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and his business partner Lucas (T.J. Miller) advise him to turn this renegade robot in to the government, but Cade isn't so sure. By the time he's made his mind up, it's too late. Optimus has been tracked down by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), the guy behind the black ops team. They descend on Cade's farm and are prepared to kill him to find out where he's put Optimus Prime. Optimus can't have that, of course, and when he fights back, it puts Cade and his daughter and Lucas and even his daughter's secret boyfriend Shane (Jack Raynor) in harm's way.
There is a reason that Attinger is willing to help Lockdown murder every last Transformer, of course, and that reason may be tied up with the work being done by a brilliant and slimy inventor played by Stanley Tucci. He's been working with samples of the metal that was recovered from the bodies of the dead Transformers, including the ruined husk that used to be Megatron. He's convinced that he can now build brand-new Transformers, giant robots that he will be able to control. He needs more raw material, though, if he's ever going to really build an army, and Lockdown promises to give him something called "The Seed," which should terraform a huge expanse of any surface on Earth into pure Transformanium.
Boy, does all of that feel silly to type. This script is constantly throwing exposition at the audience, and since this thing runs a full two-and-a-half hours, that means there are new ideas being introduced all the way through. I haven't even gotten into the new Transformers who are introduced, like Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), or Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). I haven't talked about Lockdown's ship, where there is an alien zoo of creatures he's picked up all over the galaxy. I haven't mentioned the biggest new idea in the film, Lockdown's assertion that there is a race of Creators who have decided to reign in the free will of Optimus and the other Transformers, making Lockdown a bounty hunter looking to collect a reward. There is so much going on here that it's sort of exhausting, but that's a feature of these films at this point. They are overkill personified, and if you're expecting anything less than that, you haven't been paying attention.
I think the giant scale action in this one is amazingly staged once again. There are few filmmakers alive who would even try to stage things on a scale like this, much less make it look like something that's sort of effortless. Bayhem just keeps getting better, and he really puts Wahlberg and Pelts and Raynor through the wringer. It feels like he's trying to tap into the same sort of protective parent vibe that so many people love from "Armageddon," and Wahlberg is indeed very earnest as Cade, a man with a name that could only be in a Transformers film. He's game for any of the giant action scenes that Bay throws at him, including a fight on the side of a Hong Kong apartment building that is one of the most clever series of gags in the entire series.
The human story is, unsurprisingly, somewhat labored. But we're spared that weird and icky sense of humor that led to the four-hour subplot in the last film about Ken Jeong and the men's room or John Malkovich on what appears to be a bad ecstasy trip. Tucci's the snide comic relief this time, and he does it very well. There is a lot of the film that is genuinely funny because of Tucci and his reaction to being right at ground zero for this intergalactic war. With a streamlined plot, this could have easily been an hour shorter, and I don't think anyone would complain.
Oh... and did I mention robot dinosaurs? And the prologue where we learned what actually killed the real dinosaurs? Because there are robot dinosaurs. And it is insane.
ILM just keeps getting better and better at bringing the robot characters to life, and there are so many of them now that I'm blown away at just how photo-real they are. This is that same cutting edge that Bay has tried walk with each of these movies, and he demands so much of the visual effects team here that I'll happily overlook a few shots that simply don't work in terms of realism. This is a film that is overstuffed with amazing images, many of them incoherent on a narrative level, but so remarkable that I simply can't get upset about how weird the story is.
Ultimately, these are still just vehicles for the sale of more toys, and Hasbro is poised to clean up once again. My own kids have fallen in love with this series, and I can tell you exactly what they love about it: all the goddamn robots. They don't care about anything else. Each new Transformers film could just be two solid hours of new robot characters walking out and introducing themselves, then jumping into an ongoing fist-fight, and my boys would be perfectly happy with it. It feels to me like "Transformers" is, in many ways, one of the least cynical of the major franchises currently in progress because Bay knows that he's selling a product here, and he sells it with all the slick that he can muster. It is no accident that Bay is a TV commercial maestro. He is very good at selling, and "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" will indeed gets it hooks in deep in its target audience, and toys will fly off shelves, and the series will rake in another mountain of money both domestically and abroad. What I'm really curious about is whether or not they're going to pick up the surprising story threads introduced in the film's final moments when they make the next movie, because it suggests a film that would be utterly unlike anything else in the series so far.
Whatever the case, "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" more than delivers on whatever promises Bay makes to an audience at this point. Giant robots. Giant mayhem. Destruction on a global scale. You know what you're in for if you buy a ticket, and Bay seems determined to wear you down with the biggest craziest "Transformers" movie yet.
"Transformers: Age Of Extinction" opens in theaters June 27, 2014.