Michael Bay films may be loud, dumb, and tasteless, but they’re rarely boring, at least not on the big screen. His flashy, amped-up style packs movies with off-kilter compositions, gonzo effects shots, and bursts of super-saturated color; it stimulates, often at the expense of consistency or coherence. With Transformers: Age Of Extinction, however, he seems to have exhausted himself. The fourth, longest, and flimsiest entry in the director’s signature franchise finds Bay mostly in cruise control, snapping to only when the movie veers away from the “robots fighting in tax-friendly locations” formula—which, unfortunately, isn’t very often.
Age Of Extinction’s sense of creative burnout is amplified by the fact that it follows on the heels of one of Bay’s best (and, not coincidentally, tightest) films, Pain & Gain, a nasty, vigorous movie about the big, dumb American Dream. If Pain & Gain—a long-gestating passion project that seemed to take its narrative and stylistic cues from Casino—showcased all of Bay’s strengths, Age Of Extinction plays like a catalogue of his weaknesses.
Pain & Gain lead Mark Wahlberg stars as Cade Yeager, a Texas inventor who builds robots from spare parts—a role that puts Wahlberg near the top of the pantheon of unconvincing movie scientists. (He even dons glasses. Nice try.) While scavenging an abandoned movie theater—a scene that throws in a dig at Bay’s critics, with Richard Riehle’s theater owner complaining about today’s “sequels, remakes, and reboots” while pointing at a poster for El Dorado—Yeager stumbles upon a beaten-up semi, which turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime.
At this point, it may be necessary to recap the franchise, which, counting Age Of Extinction, runs about as long as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Giant alien robots arrive on Earth and take on the appearance of motor vehicles, transforming into their true forms whenever necessary. The good ones are called Autobots, though not all of them transform into cars. The bad ones are called Decepticons, and their leader is named Megatron. Every movie—including this one—ends with the Autobots looking skyward and declaring that the real battle is still to come. The last battle that wasn’t a “real” battle—the one at the end of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon—left most of the Chicago Loop destroyed. Unsurprisingly, this has made Transformers unpopular with the general public, and, as Age Of Extinction opens, they’re being hunted by a CIA black-ops unit that sells their remains to a Chicago-based company called KSI.
KSI’s style-conscious CEO is Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a kind of double for Yeager and the only interesting character in the history of the franchise. Like Yeager, Joyce is an inventor who works from salvage—in this case the ridiculously named “transformium,” which he extracts from Transformer parts. He is as rich and solitary as Yeager is poor and family-focused, and his clean, white lab is the exact opposite of Yeager’s cluttered makeshift workshop.
The discovery of Optimus Prime turns Yeager and his teenage daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), into fugitives, leading them to Monument Valley, Chicago, and, finally, Hong Kong. At the latter two locales, Yeager, Tessa, and her Irish boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), scramble to hide while the surviving Autobots duke it out with a squad of alien bounty hunters who are working with the CIA.
Dark Of The Moon’s exhaustive destruction of Chicago was the franchise’s high-water mark as special-effects spectacle, an extravaganza of shifting scales, flaming wreckage, and collapsing skyscrapers. Aside from Independence Day, it’s hard to think of another movie that seemed to have more fun destroying a city—a toy room approach that, for once, was completely in line with the franchise’s action figure origins.
Age Of Extinction, on the other hand, is dominated by two comparatively tame, slog-like battle scenes that seem mostly concerned with maintaining a strict one-to-one ratio of extreme low-angle shots to product placements. Bay remains hooked on the former and comically brazen about the latter (at one point, Yeager crashes into a Bud Light truck, gets out, and guzzles down an entire refreshing beer), but the stuff in between feels joyless and impersonal, even with the addition of fire-breathing robot dinosaurs.
The movie perks up when it leaves the burned-out cityscapes and garish colors behind, first at the KSI headquarters (where two pairs of clicking stiletto heels allow Bay to indulge his penchant for off-putting, mechanized sex) and later aboard the bounty hunter’s Giger-esque space ship. The KSI scenes—which suggest that Joyce is a double not just for Yeager, but for Bay himself—are full of self-deprecating digressions on aesthetics and business, designed around elegant black and white lines that are a world away from the franchise’s usual rubble-strewn palette. The spaceship—which features the movie’s most consistent action sequence—is a lavish piece of Alien fan fiction, with every shot angled around the internal architecture’s slithery biomechanical curves. A viewer can’t help but get the feeling that Bay is tired of making Transformers movies. One can only film people pretending to look up at robots for so long.