by Philip Price
Is escapism really that if the relief we seek turns out to be just as unpleasant as the reality? It is questions such as this that begin to seep into your mind during the exhausting, nearly three-hour experience that is “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Director Michael Bay has no intentions of creating anything other than grand escapism here in that this is not a film intended for a specific audience or niche, but is mass appeal in the largest sense possible. The thing about Bay that most people hate is that he has the mentality of a 12 year-old boy and composes his films from that perspective while being technically proficient. While there will be those who ask what might be wrong with the imagination of a pre-teen boy splattered across an IMAX screen the answer is technically, nothing, but might result in some incohesive story elements and slight exploitation of the young female body. There are stereotypes thrown around here from time to time, but the racism has been dialed back considerably from the truly messy second installment, ‘Revenge of the Fallen.’ There is no mention of Sam Witwicky anywhere and thus there is no forced feeling of having to evolve that character from where we saw him last allowing for the new humans to simply exist in order to aid the giant robots in whatever quest they are out to achieve this time. The film is unnecessarily, even punishingly long in that you'll be sitting in the theater for over three hours if you arrive early and catch the previews. Bay could have easily kept this at a strict two hours while providing some solid entertainment, some stunning visuals and a story the majority of us could follow with ease, but he doesn't. Bay is not one to avoid indulgence and so what we have actually been given is an over-complicated version of a rather simple story that in being so big forgets the little things such as a reason for shoe-horning in robot dinosaurs. To be fair, ‘Age of Extinction’ is in some ways an improvement over the last two films in that Bay seems to try and take the criticisms he's given and apply them to improving his work (the streamlined story, the less distracting human characters) yet in the end it more or less feels like we're watching the same things we've already seen before.
Picking up five years after the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons that leveled Chicago, the government believes all alien robots to be a threat. As a result, CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has established a unit whose sole purpose is to hunt down all of them. This "secret unit" of course holds a twist in that Attinger and his right-hand man Savoy (Titus Welliver) have partnered with a mysterious alien robot who is searching for Optimus Prime as well as having planted some kind of seed on our planet when the dinosaurs roamed. That's not even the best part though, you see, because not only is Attinger hunting down and killing Decepticons, but he is also after the Autobots. Attinger's belief is that humans never should have partnered with the robots at all and to sustain peace from here on out and avoid another Chicago scenario that every single one of them needs to be sought out and destroyed. Thus, we meet Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) an inventor and "robotics expert" from Texas who one day stumbles on an old truck and upon taking a closer look realizes what he may have on his hands might not only be a Transformer in hiding, but their leader Optimus Prime (again voiced by Peter Cullen). The fear the government has placed in the general public seeps into Yeager's partner, Lucas (T.J. Miller), who reports the whereabouts of Optimus resulting in a visit from Savoy and his boys to the Yeager ranch. This forces Cade, his abouot to graduate daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) on the run and to naturally join forces with the remaining Autobots that include Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio) and of course Bumblebee. You think the mysterious alien race who is assisting Attinger in his quest and has struck a deal to give the humans this much-hyped "seed" in exchange for Optimus is enough though? Well, Bay doesn't. Enter Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) a defense contractor and President of technology company KSI (Kinetic Solutions Incorporated) that is taking the scraps of Transformers destroyed in the battle of Chicago and re-imaging them into man-made Transformers such as Galvatron (Frank Welker) who has the soul of Megatron. Bad news.
Even with everything that is going on here it still manages to somehow feel less like a bunch of stuff being thrown at you and instead has some semblance of a point. As an audience we at least have a likable conduit into the action in the form of Wahlberg's Yeager and we understand the main, overarching goal of the film and its multiple characters. Where the film fails is in its need to jumble the smaller details throughout that create a mess of questions that get in the way of a simple answer. Not until now, when I've been forced to sit back and recall exactly what I thought of the film and the justifications for those thoughts, have I really began to understand the reasoning for all the little caveats included in this movie except for the dinosaurs. So, the film opens on a gorgeous prehistoric earth where dinosaurs roam as it is descended upon by ships that scorch the earth insinuating the extinction of any life on the planet. Cut to Antarctica in present day and we see what is eventually revealed to be one of Joyce's many assistants reporting to a site where the skeleton of a metal dinosaur has been unearthed. From there, we move onto the easy-feeling, warm colored Texas skies and meet our main protagonists that fail to address anything about the dinosaur element until the last half hour of the film when Optimus calls on help from these "legends" to which he tames and climbs aboard and proceeds to ride into downtown Hong Kong. It is beyond silly and to a certain extent we can't help but feel like Bay is testing just how far he can push things while still raking in as much cash as his studio expects this kind of entertainment to make. To say ‘Age of Extinction’ is ridiculous is an understatement, but it is hard to be mad or even come up with a typical review or take on a film like this when nearly everything about it is so impressive. When I say that it is impressive I mean that while it overall, and certainly on initial viewing, feels like a mess there is a fair amount of elements here that hold it together; the most compelling of which are the monstrous visuals Bay has put together. Bay is a director of overexposed stills patched together to form a moving picture. Bay loves the staging and composition of shots to which he can create the most epic of feelings so that your reaction is in awe and even in the simplest of insert shots here he is working on a grand scale.
As an enthusiast of film who revels in the ability of a director who can show rather than tell I have always had a soft-spot for the visual stylings of Bay and how fearless he is in going for the money shot and holding on it while basically telling the audience they need to soak this in. By this point he has built such an extensive library of tricks, favorite angles and camera movements that he could no doubt make a movie like this in his sleep and at certain times, for longer than necessary stretches, it can feel that way. It is when his movie enters the large cities or the freeways that things get exceptional though. The pure advancement of how seamless the interaction between both robots vs. robots and the humans and the robots is astonishing, but when you have Wahlberg, Peltz and Reynor suspended between a Chicago skyscraper and an alien spaceship, ready to fall as Bumblebee jumps out to save them, and it is captured with such clarity and scale you see the wonder Bay is truly capable of capturing and even if you hate the rest of the film you kind of have to appreciate those moments. After teaming up with Wahlberg in last year’s sorely underrated Pain & Gain Bay was also smart enough to extend an invitation to the actor, who is arguably one of the few bankable "names on a poster" these days, to anchor his fourth installment. As Yeager, Wahlberg gives his best "everyman" performance allowing for the audience to trust the guy immediately and for us to buy his drive in making things right if not for any personal reasons, but simply for the fact he is a good guy. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who has been with the franchise since ‘Revenge of the Fallen’) has changed up the dynamics of the humans to great effect while Peltz is surprisingly able to transcend Bay's capitalization of her female assets and create some kind of sympathy for her character while Reynor doesn't so much register as he does try too hard. Bay is once again able to round up extremely credible talent such as Grammer and Tucci to elevate this material into realms it doesn't deserve while Tucci especially loves chewing the scenery here.
‘Age of Extinction’ is far too long and only creates Tucci's character in order to set-up an antagonist for the inevitable fifth film. The film is redundant to the point it beats the audience over the head with explosions. Sans Wahlberg and Tucci there isn't much of an emotional connection or attachment to the characters or what they are taking part in here. Unless one is well-versed in the Transformers universe it is still difficult to tell which robots are good and which are bad at certain points and the characterizations of these robots only seem to be getting more outlandish (here's looking at you, Hound). These are all valid complaints with which I would agree. Still, there is something to be said for a film that can go on for nearly three hours and not be considered boring or lose your attention if not for trying to figure out what the hell is actually going on, but for it's sweeping, beautiful visuals and cacophony of soundtrack, metal clanging, bombs going off and people screaming and yelling that ultimately results in a senses overload. Bay and his Transformers may not highlight the deeper senses of human existence (though the Transformers existence is a relevant theme here), but at least his films make general audiences feel that the money they spent on the ticket and concessions was likely justified if not in a sophisticated way but in that of pure, sometimes exhausting, escapism kind of way.