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Just when the summer of 2014 seemed to break free of the pabulum that frequents movie theaters this time of year, Michael Bay and his Transformers franchise arrive to dumb down and ruin the fun.
Not that summer blockbusters are known for their intelligence, but even by the low IQ standards of the three previous Transformers films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is grave and exceptionally stupid, with a plot as bewildering and incoherent as a caffeinated 5-year-old’s explanation of the multiverse theory.
Filmed partially in Detroit and Monroe County, the movie opens 65 million years in Earth’s past with the arrival of a fleet of Transformers ships, which proceed to wipe out the dinosaurs and take over the world. But for reasons that are never explained, they fail to do so. Not that it matters: The point of this sequence is to explain the origin of the Dinobots — Transformers that change into robotic prehistoric beasts like a T-rex and Triceratops — which make their debut late in the third act, just as the heroes need help.
And from the dinosaurs Age of Extinction leaps to present-day East Texas, where an inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is struggling to keep his farm and take care of his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, replacing Megan Fox as eye-candy in short-shorts and tight jeans).
Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Kruger. A Paramount release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Running time: 2:45
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo
Critic’s rating: ★½
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor.
Wahlberg’s slightly Boston accent doesn’t jive with Cade’s Texas roots. Even less believable is the actor as a muscled inventor and robotics expert. Still, when it comes to action sequences, he’s a step up from Shia LaBeouf as the main human hero, whose life changes after discovering that a beat-up semi truck he bought for scrap is none other than Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots.
It hasn’t been easy for Optimus and his crew, either. Since they defeated Megatron and the evil Decepticons in 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and destroyed much of Chicago in the process, the world has turned against the heroic robot warriors. An elite CIA force is hunting down and killing them, and now only a handful of Autobots remain, including fan-favorite Bumblebee, along with a cigar-chomping army vehicle named Hound (voice of John Goodman) and a robot samurai named Drift (voice of Ken Watanabe) that transforms into an attack helicopter.
This sinister group is run by a ruthless former CIA agent named Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, putting his commanding voice and presence to good use as a menacing villain), who answers to no one but multibillionaire inventor Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, who likewise makes for a nasty bad guy, until his character is reduced to comic relief). They are partners in a business venture in which the latter is using technology from dead Autobots and Decepticons to build an army of Transformers to save us from future alien invasions.
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Also part of Attinger and Joyce’s team is a deadly Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (voice of Mark Ryan), who’s on Earth to capture Optimus and return him to their home world.
When Attinger discovers that Optimus is hiding in Cade’s barn, he sends his special forces (led by Titus Welliver of Lost) — all of whom dress entirely in black, so they must be evil — and Lockdown to retrieve him. Once the special forces arrive, the Yeagers agree to help Optimus, and luckily for them Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor, who, like Peltz, is an obvious actor replacement, in this case for LaBeouf) happens to be an amateur race car driver, an invaluable skill for the next 10 minutes as they try to escape the pursuing government vehicles.
From this point forward, Age of Extinction descends into a repetitious bore of chase sequences, CGI battles, jokes, and comments about Tessa and Lucas’s relationship, baked into a puzzling mythology taken far too seriously for a movie based on toy robots.
Presumably, the point of this fourth Transformers — other than siphoning even more money from audiences worldwide — was a fresh start, including swapping LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky) and all of the actors from the first Transformers trilogy for a new cast.
But humans — at least, those whose last names aren’t Bay — were never the problem with the Transformers films. Rather, it’s that they’re movies doubling as product placement (not only the Transformers toys by Hasbro, but GM cars as well) that aren’t treated as such.
Dark of the Moon, for its many faults, was the first — and so far only — Transformers film to embrace that reality. As such, screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who also wrote Age of Extinction, was free to move the story forward with minimal distractions and keep the plot relatively light. As a result, for all its onscreen madness, Dark of the Moon gleefully reveled in its big-action stupidity and flaunted a “I‘d like to see you top this” mentality. Dumb and fun.
Age of Extinction is still dumb, but it’s far too serious to be fun.
Bay, never one for subtlety, as usual spares no expense in delivering the loud CGI-on-steroids action for which he’s known.
The difference this time is that Kruger treats the Transformers mythology as if it carries dramatic importance, that the history of these big robots and why they’re fighting really matter. To counter that dramatic weight, he throws in one-liners and a subplot about the Yeagers’ father-daughter relationship, but the jokes routinely fall flat and the film’s emotional tugs are clunky, and unnecessarily extend a nearly three-hour-long movie that feels every minute of it.