After completing the third film, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, three years ago, Michael Bay claimed he was leaving the Transformers behind, apparently to move on to smaller, more personal projects (or at least non-franchise films). His departure as director from the series, however, turned out to be short-lived. One renegotiation later and Bay was back – with a bigger contract and a bigger cut of the gross, of course – to direct the fourth entry, Transformers: Age of Extinction, minus one Shia LaBeouf and plus one Mark Wahlberg, a net gain by most estimates and/or accounts. A new lead and an entirely new cast around, however, didn’t mean a new screenwriter, much to the detriment of Transformers: Age of Extinction. Obviously happy with the work of Ehren Kruger (The Brothers Grimm, The Skeleton Key, The Ring remake, Arlington Road), his screenwriter from the second film on, Bay plunged into production on yet another over-indulgent, distended, mind-numbing sensory assault on non-discriminating moviegoers. Given Bay his due, however. He knows his audience (i.e., non-critics, non-discerning moviegoers) and gives them exactly what they want until their ears and eyes bleed.
Give Bay his due, though. He knows his audience (i.e., non-critics, non-cinephiles) and gives them exactly what they want until their vision blurs and their ears go numb. Even the biggest Transformers fans will admit – or should admit, if they’re being honest with themselves – that each entry has been short on coherent storytelling and recognizably human characters, and long on everything else that’s made Bay the undisputed master of widescreen destruction. No surprise then, that it’s extremely difficult to remember anything about Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon except the climactic, Chicago-destroying battle between the Optimus Prime-led Autobots and the Megatron- and Sentinel Prime-led Decepticons. That battle left Chicago in semi-ruins (quickly repaired in the interim between the third and fourth entries in the series), a shockingly low body count (roughly 1,000 rather than the tens of thousands that would have happened in the real world), and U.S. politicians in xenophobic, anti-Transformers mode (an obvious attempt at topicality … for 2004, not 2014). In response, the feds set up a super-secret Black Ops/CIA team led by an anti-Transformers senior CIA agent, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, channeling his inner Dick Cheney). Prone to post-9/11-inspired rhetoric (all of it stale and overblown), Attinger effectively stands in for every paranoid, right-wing conspiracy theorist found on the Internet and fringe radio. With the government’s resources behind him, Attinger hunts, captures, and turns over Decepticons and Autobots to Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), the Steve Jobs-inspired billionaire head of a tech company, Kinetic Solutions Incorporated (KSI).
Attinger and Joyce eventually cross paths with Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), a perpetually down-on-his-luck, Texan junk dealer and robotics engineer who discovers a beaten up, beaten down Optimus Prime (once again voiced by Peter Cullen) in an abandoned movie theater. Cade initially sees Optimus as an opportunity for a big payday (government reward), but soon changes his mind, allying himself and by extension, his teen daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and her older boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), a racing car driver (if there’s one thing the Transformers series is short on, it’s top-of-the-line cars for auto-fetishists). Anti-progressive when it comes to the representation of women, Bay does nothing differently here, despite the repeated focus on Cade and Tessa’s father-daughter relationship, introducing Tessa in short-shorts (with the usual voyeuristic tracking from the feet up). Bay and Kruger make a running joke of Cade’s creepy obsession with Tessa’s virginity (and the protection thereof), apparently to little avail. During an interlude in the robot fighting, Shane triumphantly pulls out a laminated copy of Texas law covering statutory law (he’s exempt due to a “Romeo & Juliet” exception). The scene is just as off-putting and creepy as it sounds.
Bay and Kruger also include the obligatory comic sidekick (emphasis on sidekick, not comic) in the surfer-dude form of Lucas (T.J. Miller), Cade’s erstwhile business partner and occasional friend. Of course, the Transformers’ series has never been about the human characters. They’re either flesh-and-bone stand-ins, running, jumping, falling, or otherwise getting themselves inadvertently involved in the endless Autobot-Decepticon war or they’re non-random stereotypes inserted periodically for the occasional cringe-inducing laugh. Wahlberg’s hypertrophied, working-class persona helps increase audience identification, but even he’s going through the paycheck-earning motions. Not that there’s anything wrong with earning a paycheck, especially if it opens up the possibility of working on other, more modestly budgeted, more ambitious (narratively, if not visually) films. As for the Transformers franchise, it’s always been about action-figure sales and product placement (as shameless and ubiquitous as ever). In addition to Autobots (some new, of course), Decepticons (mostly absent this time out), and Dinobots (new to the film series), Age of Extinction adds yet another group of Transformers, cultish intergalactic bounty hunters led by Lockdown (Mark Ryan), a ruthless, reactionary leader who likes to pontificate about “creators.” Lockdown transforms into a gigantic, mega-destructive gun, a near perfect representation of the series’ dubious militaristic ethos.
Leaving no potential dollar unearned, Bay, the cast, and his crew decamped to China and Hong Kong for the last hour, less due to a logical, narrative-driven reason than to avoid China’s strict quota system for foreign-made films. Shooting and setting Transformers: Age of Extinction in China/Hong Kong gave the producers a way to make an end run around China’s quota system. Chances are, the next entry in the series (the second in another planned trilogy) will also take place, at least in part, in China. Given an open ending that borrows liberally (or cannibalizes if you’re being less kind) from Prometheus, the series promises (or is it threatens?) to go Marvel-inspired cosmic with the next entry. Wherever the series goes next, however, non-discerning moviegoers will surely follow.