Appropriately for a franchise centering on robots with the ability to dramatically change their appearance, the Transformers stories have evolved from a small toy line and gently absurd comic—created, on Hasbro’s order, to provide a new American narrative involving pre-existing toy molds from Japan—into a series of four increasingly gargantuan feature films directed by Michael Bay.
Really, it hardly seems appropriate to call Transformers: Age of Extinction a “movie” at all. It’s more akin to an IMAX symphony: a symphony in the mode of Mahler, sprawling and clamoring, disdaining conventional niceties of structure and development in favor of its own logic of scaffolded, massive happenings.
There’s a plot, but there might as well not be: it’s clear that Bay is not going to be bound by time, place, or character when it comes to doing precisely what he wants to do with $165 million. For the fifth Transformers film, Bay really ought to abandon a conventional plot altogether and just make a three-hour battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron (now Galvatron, in an increasingly rare nod to the first-generation continuity).
Then, we could be spared the mockery of character development we’re subjected to in Age of Extinction, as hot-single-dad Cade (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to let go of hot-teen-daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). We could also let go of the ethnic stereotypes that, in what I can only interpret as an anti-PC fuck-you, are actually dialed up from the original comics and cartoons. We used to have the black Transformer, the Brooklyn Transformer, and the British Transformer; now we have the Samurai Transformer (Ken Watanabe), the Hogan’s Heroes Transformer (John Goodman), and the exaggeratedly black Transformer (Reno Wilson).
What makes Age of Extinction compelling, in its way, is Bay’s total commitment to spectacle. As Transformers and humans slide down buildings, jet into the stratosphere, and barrel through countless windows, Bay’s camera flits around like a paparazzo. There are a lot of flying shards of things in Age of Extinction, and the motion frequently slows down so we can fully appreciate the detail of Bay’s digital creations. Even the light seems computer-generated: 3D lens flares seem as tangible as beach balls.
I say “spectacle” rather than “thrills” or “excitement,” because though the tempo of Age of Extinction is consistently high (except in the excruciating scenes of would-be family drama, as Walhberg makes wincingly meta references to his daughter’s tiny Daisy Dukes), Bay—seemingly by choice—foregoes almost every opportunity to create a genuinely suspenseful situation.
Only one scene, as Walhberg is chased down the terraced exterior of a Hong Kong apartment complex by a CIA officer, is sufficiently anchored in tangible space and time for the audience to become invested in what falls where; another promising scene, as humans crawl along vertiginously high moorings between a spaceship and the Sears Tower, disintegrates into jump cuts and whiny, gendered dialogue (Dad, Boyfriend, and Daughter venture forth; guess which one gets scared? Bingo!) until a Transformer comes along to bring us back to our regularly scheduled commotion.
Towards the end, the super-size Dinobots are summoned, but they’re almost incidental: the climactic showpiece of the film is a sequence that has a powerful spaceship sucking ships and cars up into its maw, then dropping them several hundred feet to rain down on the implausibly lucky human characters below. The soundtrack throbs and buzzes, theater seats shaking as objects the size of small skyscrapers pound against the ground. To continue the symphonic simile, this is Bay’s Ode to Joy.
Transformers: Age of Extinction represents Michael Bay turning the Michael-Bay to 11. It’s an extreme film, and moviegoers looking for this particular brand of extreme experience won’t want to miss it. Moviegoers looking for an actual movie may want to look elsewhere.