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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Transformers Age of Extinction Review: Punishing and Soul-Suckingly Long

Any hope for a fresh reboot of the franchise is extinguished by a bloated runtime and generally dull effects.


With three highly divisive Transformers films behind us, one was hoping Director Michael Bay would introduce a new world of sentient robots and situations that would reinvigorate what was beginning to feel like old hat. Poor acting? Check. Over-the-top CGI that was hard to follow? Check. Poor storytelling and a general sense that the right hand was robbing the left hand blind? Check again. Sadly, Transformers: Age of Extinction is just more of the same, except with new actors to muck up the lines and a nearly three-hour mess that will leave a dull feeling in your brain.


With The Battle of Chicago five years in the past, the country has decided that Autobots and Decipticons should be kicked off the planet or face annihilation. Through a series of raids, an elite black ops squad are employed to take down both sides with the help of the mysterious Transformer Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan). But, there's a reason for the attacks: a robotics company headed by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) has aligned with ops director Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) to build their own Transformers using the bodies of fallen robots. Meanwhile, deep in Texas the struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg) rescues a beat-up semi truck he hopes to tear down to sell for scrap. What he doesn't realize is that the truck is none other than Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), who's badly injured, trusts no human, and has no way of reaching his fellow Autobots. As Cade and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) struggle with this information, the ops team descends on their home to take Prime in. Forced to run, Cade, Tessa, and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) ally with Optimus, who gathers the remaining Autobots for yet another violent showdown. There, new alliances will be forged when everyone learns that their real target is the not-quite-dead and plotting Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker).

Despite promising something new, Director Michael Bay delivers much of the old, filling in the cracks on the old barn door and re-painting it rather than buying a whole new one. Sure, there's an all-new cast of upgraded humans, including Wahlberg and Tucci. But, the creeping feeling that humans are just in the way of a much grander robot epic is still there, and that epic is filled with beings we couldn't care less about. These are Autobots that no one can like, reduced to mere caricatures of their previous movie selves and pushed to the edge so that their hatred of humanity is palpable. The biggest of these travesties lies in the bastardization of Prime himself, who makes it clear early on of his new-found disdain for humanity, including the surprising promise to flat-out murder the human who burned him. That's not the behavior of a Prime, and even given the movie's premise this seems way out of whack for such a supposedly noble being. If it was Bay's desire to see us actually despise Optimus for what he's become, then consider the mission accomplished. As he leaves Earth in the final scene, we suddenly learn he's had rocket boots the entire time, making us want to push him out the door as soon as possible.

Bumblebee is without many of his adolescent moments, and without Sam Witwicky around, his role feels entirely unnecessary. Other new robots suffer similar fates: there's Ken Watanabe as the samurai Drift (wait, an exclusive Earth-based cultural icon was also a Transformer?), a the Patton-esque Hound (voiced by John Goodman), neither of whom are involved enough to represent character extremes that Optimus can stand between. For seemingly large stretches of time, they sit around lamenting why humans hate them so much while uttering comedic lines from Writer Ehren Kruger's logic-empty screenplay. Same for the humans, who throw out nearly self-aware gags about sequels and of Bay's filmography. They're funny for a moment, until you realize that their self-reflexive nature only slows a plot that has trouble establishing itself in the first 45 minutes. It's only when that chase begins that we get excited.

But once there, it's just more of the same Bay menu of action, action, action, comedic reaction, action, action, big end to the action. Story is sacrificed for a mayhem of explosions, slo-motion battle scenes, and unrecognizable robots, all of which quickly desensitizes us. Rather than wrapping his characters around shifting loyalties and putting them in situations designed to test those limits, Bay for the most part continues to paint them in such broad strokes that it seems like a 12-year old created them. Their purely good or evil stance throughout the film makes their actions seem one-dimensional and utterly predictable. There's a ridiculous amount of product placement here, some of which seems out of place - a Chinese bank in the middle of Texas? A Victoria Secret bus stop utterly destroyed in the finale, and curious drinking by both Tucci and Wahlberg? None of it should come as a surprise, but it's so obvious that one can't keep lingerie on the mind and watch this film at the same time. Even the appearance of the vaunted Dinobots - dinosaurs converted to metal when they were wiped out - are merely vehicles for the Autobots to ride - their story post-mortem isn't insightful in the least. Rather than reasoning with Optimus during a critical scene, they - you guessed it - fight for control of the situation How unique.

Transformers: Age of Extinction doesn't even fulfill its title, leading to an ending that should have arrived a full hour earlier. Its lapses in logic (and human survival) are as big as the robots, and its lack of heart is evident from the beginning. That's too bad, because Bay can build exceptional set pieces, but it's his continual lack of storytelling which makes every single one of these ever-escalating over-the-top scenes ring as hollow as the next. There is the interesting idea that humans are about to embark on a questionable path of building their own robots, a theme which will probably find traction in TF:5, but it's entirely lost here behind robot declarations of "Die, bitch!" and "This One's for You, A-hole!" during the dull 30-minute finale. Why Optimus chooses to fly into space himself rather than use the fully-functional spaceship defiled by Lockdown is hard to determine, and the absence (or explanation) of Shia LaBuf's Whitwicky character - as well as the sympathetic special ops group led Josh Duhammel in TF:-3 - makes this feel like a completely different adventure that was made by Bay's alter ego.

It's quite likely that nearly everyone who emerges from Transformers: Age of Extinction will feel some sort of regret for making the effort. Those hoping for a fresh reboot are in for a shock: Michael Bay's world is dull, bloated, and on the verge of extinction. Those hoping for mere entertainment will get more than they wanted, their minds turned to jelly after such a shockingly long and dull affair. It's set to make a killing overseas, and might just break records here within its own franchise; but once the word gets out about its runtime and 'nunc pro tunc' approach, we wonder if it has the legs for a run into late July. It's high time something better come along, for this franchise feels like it needs a brand-new All-Spark.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo and has a runtime of 165 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125. Bay will probably tell you that he couldn't care less about character development,

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