VOD film review: Transformers: Age of Extinction
James R | On 04, Nov 2014
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor
Watch Transformers 4 online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Rakuten TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“A new era has begun. The age of the Transformers is over,” declares Kelsey Grammar as Harold Attinger at the start of Transformers: Age of Extinction. He plays a CIA head intent on hunting down all the giant robots and killing them – bad news for Optimus and chums, who have all gone into hiding, until Mark Wahlberg’s inventor, Cade Yeager (yes, that’s his actual name), uncovers an old truck at an abandoned cinema.
The owner of the theatre cheekily laments to Cade that movies are all just “sequels and remakes” these days – but Transformers 4 serves up something different: people.
“You gotta have faith, Prime. Maybe not in who we are, but who we can be,” Cade tells Optimus in his garage. As a professional tinkerer, he reminds the Autobot leader of the importance of looking for the “treasure among the junk”. It’s an approach that suits the overall film.
Amid the carnage, Ehren Kruger’s script swaps out Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox’s couple for a different dynamic: Cade and his daughter, Tessa (Peltz). That father-child relationship steers Age of Extinction away from the minefield of problems that has beset the franchise and into some surprisingly effective new territory.
Tessa soon introduces Cade to her boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor). “His name is Shane,” she explains. “He drives.” It’s either an admirably economical piece of character exposition or a sign that he has no character at all – the latter is more likely – but Cade’s disapproving dad act is, for once, a recognisable emotion in this sea of metallic mayhem.
After the self-aware opening gag, you get the sense that this might be an intentional step forward from the writer and director. Even Peltz’s role as token female feels (slightly) less lecherous, with Bay avoiding any slow-motion shots of her leaning over motorbikes, Megan Fox-style – although Kruger’s attempt to justify the 17 year old’s relationship with an older boy is uncomfortably forced. At any rate, Tessa certainly fares better than Sophia Myles’ supporting character, who is completely shafted in the favour of macho combat.
And what combat it is. Bay continues his quest to go bigger and, well, bigger – and largely succeeds. It’s helped by the fact that since his adoption of 3-D and IMAX cameras, he’s had to limit his shots to longer, slower takes that show the action clearly. But his childish ambition to smash toys together is still evident: this time, there are Transformers who break down into giant pixels before reassembling mid-flight. It’s a stunning feat of CGI – even if these robots still feel the need to disguise themselves as a Camaro and a Lamborghini Aventador.
That continued striving for scale, inevitably, proves to be Transformers’ downfall. In the past, this testosterone-led thinking has meant not enough plot to fill the overlong runtime. Now, the problem is that there’s too much. In addition to Cade and his daughter helping the Autobots from being hunted down by Attinger, we’re soon introduced to the CIA chief’s nefarious partner, Lockdown – a robot who carts around a prison ship of arrested junk – and a tech company trying to build their own Transformers using a metal called “Transformium” (a name so dumb that, to its credit, the script jokes about people making it up).
As another evil robot, Galvatron, hijacks that process, though, Age of Extinction suffers from the main symptom of sequelitis: too many bad guys. Showdowns happen halfway through the movie, only for villains to walk away for no reason, before returning yet again for another final act punch-up. The result is a horribly bloated runtime of 165 minutes.
It’s a shame because when the set pieces do occur, humans are woven into the chaos; final blows are delivered by men (and women) as much as machines. They may be puny but, in Transformers 4, people actually matter. There are moments where they’re even quite entertaining – moments mostly involving Stanley Tucci, who clearly has fun as Steve Jobs-like entrepreneur Joshua Joyce. “I wanted transcendent!” he whines hammily, as his designs topple around him.
The robots turn out to be the dodgy members of the cast, from (toned down) racial stereotypes to John Goodman playing a Transformer effectively disguised as John Goodman. As Prime, Peter Cullen’s voice may be as deep as ever, but Optimus’ supposedly moral motivations are confused to say the least. “I swore I would never harm humans,” he booms, “but if I catch the man responsible, I will kill him.” Later, his attempt to persuade other robots to let him lead team literally descends into him shouting “Let me lead you!” At least over-bearing male man Cade, despite his unexplained ability to operate alien weaponry, is consistent.
Does that mean Age of Extinction counts as a success? In many ways, yes. Some will, after the last three films, expect rubbish – another sequel or remake to add to the pile. But despite Bay’s penchant for blatant product placement, there is something that works here. Like or lump the commercialised music video production, full of Malick-esque magic hour sunsets and soft rock pumped over slow-mo sequences, Transformers 4 became the highest-grossing film of all time in China when it was first released; as Robbie Collin points out in The Telegraph, this juggernaut of sheer spectacle is capable of bringing the crowds in. It’s a solution to the potential devaluing of the cinematic experience; an embracing of event status that still has the potential to visually wow a packed house. Can that translate to the living room? Bay’s brand of blockbuster certainly champions the unique value of the big screen – namely, the value of big robots blowing up big buildings while making big noises – but at least here, the sound and fury carries some small glint of significance. As the director paves the way for even more sequels, Attinger’s opening speech tales on another meaning: for Bay, the age of Transformers is far from over, but with identifiable human people on the screen, you wonder whether, in his own, small way, Michael Bay might just have begun a new era after all.
Remove the pointless 45-minute Lockdown subplot and this movie could be a (relatively) tightly-packed thriller. In its current, ungainly form, Age of Extinction has many shortcomings, but in their hulking shadow lie glimmers of achievement; bits of treasure beneath the trash. Transformers: Age of Extinction is, whisper it, good. For a Transformers movie.