Isolate any minute of "Transformers: Age of Extinction," and one will find a film that is alternately wearisome, foolish, interminable, sensational and majestic. It is actually quite something to be actively hating a movie one second and then being shaken to unexpected engagement the next, without warning. Returning to the ginormous blockbusters he is used to following a successful dip into grittier, more serious fare with 2013's "Pain & Gain
," Michael Bay is nothing if not a showman. After 2007's tone-deaf, broadly idiotic "Transformers
" and 2009's racist, excruciating, incomprehensible "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
," he has taken to heart some of the criticisms he received and greatly improved the way he shoots action. With 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon
" and now "Transformers: Age of Extinction," no longer is everything photographed so closely and edited so choppily that the screen turns into a tornado of swirling metal and chaos. By pulling back and holding on shots longer than half a second, Bay is able to choreograph all the elements within his frame and visually capture a coherent grandeur that previously eluded him in the earlier installments. What hasn't been fixed are the insanely bad screenplays used to clothesline the set-pieces of sound and fury. The words written by Ehren Kruger (2007's "Blood and Chocolate
") that escape from the mouths of the actors are almost mesmerizing in their groan-worthy nonsense.
With the country slowly repairing itself since an attack that cost the lives of 1,300 civilians (a sign along the highway reads, "Remember Chicago, report alien activities"), the surviving Autobots have continued to work as government allies against potential evil Decepticon retaliation. With so much loss among their ranks, however, morale has cooled for the transformers. In Texas, widowed makeshift robotics engineer Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) stumbles upon a beat-up truck while gathering abandoned parts at an old movie palace set for demolition. He brings it home to his work shed and soon discovers that, much to friend/assistant Lucas (T.J. Miller) and 17-year-old daughter Tessa's (Nicola Peltz) understandable apprehension, the vehicle is actually the injured Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in disguise. Tracking Optimus' whereabouts, black SUVs of nefarious federal agents come calling. Cade, Tessa and Lucas narrowly escape with the help of Tessa's 20-year-old racecar driver boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), suddenly finding themselves on the run with Optimus and in the midst of a new battle opposite programmable, unfeeling Decepticon prototypes spearheaded by devious CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and billionaire tech corp CEO Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci). The initial goal is for these creations to be used as controlled weapons of war, but when the reincarnated Megatron (Frank Welker) and the other Decepticons grow minds of their own, the race is on to locate and protect a nuclear seed with the power to decimate the planet.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is 165 minutes of sensory bombardment, technically delirious and so shamelessly dumb it starts to numb the mind long before the first hour is up. The prologue, rewriting the history of the end of the Mesozoic Era (hint: it wasn't an asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs), segues to the alternate present-day reality of a world still coming to grips from an extraterrestrial invasion. The human characters, with Cade Yeager taking over as lead hero for Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, are developed in broad, sappy strokes, instructed to pose, pout and smolder at all times as if they are being photographed for a magazine spread. Curiously, their tanned skin appears to grow more bronzed as the story progresses. Meanwhile, the sleek, shiny vehicles on display resemble car commercials more than scenes in a feature film, and the amber rays of the late-day sun are so glaring they threaten to wash out everything else on the screen. At least Michael Bay brings occasional self-deprecation to the blatant objectification of teenager Tessa. "Your shorts are shrinking by the second!" Cade exasperatedly tells her early on.
Once Optimus Prime has revealed himself and the good guys hit the road, the movie does not let up for its remaining two hours. That the picture is loud and bombastic comes with the territory, but it also threatens to desensitize the viewer, wearing him or her out while providing no one to actually care about. Still, there are some thrilling sequences scattered throughout, a trip into the darkened unknown bowels of an alien spacecraft when Tessa is captured a triumph of art direction above all else. Right after, a perilous journey across suspension cables connecting the UFO to the top of a skyscraper is a showstopper. The prolonged third act set in Hong Kong is most notable for its depiction of a stunning exotic locale that has rarely been so extensively showcased in an American film.
The actors are used as props more so than people, the script's idea for dramatic tension falling upon Cade's protectiveness of Tessa and his misgivings over learning she has an older boyfriend who says things like, "I'm not here to help you get your daughter, I'm here to save my girlfriend." Matched against fighting giant metal contraptions, all the characters eventually can do is be put into peril and stand around as the aliens do battle. Mark Wahlberg (2013's "Lone Survivor
") gives his committed all as Cade, and it is a clear testament to his abilities that he mostly sells his performance (that is, when he isn't told to scream in anguish with fists raised). Nicola Peltz (2010's "The Last Airbender
"), very good on A&E's "Bates Motel" series, runs around in tight shirts and high-heeled boots even when her Tessa is merely lounging at home. She yells out for her dad so much it could be used as a deadly drinking game. As Shane, Jack Reynor is strikingly photogenic. The camera loves him, so it will be interesting to see if he actually has chops in future projects as more than a handsome face.
In a rare change of pace, Stanley Tucci's (2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
") Joshua Joyce starts as a resident heavy and then reveals himself to have a few more shades than anticipated. His disbelieving reversal of consciousness is as subtle as a knife in the back, but watching him spar and flirt with no-nonsense assistant Su Yueming (Bingbing Li) is sporadically amusing. No doubt doing wonders for the Chinese market, the participation of Bingbing Li (2012's "Resident Evil: Retribution
") in the ensemble is more than welcome. She might give the film's most intriguingly eye-catching performance despite English clearly not being her first language. Make of that what you will.
In "Transformers: Age of Extinction," composer Steve Jablonsky's (2013's "Ender's Game
") music score pounds, cinematographer Amir Mokri's (2013's "Man of Steel
") images shimmer, and the script proves nearly as soulless as one of Joshua's hulking, maniacal prototypes. The film finds pointed political parallels with our current climateat one point, Optimus asks the humans, "How many more of my kind must die to atone for your mistakes?"but promptly returns to cars driving out third-floor windows, buildings collapsing, and Autobots going up against Dinobots in the idyllic fields of greenery just outside the bustling Hong Kong metropolis. The sight of villainous bounty hunter Lockdown's menacing spaceship arriving in the Chicago skyline, glimpsed only in the reflection of Millennium Park's silver-sheened Cloud Gate (aka "the bean"), is one of the picture's most compellingly portentous shots. After four films, though, the transformers are still abstracts from another world. Michael Bay shows no interest in exploring who they are or what their planet was like. Do they love like we do? Do they have romantic relationships? Work at jobs? Have children? There is no time to talk to them unless they are going off on grandiose sound-bite tangents about honor, loyalty and vengeance, and this usually only occurs for the thirty seconds in between scenes of crunching metal, seat-rattling explosions and mass destruction. "Transformers: Age of Extinction" isn't a "good" movie by any conventional standards, but as nothing more than empty, stupid, sometimes dazzling spectacle it provides exactly what audiences who flock to this series will be looking for.