From the jump, Transformers: Age of Extinction looks big. That’s Michael Bay’s specialty; he makes movies look like what movies probably look like inside movies: a huge, colorful, sun-scorched canvas where men always exit cars shot from ultra-low angles, women look ready to flashdance at any moment, and the action climaxes more often than a porn star, because even ambitious pornography tends to top out before the ninety-minute mark and no Bay movie has ever run that short (the first Bad Boys is his quickest, at a fleet but still terrible 120 minutes). This proclivity for stretching music-video fantasy to the breaking point can be by turns reductive, repellant, or just plain boring; it also, sometimes, hits the spot. Or rather, a spot. Earlier this summer, I loved the faux-seventies look X-Men: Days of Future Past and the compositional splendor of Godzilla, but so many big, digitally-produced movies, even good ones, look vaguely faded and overcast. Transformers 4, meanwhile, looks like what you may remember summer movies looking like, particularly if you were attending summer movies in the late nineties. I was, and I’m sure most of them didn’t much look like Transformers 4, at least not many good ones. But this movie looks and feels bigger than most big movies. Put another way: I’m at least half a sucker for any movie where the screenplay might well begin with: WE OPEN IN DINOSAUR TIMES.
That is exactly what this Transformers movie does, though it doesn’t pay much mind to the dinosaurs before leaping ahead and arriving a few years after the Chicago-decimating events of its predecessor, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Even in the downtime before the decimation begins anew, the movie still goes big: supposed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) somehow finds a broken-down truck in the middle of a towering old movie palace, then moves it to his old farmhouse, also massive—even bigger than it needs to be to accommodate one Optimus Prime, the Robot in Disguise ™ as this old truck—at least until inexplicably “shedding” its dusty exterior and regaining its bright blue flame-painted glory.
Did I just call an alien robot shape-shifter an “it”? I may be in for a lecture from Optimus, who carries himself like the kind of blowhard academic you’d expect Bay to despise. He’s in hiding because a CIA operative (Kelsey Grammer) has begun to hunt down both the good Transformers (the Autobots!) and the bad (the Deceptacons!) indiscriminately, arguing that they have fucked up Earth long enough. Grammer so desires to rid the planet of Transformers that he a) blindly trusts a, uh, transforming, gun-toting robot alien to carry out his dirty work and b) seeks to create his own army of Transformers via the work of a Jobs-like egomaniac played, first with surprising restraint and then with unsurprising screams, by Stanley Tucci. No one expects the means and motivations of anyone in a Transformers movie to mean a goddamn thing, but the illness of this logic is hard to ignore when it’s throwing up all over the carpet. Basically, Grammer’s plan is like mounting a virulent campaign against the Transformers but in favor of the Go-Bots.
But then, that’s why the plan is in place: to position Grammer as a stupid, stupid authority figure. Michael Bay bows to no authority, except for whoever is toughest when standing up to another authority, in which case he cheers for more reverse-bullying (also known as regular bullying). Early on, Cade Yeager’s best buddy (TJ Miller) and sometime employee makes a comic query about whether he can expect to be paid for his labor this time. To which Cade responds: “A lot of guys are just happy to have a job at all.” Maybe the idiotic contradiction that one ought to be pleased with paycheck-free employment (or, as most people would call it, not having a job at all) is meant ironically. But Bay worships his star too much for that to be a real possibility; he pits Last Man Real Wahlberg against the usual litany of what he imagines to be comic foils: a loud, uncouth black woman; a snippy gay man; a miscellaneous poindexter who gets threatened with an alien gun in place of a faceful of sand.
So yes, we’re well within the borders of Bayland, where men like Mark Wahlberg are men, super-robots are also kind of men, and most other men are pansies. Yet there are hints of weariness from one or both sides of the screen. Having jettisoned the cast of the first three movies (and original love interest Megan Fox after the first two), the director’s search for yet another shorts-shorted leading babe first comes across a little sad, like an unreformed lothario prowling around for a new 22-year-old; then sadder when he settles on a sort of miniature Tara Reid in the form of newcomer Nicola Peltz; and then, finally, fully creepy when he rehashes a subplot from both Armageddon and Bad Boys II and brings it into Luc Besson territory, casting Peltz as Wahlberg’s seventeen-year-old daughter and making him obsessed with the preservation of her purity. Call it a paternal leer; it doesn’t look good on anyone (Wahlberg and his daughter’s secret boyfriend actually get into a spirited debate over statutory rape laws in Texas, creating the impression that the 165-minute running time was more of a goal than a necessity).
Bay has slowed his cutting, perhaps for the benefit of the many viewers who will see the film in 3D (which, mandatory as it was at the press screening, is mostly pretty good), or perhaps to indulge his love of showy continuous takes. Bay has long been fond of trick shots that bend the limits of cinematography; the self-satisfied nastiness of Bad Boys II paused during a shootout for a wowser of a 720-degree-plus camera rotation whooshing from the good guys to the bad guys and around again. Nothing in Trans4mers looks so ambitious or so semi-real, but it’s still a surprise to see a fighting-robot movie with so many sustained shots; some of the mayhem tableaux recall more painterly ex-music-video shooters like Tarsem Singh.
Yet the practice of no longer cutting at a furious pace only sometimes coheres Bay’s quote-unquote vision. Many of his visuals still skip over basic cause and effect; there are awkward cuts to night, unexplained reunions (characters always show up at the right place at the right time), and clumsy transitions, sometimes even within the same scene. Even his vaunted action sequences, cool as they sometimes look—and I’m not immune to a low slow-motion shot of a giant robot riding another even giant-er robot shaped like a dinosaur, laying waste to still more robots with a robot sword and plenty of boats and buildings as collateral damage, I promise you I’m not—don’t gain velocity. Bay orchestrates visually catchy gimmicks, like a giant ship that raises cars and boats and other robots with a superpowered magnet, then drops them elsewhere to create chaos, but doesn’t have the patience to move beyond money-shot destruction, into something with a bit more clockwork or timing. Instead, most of them, especially in the home stretch(es), just endgame with a violent death. Characters work at cross-purposes, not with the interlocking cleverness of a heist or a criss-crossing mission movie, but by running in ever-bigger circles around their actual motivations. Then, of course, showing up at the right place at the right time.
This is no different than previous Transformers movies. In some ways, actually, it’s better: there is far less shrill comic shtick. Indeed, between Wahlberg’s daughter angst and an Optimus Prime sternly hectoring humanity for not appreciating the sacrifices of the Transformers, the heroes of this movie are even more belligerent than the Bay average (though they don’t quite reach the angry disregard for human life that characterized Bad Boys II). As little as I missed the forty-five minutes of bad Shia LaBeouf improv, I do wonder what this means about Bay’s interest in his transforming-robot saga. Mercilessly awful, loud, mean comedy has been a go-to move for most of his career, arguably his passion project (he made a whole movie around it: Pain and Gain, his only non-robot film in almost a decade, and so well-acted and audacious that it almost disguises its general contempt as satire). Does a slightly less cruel Transformers indicate, somehow, a less engaged Michael Bay?
Comic relief or not, happy at the helm or not, Bay still has almost three hours to fill (for some reason); thankfully, the Asian markets have some suggestions, like setting the climax in Hong Kong and hiring an ass-kicking Chinese actress (Bingbing Li) to kick ass one time. She’s completely extraneous, but fun to watch; the movie perks up when she’s on screen. If we’re selling this movie to China, could she at least co-star? Other incidental pleasures dotting the movie’s 165-minute running time: the aforementioned evil robot bounty hunter, who adds some welcome sci-fi strangeness, and Wahlberg’s repeated and breathless insistence that he’s an inventor even though he seems much more like a mechanic.
That jives with Bay’s warped understanding of the common man, while the infallible Autobots stand in for his desire to worship some higher power (usually it’s the military, but they’re as mysteriously absent here as the overemphatic wackiness). Age of Extinction has the faintest hint of allegory positioning the Transformers as put-upon illegal aliens—immigrants to Earth thoughtlessly sold out to the highest bidder, hence Optimus Prime’s disappointment. But they’re also positioned as our moral superiors who should stay on Earth to save us (past Transformers movies have made even more explicit arguments for permanent occupation). Benevolent conquerors, then? Or Supermen without any humanizing interest in Lois Lane? (There don’t seem to be any female Transformers, and if there are any homosexuals, they keep it quiet, probably to avoid the wrath of a particularly macho, robo-bearded Transformer voiced by John Goodman. I’m not making this up.) Whatever they are, Wahlberg seems hung up on their approval. No worries: at the end, thanks to some climactic murdering, Optimus Prime’s faith in Earth is restored. You can tell this because he returns from sulking back to his sanctimonious, professorial tone, lecturing to no one about nothing as he begins his triumphant ascent to a future, as-yet-untitled Transformers adventure. Why do we put up with this guy, again?
Some will say the series is getting worse. I’m not so sure — though it is getting longer, which might be the same thing. Really, though, I’ve never been sure. The first Transformers had some boy-and-his-car knockoff Spielbergian innocence (alongside incongruous military worship, bad shtick, etc.). The second one is so id-driven, racist, and nonsensical it almost works as delirious self-parody. The third has some particularly expensive-looking visuals alongside a torturous and visibly addled LaBeouf performance. This new one has more eye candy than ever, plus robot dinosaurs, but still manages to overcomplicate and then obliterate what should be a simple plot. The series is perpetually at sea in its very impressive bigness: too big to fail and too big to really succeed. Every Transformers movie is the best, and every Transformers movie is the worst. They blur together into one vast, expensive way for Michael Bay to occupy his restless, incurious mind.