Clanking, screeching metallic behemoths collide and grind against each other, while flesh-and-blood actors scamper and jump and deliver page after page of wooden dialogue in a script that could only have been made by people with skulls full of stone.
So it goes with the fourth entry in Michael Bay’s calamitous action franchise, which long ago eclipsed its origins as a Hasbro toy commercial to become a living, grunting testament to the utter pointlessness of hyping up summer “event” pictures. At a punishing, soul-deadening two hours and 45 minutes, the latest Transformers installment is a relentless audiovisual assault, favoring shock and awe over narrative clarity, delivering a steady stream of visual thrills but also strangely feeling like it’s just going through the motions.
In an effort to stay fresh, director Bay has jettisoned all the regular human faces from the first three flicks, including living tabloid meltdowns Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, though it’s hard to imagine anyone missing them. Stepping into the vacated hero role, Mark Wahlberg is typecast as a brilliant technology wizard, one who responds with the same shark-eyed, oblivious stare while dodging shrapnel or while effortlessly reverse-engineering alien technology in order to make mildly useful gadgets. Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager is a square, blue-collar, single dad who barely scrapes by fixing DVRs and lawn mowers in his Texas barn, while tinkering with robotics. One day, while fiddling around with his inventions, Cade and his obnoxious sidekick (T.J Miller) make a startling discovery; the dusty old semi in the corner of the garage is actually heroic Transformer Optimus Prime (booming voice provided by Peter Cullen), who has apparently been hiding out since the events of the last installment.
It seems that after all the previous paranoid elements of the U.S government, led by a snarling Kelsey Grammer, have declared all-out war on the robotic alien visitors from planet Cybertron, be they evil Decepticons or friendly Autobots. To assist in this cyber-pogrom, Grammer enlists the aid of an egomaniacal tech industry billionaire (a hammy Stanley Tucci) whose company has patented a way to make its own Transformer duplicates. There’s also some sort of rogue robot bounty hunter, and some ancient Transformers that morph into dinosaurs for some reason, but to describe the plot any further would be to descend into madness.
All thought of motivations, emotions, or logic get swallowed up in the maelstrom of shattered glass, crumbling granite, and burning metal that consumes the movie’s second half. The Transformers themselves are giant, moving amalgamations of scrap steel and chrome whose designs are so ugly, it strains the eyes to look at them for too long. In a perverse way, you almost have to admire the cheeky shamelessness of it all, as when Wahlberg pauses from saving civilization for a moment to down a cool, refreshing Bud Light, the most blatant instance of product placement since E.T gobbled Reese’s Pieces.
There’s a fairly extended sequence in the later third, in which Detroit is tasked with standing in for Hong Kong, an illusion that will only falter for eagle-eyed viewers who visited the massive sets that were built near Grand Circus Park last summer. Of course, some of the fun recognizing local landmarks is lost when the neighborhood is tarted up to look like an Asian metropolis.
Likewise, much of Chicago was decimated in the last episode, but the loop seems to be none the worse for wear, at least until the Autobot wrecking crew rolls back into town and starts blowing huge chunks out of the Wrigley building and surrounding skyscrapers.
Indeed, great cities, impressive masterpieces of architecture, and the tiny, insignificant meatbags that inhabit them and are crushed under falling rubble, are of minimal interest to Bay. The same could be said of many current blockbuster special-effects spectacles, but the carnage in, say, Godzilla, at least hinted at real human tragedy.
There was a time not too long ago when all films, even the crappy ones, used to feel like some sort of organic expression of the culture’s desires, aspirations, and fears, or at least daydreams.
Transformers: Age of Extinction feels like a big rumbling nothing, a cynical exercise in sensory overload designed merely to satiate and numb, like a pixilated narcotic, one that serves only to stimulate untouched corners of our collective unconscious.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13, has a run time of 165 minutes, and is in theaters now.