If nothing else, at least the Transformers series is consistent.
For the latest installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction, director Michael Bay returns to deliver another round of photorealistic, but painfully lifeless, CG set pieces built on the backs of characters – both robot and human – that make it a near-herculean effort for audiences to give a damn.
Four movies into the Paramount Pictures franchise, and the best thing about them is they eventually end, although with its nearly three-hour running time, the conclusion of Age of Extinction can’t come fast enough. The plot, if you can call it that, doesn’t matter – not to the filmmakers, and not to the characters. But of course, the stories for these films are best evaluated in terms of which elements resemble something vaguely tolerable, or else suck the least.
Mark Wahlberg’s Texas inventor Cade Yeager is firmly in the “sucks the most” column: The only thing the film does better than demonstrate how poor of an inventor the man is – his genius peeked somewhere around “mobile, beer-dispensing dorm fridge” – is show him as an equally bad father. His forced, boring conflict with his daughter (Nicola Peltz) is largely based on him not wanting her to date, and her, well, wanting to.
As if the movie is daring you to find new means of caring even less, it throws in the daughter’s boyfriend – played by Jack Reynor, who has slightly less presence than a cardboard cutout from Spencer’s Gifts. The character, whose name you won’t recall, is endowed with affectations instead of a personality. When he’s not being rude to Cade for reasons the story neglects, he wears a leather jacket and drives a souped-up Chevy. (“I’m legit,” Johnny Blankslate boasts. “I just got picked up by Redbull.”)
The bad guys are led by evil CIA officer Kelsey Grammer, who doesn’t chew the scenery as much as you might expect, despite the ample opportunities “Operation: Cemetery Wind” affords him. That’s the black op used to assassinate all Transformers, with help from Lockdown, a robotic bounty hunter working for “The Creators,” the alien race responsible for the robots in disguise (that’s who, in the film’s final moments, Prime – with a nod to Prometheus -- presumably rockets off to battle in Part 5.)
In between all of this, Stanley Tucci emerges as an egomaniacal genius in cahoots with Grammer to build their own Transformers – Tuccicons, if you will – for military applications, using the shape-changing metal element known as Transformium (yeah, that happened).
The plan goes horribly awry when new baddie Galvatron turns on creator Tucci, whose surprise that the robot he created from parts of Megatron’s severed head has turned bad is one of the better laughs you’ll have at the film’s expense.
From there, the story unspools with dull action scenes that are violently allergic to the notions of emotional or physical geography -- punctuated by Autobots fighting among themselves and spitting out truly hateful remarks in the name of “comic relief.”
For a movie designed to sell new toys to young kids, Extinction is disturbingly preoccupied with finding new ways to say “You’re going to die” or “Can’t wait to kill some humans.” (The grating, one-note Hound, voiced by John Goodman, hates humans, but apparently has no problem modeling his non-vehicle form after them.) Toss in the one F-bomb the MPAA permits in PG-13 movies – it’s as awkwardly out of place as you would think in a Hasbro-branded feature – and you have more proof that children are the last audience this series understands or cares about. (Remember when these films wore their “From Executive Producer Steven Spielberg” credit like a badge of honor?)
Of Extinction’s numerous narrative offenses, the worst is probably its lack of love for its heroes, especially Optimus Prime. The Autobot leader is reduced to an angry, 30-foot gun thug who, despite the events of the previous films, still debates the value of human life. It’s terrible to hear the hate that underlies his vow to tear Grammar’s villain to pieces; it doesn’t matter how evil the guy is, knowing not to cross that line is what Prime has spent the past three films learning.
Equally damning is the film’s handling of the Dinobots, which could have accomplished for this series what Hulk’s antics did for The Avengers. Instead, we’re given voiceless creatures with zero personality – all that distinguishes them is that they transform into different things. We’re even treated to a scene in which Prime announces to Grimlock that he gave the dinosaur its “freedom,” only to watch Prime battle the beast into submission under the threat of “help my family or die!”
As eye-rolling as Wahlberg’s performance is, he’s more adept at the hero moments than previous star Shia LaBeouf ever was, and the new robot designs are much easier to distinguish when it comes to the Bayhem, with the action alternating between punishing and soulless. They’d be fun to watch if Bay and writer Ehren Kruger cared as much about character as they do about scale.
Some may argue that Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t as bad as 2011’s Dark of the Moon, but that’s a lot like saying that, of the punches you took to the shoulder, face, throat and groin, this one hurts the least.
And if the box office is any indication, we can expect the most narratively bankrupt movie franchise ever made to keep swinging.
Transformers: Age of Extinction opens today nationwide.