Many cinephiles believe that director Michael Bay represents the End of Movies, and it’s true that two words sum up his touch in the Hasbro-affiliated Transformers series: bloat and chop. But as my longtime readers know, I kinda … sorta … like him. I thought the third Transformers film and last year’s satirical crime movie Pain and Gain were cruelly underrated, the former positively engorged with invention, the latter a droll satire in love with its own sleaze. But Transformers: Age of Extinction is nearly three %$^&%!!# hours, and they’re brain-freezing.
Ehren Kruger is credited with the screenplay, and if I were him, I’d have gone with a pseudonym — say, Optimus Prime. The kindest thing I can say about the script is that it’s incoherent. First, dinosaurs get attacked by aliens, then a tony blonde finds something in the Arctic that will “change our view of the history of the world,” and then a younger blonde in short-shorts opens her mail while the camera hugs her butt and ex-CIA agent Kelsey Grammer holds forth (in a Dick Cheney drone) on the need to protect mankind by wiping out Transformers — including the ones who’d saved the Earth in the previous three installments. Finally, we meet the father of the girl in short shorts, a dotty inventor who tinkers in a vast barn. He’s played by Mark Wahlberg.
Now, I’m sure there are people less suited to being cast as an egghead than Wahlberg, with his swollen pecs and biceps and streetwise Boston diction. Let me think … don’t rush me … Sylvester Stallone? Justin Bieber? I’ll get back to you. But Wahlberg does have one enormous asset: He’s not Shia LeBeouf. Also, I like seeing him in pretty much anything. Even when he’s not too sharp, he gives the movie some human credibility.
There are excellent sequences early on, among them the heartbreaking destruction of a good Transformer by Titus Welliver as a chill assassin and a bad Transformer with a reptile head. (He rips out the fallen robot’s “seed” — i.e., its soul and the repository of its memories.) Bay’s images are ravishingly layered, and they pop. He doesn’t sprinkle CGI like MSG over inert frames, the way George Lucas did in his last Star Wars pictures. The camera hurtles to the heights; humans rush through labyrinths of whirling steel; and the transformations from cars to behemoths end with a flourish, as if the robots are body builders showing off their muscles. But Bay doesn’t know when he should stop flexing; he directs like a steroid-addled meathead. He gives us hammy, low-angle shots of nearly every character, and he doesn’t care about connecting those amazing frames. Nearly every cut feels like a jump cut.
The Transformers films are essentially sci-fi war movies, and this one features four different armies fighting one another — among them the good guys, the ex-CIA agents in league with the military-industrial complex and the mean reptile Transformer, and some souped-up new Transformers (recycled from Decepticons) assembled in a lab. Wahlberg labors to protect his new buddy, Optimus Prime, and O.P.’s remaining comrades from being captured and experimented on, a job in which he’s aided by his daughter and her hot-rodding Irish boyfriend, who has the distinction of being even less intelligible than Wahlberg. John Turturro isn’t back. Instead, it’s Stanley Tucci who collects the big paycheck: He’s splendidly silly as a billionaire industrialist with a fetching Chinese partner (Bingbing Li) who kicks ass, all Chinese people being adept in the martial arts. Wahlberg and Welliver chase each other, Parkour style, down the balconies of a densely packed Hong Kong apartment building. Eventually, Optimus Prime seeks the help of bigger, badder transformers who’ve been imprisoned in a cave … and are you getting bored reading this? I’m losing steam …
Transformers: Age of Extinction is basically a shambles. If you do see it, I suggest you savor each image on its own terms as a work of CGI art. Dig the bombardment. Forget trying to figure out who’s zapping whom and why. Free your mind — or risk having it transformed into porridge.