It’s worth noting up front that I hail from that portion of the moviegoing populace that generally enjoys Michael Bay’s Transformers films for the silly, escapist eye candy that they are. And perhaps that’s why it’s a little disappointing when a film like Transformers: Age of Extinction–which doesn’t need to do very much to win over its fans—still falls short.
Set five years after the events of 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the fourth film in the franchise follows the heroic Autobots and their human allies as they attempt to evade a government black-ops team that has been hunting Transformers with assistance from a deadly alien bounty hunter. Mark Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a mechanic who accidentally revives Optimus Prime, the Autobot leader who’s been in hiding since the battle at the end of the previous film that reduced Chicago to rubble. In the aftermath of that battle, the Transformers now find themselves feared by the public and pursued by government agencies looking to harvest the metal that makes up their bodies.
Not only is Age of Extinction the longest film in the franchise at 165 minutes, but it’s also the darkest chapter of the series. Where previous installments typically balanced out their character deaths and grim pondering on the tolls of war with comedy and rousing speeches, the heroes of Age of Extinction seem content to wallow in the misery of their predicament, occasionally succumbing to grief-stricken bouts of rage and snarls of “I’ll kill you!” during battle. It’s a strange tonal shift for the franchise that seems at odds with the previous films and the characters’ cartoon and toy source material.
As with all of the prior Transformers films, though, the visual effects continue to raise the bar for what can be achieved digitally in modern cinema. The Transformers movies play to Bay’s strengths as a filmmaker enamored with explosions and debris-filled action sequences that play with the light in creative ways, and if there’s a positive trend to be found across the entire series, it’s that the FX sequences have improved dramatically with each installment.
There’s precious little to be said about the film’s human cast, whose primary purpose is to move a somewhat disjointed story along from one robot brawl to the next. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as the films aren’t titled Human Friends of Transformers. Stanley Tucci manages to be the sole standout in an otherwise forgettable cast, clearly channeling elements of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for a fun performance as the founder and CEO of the tech company looking to corner the market on the programmable alien metal ripped from dead Transformers.
On the surface, Transformers: Age of Extinction offers much of the same action-packed, effects-driven, giant-robot adventures that the franchise is known for, with an added dose of post-9/11 paranoia and corporate greed this time around. On a deeper level, though, it’s . . . well . . .
It’s probably best not to look for a deeper meaning. As with the rest of the series, the fun is in allowing yourself to be carried along for the ride and not sweating the details. Sadly, there’s just a little less fun to be had on the ride this time around.