“More than meets the eye’’ was the metallic-voiced tagline from the Transformers ads when I was growing up in the late 1980s and the 1990s. That was more than enough to sell me on it, but the phrase was slightly misleading. There wasn’t anything remarkably complex about the success of the toy line and the animated series that followed. Mash a bunch of stuff together that young boys love – airplanes, robots, cars and trucks – and make things blow up, and you’ve got gold. Hell, it was enough to sell me.
“Age of Extinction’’ is the fourth “Transformers’’ movie, and Michael Bay and the rest of the executive team (which includes Steven Spielberg, who might have really done something special with the material if he’d done this in his prime) have made billions – well over $3 billion, by the time this flick departs theaters – by following that same formula. Smash things together, fill the screen with explosions (and add in female characters shot like an average Maxim centerfold), and sit back and let the money roll in.
You just have to wish there was anything to like in them. The “Transformers’’ movies are cinematic candy corn, edible and superficially sweet but ultimately dull, hollow and full of empty calories. With the exception of the first half of the original movie – a surprisingly watchable origin story directed with an uncharacteristic soft touch by Bay – the rest of the movies devolve into metal orgies of smash-cut destruction. Going into the fourth one, I could barely remember what happened in the prior two. “Shia the Beef got a hot, new girlfriend and they have to stop a secret plot between big business and Decepticons,’’ one friend reminded me. “Also, I’m pretty sure toasters and cars have sex.’’ Couldn’t have done it better.
“Age of Extinction’’ is much, much worse than any other entry of the series, and if you’ve seen the last two, you’d know just how impactful that statement is. It’s one of the worst movies ever made, a hideous amalgam of terrible acting, patched-together writing, boring world-smashing spectacle, blatant product placement and brazen political propaganda that just about encapsulates all that is wrong with the movie business today. It’s a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. It’s two and a half hours of cinematic waterboarding.
Now’s about the point where I’d start to describe the plot of the film, but, honestly, there’s no way I could do that, and I’m … let’s see … only a half hour out of surviving the experience. I know Mark Wahlberg plays a back-country, broke-as-hell Texas tinkerer and inventor that finds a broken-down Optimus Prime, leader of the good-guy Autobots, in some ancient movie theater.
He’s a widower with a daughter (Nicola Peltz, who looks like a younger Tara Reid and has about half of her acting skills). The daughter’s got a race-car driver boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who is supposed to be Irish, I guess, even though his accent seems to dip in and out and even delve into Paul Hogan-esque Australian at some points. After they all find Prime, stuff starts blowing up, and that’s about the best summary I could give you. A government official (Kelsey Grammer) wants Prime and all the autobots destroyed, so he forms an alliance with an intergalactic robotic bounty hunter- unfortunately, not Boba Fett – to smash all of them. They’ll be replaced by transformers replicas made by a Steve Jobs-esque billionaire (Stanley Tucci) who can create all different types of matter made from some element called “transformium.’’ That stuff was all left here when ancient alien robots killed out all the dinosaurs, or something. I honestly have no idea. Trying to describe this movie, to paraphrase a quote about hitting a knuckleball, is like trying to eat soup with a fork. It just can’t be done. Bay fills the screen with lots of metal things mashing each other and big fireballs and tilted-cam shots of American flags waving against lonely country landscapes and completely forgets to make anything make a lick of sense.
All I know is that the movie eventually heads over to China – for no discernable reason whatsoever – to smash some more things in a blatant ploy for more overseas dollars, and that’s when the movie basically turns into a “Starship Troopers’’-like political advertisement for an overwhelmingly positive, helpful and proactive Chinese government and people. Age of Extinction takes special care to put in lines about a steadfast China defending Hong Kong, and all the Chinese characters are proudly competent and heroic (and apparently, they all know karate – that’s a particularly awful bit of profiling Bay throws in); I’m no expert on modern Chinese politics, but I’ll bet anything I own that some insidious government influence crept down into the screenplay. It’s stunningly pandering and particularly shameless.
Speaking of things leaking into the screenplay, the product placement in this turd of a flick defies belief. Wahlberg crashes something – who even knows what at that point – into a Bud Light truck and takes care to pound one of the bottles before moving on to the next collision. When the movie clanks its way across the Pacific, ads for high-end American brands (Gucci, Victoria’s Secret) are ejaculated across the screen with all the subtlety of a jackhammer to the testicles. If you want to re-create the experience of seeing this movie, just record all the commercials from last year’s Super Bowl, have them translated into Mandarin, and watch them on an iPad while you crash bumper cars around at your nearest Six Flags.
Did I mention how bad the acting is? Wahlberg doesn’t just mail in his performance here, he sends it in by carrier pigeon. It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself; you can practically hear him going, “You’re a Decepticon, huh? That’s cool. I was in ‘The Departed.’ Say hi to your mother for me.’’ Wahlberg is a wonderful actor in the right role, but man, this is a disaster. He still acts rings around Reynor and Peltz, who probably have fine careers lined up for themselves as third leads on a WB show about angsty twentysomethings. Grammer snarls and Tucci has some fun with a few lines, and T.J. Miller – so great on HBO’s “Silicon Valley’’ – livens up things for a bit as Wahlberg’s buddy before he gets melted by a Decepticon or a bounty hunter or a pissed-off mixing bowl or something. Lucky him.
This movie is 165 minutes long. That’s two hours and forty-five minutes. If you go see this movie, that will be almost 1/8th of a day that you’ll never get back. Do anything else instead. Read a book. Take a walk. Ride a bike. Clean your bathroom. Q-tip your ears. Hell, if you really want to see something “Transformers’’-related, just rent and watch the old animated movie. There’s more creativity, intelligence and fun in one minute of that movie than there is in the entire miserable length of “Age of Extinction.’’ Ignore this movie, please. I know, somehow, it’ll make an amount of money bigger than the GDP of several Latin American countries. But, please, just don’t go see this. It’s bad for the art form, and it’s just bad for the soul. I’ve already suffered through it. You shouldn’t have to go through the same.