Eccentric inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) stumbles upon the remains of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and finds himself on the wrong side of a Transformer eradication programme headed by rogue CIA agent Attinger (Grammer).
He promised it would be shorter. He lied. Michael Bay’s fourth Transformers film clocks in at a bum-numbing 165 minutes, making it longer even than the patience-trying Dark Of The Moon. The juggernaut success of the franchise presumably gives Bay carte blanche to do what the hell he wants at this point. Disappointingly he’s simply opted for another baggily plotted, cacophonous three-hour migraine.
Picking up four years after the costly Battle Of Chicago, Age Of Extinction ditches its previous human cast to introduce blue-collar Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg); his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz); her racing driver boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor); and Cade’s assistant Lucas (T. J. Miller). Cade has a kind of Doc Brown operation going on, building dodgy robot guard dogs and butlers in his shed. While trawling an abandoned cinema for parts he can fix and sell (the previous owner complains that audiences are now only interested in a “bunch of crap sequels and remakes”) he finds the wreckage of an old truck, which turns out to be a down-and-out Optimus Prime.
In a thrown-away political metaphor, the post-Chicago Transformers are now positioned as illegal aliens, no longer trusted to “fight American wars”. Washington’s official line is that only Decepticons are being hunted, but for rogue CIA bigwig Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), “There are no good or bad aliens: it’s just us and them.” With his henchman Savoy (Titus Welliver) and the help of an alien bounty hunter of unclear allegiance, Attinger is on a Transformer eradication kick. But he’s also in cahoots with billionaire design genius Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), whose company has a government contract to melt down old Transformers and build new controllable ones from the leftover programmable matter. He’s got Megatron’s head. That won’t end well. The magic metal is dubbed “Transformium”, which edges Unobtainium in the stupid-name stakes by at least being a joke coined by proud-of-themselves lab dorks.
So that’s working-class heroes; the government and CIA corruption; Big Business; outlaw Transformers; and a third set of alien robot hunters that are neither Decepticon nor Autobot. We’re only 40 minutes in. The extinction device the title refers to is a cyberforming “seed”. It’s important as a MacGuffin, but isn’t introduced until around the halfway point. There’s so much plot — much of it left hanging for future sequels, including a tantalising thread about heading off into space to kill God — that even at the length it is, sections still feel abridged: on one occasion we’re suddenly regaled with a Wahlberg voiceover explaining where he’s going and what he’ll do when he gets there. And yet, all this story is still just a loose string on which to hang the bludgeoning set-pieces.
There are car chases, the first of which actually has little Transformer action. There are smashed buildings and massive explosions (“Possible civilian casualties,” someone warns. No shit). There’s a sky-chase, and a thrillingly vertiginous high-wire sequence. For seemingly no other reason than the franchise’s Eastern popularity, the film ups sticks to China for its final act. And there are copious hero shots: a father-daughter moment made epic by a Bay sunset; a meeting of the remaining Autobots in Monument Valley; a spaceship flying over the Great Wall Of China; Optimus Prime riding a Dinobot. (Oh yes, the Dinobots. Much trumpeted, they show up for the final half hour and have no distinguishable personalities or point.)
In some ways Bay does seem to have been chastened by previous criticism. While there’s still racial stereotyping afoot — Ken Watanabe’s Drift is a samurai Autobot who spouts Japanese homilies and calls Optimus “Sensei”; everyone in Hong Kong is a kung-fu fighter — there’s nothing quite as egregious as Revenge Of The Fallen’s Skids and Mudflap. The lecherous camera has also been reined in to an extent, although Bay’s low angles still can’t resist the odd Peltz arse ogle.
That this doesn’t happen more often reflects the extent to which Peltz is quickly sidelined in the narrative; female characters in general come out of Age Of Extinction poorly. Li Bingbing, though strong in the ballbreaking sense, also makes little impression, and one has to feel particularly bad for Sophia Myles, who begins the film with a seemingly important role and then disappears for two hours. When she comes back she plays no part in the proceedings except to be physically present.
In fact, it’s debatable what role any of the humans play in the story outside of Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci. Tucci is the standout, despite a third-hour lurch from oily camp to broader clowning. Wahlberg, on the other hand, while a bigger presence than Shia LaBeouf ever was, inexplicably handy with a space gun and able to fly a ship at a moment’s notice, has so little effect on the film’s outcome that Optimus might just as well have left him and his clan back in Texas.
The loyal fans will trot out clichés like, 'Leave your brain at the door'. For those who aren’t still blindly faithful to something they liked when they were 9, despite the colossal scale, there’s little to see here.