Non-stop noise of the auditory and visual kind, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth in Michael Bay’s growing franchise of movies about extraterrestrial robots that turn into vehicles and back again in order to fight each other, destroying major human cities in the process. This time involves two new factions of bad Transformers and a complicated mythology that’s both important and completely incomprehensible. It makes me yearn for the comparatively small 2007 original, which at least paused for some quieter moments and crafted stock human characters you could almost care about. Extinction is nearly three hours long and makes not a lick of sense, preferring instead to hurtle sensations at the screen in an overpowering display of digital pyrotechnics that grows monotonous and assaultive. At least it's not as bad as Revenge of the Fallen.
The good alien robots, Autobots, who fight the bad alien robots, Decepticons, last time left the Chicago Loop thoroughly crumbled in a terrific hour-long battle sequence – the franchise’s best – that redeemed that film’s lousy opening 90 minutes. Naturally, the humans weren’t too happy about all that death and destruction. They’ve begun a campaign to destroy all the robots. A grumpy CIA man (Kelsey Grammer) glowers in dark rooms and sends his black ops team (led by Titus Welliver) to hunt the robots down. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is a small-town Texas inventor who happens upon a busted semi, takes it back to his shop, and discovers that it’s really the Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). When the Feds storm his house in scary black SWAT vans looking for the robo-leader, Wahlberg, his 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz), and her racecar-driving boyfriend (Jack Reynor) go on the run with the Autobots.
The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy Transformers world, but they sure hang around anyway. They are mere connective tissue, putting a human face and scale on what is really a conflict between Transformers. In Ehren Kruger’s dumb script, the latest Decepticon iteration is still out there, along with a new kind of Transformer that flies in on the most massive robot spaceship yet, carrying a MacGuffin cargo, hunting the Autobots for some reason, and threatening the end of the world. Their leader turns into a gun with legs, so you know they’re dangerous. There’s also a bunch of ancient Transformers who turn into dinosaurs. They show up late in the picture, just to escalate the size of the destruction all the more. It should be fun, but it’s endless and exhausting.
I’ll confess to not remembering what brought these robots to Earth in the first place or understanding why, after people don’t want them around, they don’t just leave. “I swore never to take another human life,” Optimus intones at one point, apparently forgetting about the thousands of deaths in the previous 3½ films up to then. I don’t get it. Here they fight across a small town in Texas, then to Chicago (again), before the whole calamity ends up in Hong Kong for the climactic conflagration, leaving a trail of rubble and corpses behind them. The Autobots have a Randian insistence that they’re good because they say so, and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy. It’s off-putting. The convoluted plot involving various factions of robot-kind and competing human interests makes very little sense, but the action keeps rolling on and on, never pausing to catch its breath. Dialogue comes in staccato shouts buried in the sound mix so as to register only as exclamatory grunts and screams.
I could mostly track the human motivations. But the robots? I was lost. I couldn’t tell them apart, had no idea what their end goals were, and couldn’t figure out why an alien space robot would look vaguely like a samurai and sound like Ken Watanabe, or appear to be inspired by Walter Sobchak with the voice of John Goodman to match. Not only dehumanizing in its endless nonsensical destruction and post-human in its outlook, the movie was, to me, beyond comprehension. That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained. It has its moments of crazed fantastic imagery of spinning doodads and magic hour car chases. Its two truly thrilling moment of danger involves our human leads walking above the former Sears’ Tower on thin cables and, later, dangling on the side of a towering apartment complex in Hong Kong. Falling. Now there’s a threat I get.
In typical Michael Bay fashion, the movie is a long, excessive display of a boyish arrested adolescent id, all machinery, explosions, machismo, flashes of skin, and libertarianism. He’s a bullying filmmaker, pushing intensity upon the audience at headache-making speed, always ready to throw hate on nerdy characters for a throwaway gag. Bay works without a filter. He’s always putting his whole messy, hypocritical, weird, cutting-edge/retrograde, complicated self up on screen, for good and bad. But he has an undeniable eye. He’s capable of making fun entertainments with his anything-goes, over-the-top, amped-up, explosive, glossy style. His gigantism is impressive. In another time, he would’ve made underrated Poverty Row B-movies, Grindhouse cult classics, beloved midnight movies. But he arrived at a time when Hollywood was looking for just his kind of gigantic indulgence for their biggest pictures, spilling noise and spectacle in indiscriminate clamor and cacophony.
I’ve liked as many of his movies as I haven’t, but when his action works it is because the goals make sense, the characters are vividly drawn, and the imagery snaps together with pleasingly chaotic momentum. Bay’s always making thunderous pop art nonsense, but increasing freedom with his spectacle has led to films that are out of control. Last year’s dark caper Pain & Gain, an overblown, almost-subliminal, autocritique, is a clear outlier. At this point, his hyperactive deadly asteroid disaster picture Armageddon, all the way back in 1998, seems almost an example of narrative economy. And about that one critic Bilge Ebiri wrote, “Its awesome gratuitousness borders on the experimental.” Extinction is big and dumb, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Loud, crass, violent, obnoxious, and a complete narrative and thematic mess, it’s cut together with supreme sloppiness and grindingly empty in all respects.
I’ve seen the trailer for Extinction quiet a chatty crowd instantly with its compelling imagery and intensity of motion. But string together shots of clattering junkheap machines slamming into each other while humans flee and fight below for three hours with only a flimsy plot and nothing characters behind it and it grows hard to take. There are real thrills here, fascinating shots and terrific effects work, but he’s a director who never knows when enough is enough. It’s what makes him so compelling and repelling, even in the same film. This one can be exciting and ugly, but is mostly grindingly dull. It’s unmodulated ear-splitting confusion. For a movie with nothing to say, it sure spends a long time loudly saying it.
I get the feeling the ultimate Bay film would do without plot altogether. It’d be Victoria’s Secret models on an American flag runway at an auto show, a bad standup comic ranting about women and immigrants, and fleets of helicopters fighting a sentient factory in the middle of a Linkin Park concert. Then, fireworks.