Transformers: Age of Extinction
Directed by Michael Bay. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, TJ Miller, Peter Cullen, Titus Welliver, Victoria Summer, Heather Danner, Cleo King, Michael Wong, Ray Lui, Ken Watanabe, Thomas Lennon, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Frank Welker, Reno Wilson, Mark Ryan, Robert Foxworth. Written by Ehren Kruger.
Note: Transformers: Age of Extinction is screening in both English and Czech-dubbed versions in Prague. Check showtimes before heading out to the cinema.
When Optimus Prime wields his mighty sword and rides into battle atop a dinosaur during the climax of Transformers: Age of Extinction, director Michael Bay’s fourth foray into robots-in-disguise franchise has finally gone back to its roots and delivered the goods. Pandering to the ten-year-old boy in all of us, this is some pretty cool stuff.
Of course, the roots of Transformers series ain’t exactly high art: Age of Extinction is co-produced by toy manufacturer Hasbro, who made the initial line of transforming toys in the mid-80s, the popular TV cartoon (and animated movie) alongside of them, and the previous three Bay-directed live-action films. Let’s not kid ourselves: these movies are designed to sell action figures. We pay our money, sit down, and watch a 3-hour toy commercial.
That’s what the public wants, it seems: the first three Transformers films have combined to gross $2.5 billion worldwide in theatrical revenue (I wonder how many toys that translates to). Despite horrific critical reception – the second and third films were two of the most punishing cinematic experiences I’ve had – each has grossed more than the last. That’s led director Bay – who hasn’t hid his desire to move away from the franchise – to come back for at least one more installment.
Surprisingly, his Transformers 4 atones for the sins of its predecessors and does exactly what it should: sell toys. This time around, the titular robots have a lot more screen time and story focus, and are much better defined: instead of the metallic scrap heaps of the previous films, these characters are fluidly-designed and distinguishable from each other. That means we can actually understand who is pummeling who in the action sequences. Bravo.
Chief among the Transformers is Optimus Prime (voiced by the irreplaceable Peter Cullen, one of the few constants throughout the entire series), leader of the Autobots, who are in hiding after the events of the previous film – namely, the destruction of Chicago. Autobot, Decepticon, it doesn’t seem to matter – giant robots have gone out of fashion following the presumed offscreen deaths of hundreds of thousands in Dark of the Moon.
Instead of gung-ho jingoism of the previous features, the US government is now the enemy here, with misguided black-ops official Harold Attinger (played by a one-note Kelsey Grammar) not only seeking to eliminate them, but also harvest their technology so a mega-corporation KSI, headed by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), can build its own army of transforming robots.
While Joyce has created a man-made Transformer from leftover pieces of Megatron, now named Galvatron (and voiced, again, by Frank Welker) – a bad idea, by the way – Attinger recruits alien bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan) to hunt down Prime and the remaining Autobots on Earth. This isn’t going to end well.
Lockdown – a Transformer unlike any we’ve seen before, with a city-sized spaceship and a pack of robot hounds – has his own reasons for hunting down Prime: something to do with God-like “creators” and an apocalyptic “seed” that wiped out the dinosaurs and is now in play to create another apocalypse. This ain’t Prometheus, but kudos to returning scribe Ehren Kruger for injecting some heady sci-fi ideas in-between the action.
Of course, the government didn’t count on struggling Texas inventor Cade Yeager (what a name!), who discovers a beat-up Prime, disguised as a rusted semi, in a dilapidated city cinema and restores him to proper health. Played by Mark Wahlberg in mindless action-movie mode (a perfect match for the franchise, and a huge upgrade over Shia LaBeouf’s suburban teen), Yeager is the one human character we care about here; a daughter, played by Nicola Peltz, and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) have little to do besides get caught up in all the action.
Of course, the human characters aren’t why we’re watching a Transformers movie, and that’s one thing Age of Extinction gets absolutely right: the robots are the focus here, with a world-weary Prime collecting the remaining Autobots to find out why they’re being hunted down.
Those Autobots include returning characters Bumblebee and Brains (voiced by Reno Wilson) and new additions Hound (John Goodman), who chomps a metallic cigar while awkwardly rolling into battle as an Oshkosh tactical vehicle, Crosshairs (Futurama’s John Dimaggio, doing his best Jason Statham impression), who parachutes out of a spaceship when he’s not a Corvette; and samurai warrior Drift (Ken Watanabe), who turns into a Bugatti Veyron.
After the first three films, I couldn’t name another Transformer besides Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron – they were all indistinguishable heaps of metal pounding away at each other. But here, each one has a distinct personality, even if most are unfortunate stereotypes (when the Stepin Fetchit-like Brains quotes Martin Luther King Jr., I almost lost it).
That makes the action in Age of Extinction easy to follow, and the extended robot battle sequences (in Chicago, aboard Lockdown’s alien spacecraft, and finally in Hong Kong – which looks great here as a sprawling metropolis, as opposed to the rinkydink Chinatown of Pacific Rim) are genuinely fun. What Bay lacks as a storyteller he makes up for as an action director: while most blockbusters hide their CGI f/x in shadows, Bay films it all in glorious daylight. He knows why we’ve come to see these movies.
And he knows what the ten-year-old boy in all of us wants to see: freaking robot dinosaurs, “legendary warriors” that Prime tames and then rides into battle with his Autobot brethren. As the Autobots fight for Hong Kong with the Dinobots – a T-Rex, Pterodactyl, Spinosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor – by their side, against all storytelling sense Age of Extinction finally wore me down and won me over. Despite an almost-punishing 165-minute running time, this is the kind of action figure fun a Transformers movie should offer.
I caught Transformers: Age of Extinction in IMAX 3D, where the image looked simply incredible: roughly half of the film has been shot for IMAX screens (the film constantly shifts between standard 2:35 widescreen and a squarer 1.85:1 (or even 1.66:1?) IMAX scope). While the 3D didn’t do much for me, the IMAX shots here are some of the clearest I’ve ever seen in a cinema. If you’re going to see Transformers 4, this is the place to see it.