★ ★ ★ ½
If you’ve been onboard with the Transformers franchise this long, you have some pretty well-formed expectations by now for what these movies will give you—both good and bad. So let’s just view the latest edition, Transformers: Age of Extinction, on a relative scale: This is probably the best film so far in the series. Michael Bay seems to have addressed a lot of the criticisms levied at the past few Transformers movies, because his latest Optimus Prime opus improves on numerous things viewers and critics have complained about. Although it should be said that some Bay-isms, for better or worse, remain the same. Let’s go point by point.
Here’s the first note Michael Bay took to heart: Everybody’s sick of Shia LaBeouf. This movie instead stars Mark Wahlberg as a down-on-his-luck, rural-dwelling robotics engineer/quirky but buff tinkerer named Cade Yeager, who’s been raising his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) alone since her mom died many years ago. They live in a picturesque farmhouse on a bucolic dirt road, where he repairs local machinery and electronics in the barn in between inventing his own robotic contraptions and scrapping giant, mysterious Mack trucks he unexpectedly discovers on junking trips with his comic-relief buddy Lucas (T.J. Miller). But none of this pays the bills, and their house is being foreclosed on.
Then one Mack truck turns out to be Optimus Prime. The leader of the Autobots needs help and Cade fixes him up a bit, but soon a cadre of Black Ops secret agents show up and threaten to kill everybody because, apparently, the director of the CIA (Kelsey Grammer) has decided that it doesn’t matter if a Transformer is a good guy (an Autobot) or a bad guy (a Deceptacon), they’re all aliens and they should all be exterminated. Have you seen any of the X-Men movies? It’s like that.
Just then, a blond, ruddy-faced, Australian-looking kid (who’s actually Irish) shows up and rescues everybody in his rally car. Turns out he’s Tessa’s secret boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), whom she’s somehow been regularly drag racing with while her overprotective dad failed to notice. The group take off, eventually meeting up with Optimus and the only four other Autobots left on Earth.
This is a good moment to point out another note Bay took from the public opinion: The Transformers in this movie look visually distinct. When one robot gets into a fight with another robot, it’s not a blur of metallic crunching; you can actually see who is fighting whom. The five Autobots have distinct faces, colors, and themes: One is a fat, steel-cigar-chomping soldier with a chain-link beard (voiced by John Goodman); one is a metallic samurai (Ken Watanabe); one wears a bright-green coat and for some reason is British (John DiMaggio); and one is everybody’s favorite underdog, the extremely yellow Bumblebee. Even Optimus himself gets a more articulate, human-looking face and a brighter-blue paintjob.
Which leads to another complaint from audiences that Bay heard loud and clear: We’re here for Optimus Prime. Still played by Peter Cullen, who voiced the character in the 1984 cartoon series, the warrior king of our childhood psyches evinces wonderment and affection with that resonant call to arms, “Autobots, assemble!,” and Bay finally knows it. He makes Optimus the emotional heart of his ridiculous sci-fi story, trusting that our reverence for him will be enough. Relatively speaking (for the Transformers series), it is.
It also helps that Bay cut down the sheer number of robot characters to the small quintet of Autobots we follow throughout the story. But one area where he hasn’t learned his lesson is the runtime. It’s nearly three hours long, and the biggest bit of Optimus Prime-related applause happens at almost two hours and 25 minutes into the film. Audiences might be too worn out by Bay’s impossibly deft action-sequence staging to cheer, even if it’s the most badass moment in the movie (OPTIMUS PRIME ON A T. REX!), and that’s because there are still way too many bad guys and semi-inscrutable plot lines tying everything together. There’s the aforementioned CIA baddy played by Grammer, a pointlessly evil field op (Titus Welliver), a soulless technology mogul (Stanley Tucci), a new Deceptacon kingpin, a legion of fighting-robot minions, AND a random Deceptacon mercenary from space with a completely unintelligible agenda.
Additionally, while the joyless Man of Steel hopefully reminded action fans of the value of a little exuberance and humor, Bay’s bottom-of-the-barrel taste occasionally veers from brainless fun to kind of a bummer. As an example, during a prison raid into the Deceptacons’ brig, the cigar-chomping Autobot gets spat on by a buggy-looking monster in a cage, so he shoots it. The moment is played for laughs, but something about it seems like he’s shooting an ugly dog—the audience just cringes.
And for a movie based on a toy franchise, the number of people/Transformers/dinosaurs that get violently flash-incinerated, ripped apart limb from limb, or crushed in a destroyed building can just feel weird sometimes. Not to mention that all of the women in the film were lifted out of either an ’80s beer ad or a Helmut Newton photo. All the perfect lipstick, unchipped nail polish, and high heels worn in every situation get sort of glaring after a while. It’s not that Bay seems aggressively hateful, but he does seem weirdly clueless—like nobody will wonder why every single woman in his movie must be wearing false eyelashes at all times. Meanwhile, Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci just look like middle-aged dudes.
Clearly, none of this is an effective deal breaker. We’re four films in; if you’re down for a Transformers movie, you’re definitely down for this one. And hey, nobody can deny that hot babes in short shorts might be on your list for what you want from a Michael Bay film. But nothing beats Optimus Prime riding a T. rex.