Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

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★★☆☆☆
Two Stars

A lot of people were breathless in anticipation of the release of the new Transformers, but perhaps none more so than me, as I panted through the Odeon lobby and sat down ten minutes into the showing. I was late and deathly afraid that I had missed key plot points, character exposition and scene setting.

I had purposefully waited to see Michael Bay’s latest contribution to cinema, in order to let all the hype die down. I didn’t want to be influenced by talk of how it will breeze past a billion dollars at the box office, how it was the biggest ever film to open in China or that it had received dreadful reviews. I tried to go into Transformers: Age of Extinction with an open mind.

To my credit, I’m not a card-carrying member of the ardent ‘Michael Bay is cinema’s Antichrist’ lobbying group. The previous Transformers didn’t rile me; they just melded into an orgiastic montage of bright colours, sparks, and unnerving numbers of up-skirt shots. And to be honest, I didn’t really hate this one either. I wasn’t left angry or annoyed. I was just left dazed and confused and with a mountain of questions.

I’m going to leave out the story synopsis, because it’s exactly the same as the previous three films. In a nutshell, aliens arrive and the robots fight each other. It’s more interesting to notice what’s new about this latest edition to the growing Hasbro canon. For one, gone is charisma-vacuum Shia LaBeouf, replaced by hard man Mark Wahlberg. An interesting switch? No, not even slightly. It would be interesting if Bay paid attention to his human characters. But he doesn’t. So it doesn’t matter who the actors are. There are also now robots than can transform into dinosaurs. They’re called Dinobots. Obviously.

But the most interesting change for the franchise as a whole, in terms of marketing, is that more than half the film is set in China. It’s a change not driven by artistic intent, but one to try and crack the single largest cinema audience in the world. That’s why Bingbing Li, one of China’s most famous actresses, features prominently.

It’s probably also why it seems like the film was paid for entirely by the Chinese Tourism Board, flitting as it does between snazzy urban metropolises to picturesque ruins and idyllic valleys. And why the Chinese government gets some cracking positive publicity, where they valiantly and completely free of any agenda pledge to protect Hong Kong. And why Optimus Prime now has ‘Visit China’ lasered onto his face (that’s not true).

Acting wise, it’s pretty non-existent. Mark Wahlberg frowns occasionally. And to give him credit, it is a good frown. Stanley Tucci shouts and swears. Kelsey Grammar is hideously miscast as the villain. He has a naturally smiley face. That’s not frightening. And he’s the voice of Sideshow Bob, who is far more villainy than the cack-handed bad guy role he’s landed here. Nicola Peltz, playing Walhberg’s daughter, is so wooden she makes a scarecrow look like a rhythmic gymnast. And Titus Welliver, playing another villain, has a great name. Safe to say, the acting is pretty thin on the ground. Thin in the air too. Just generally pretty trim.

If I could level one original aspect of criticism at Michael Bay, it’s that his understanding of head injuries and casualty counts is suspect at best. Near the beginning, Optimus Prime whacks a man in the head with a gun the size of a vending machine, and does the victim’s head explode like a melon being hit with a sledgehammer? No. He gets a bruise.

Let me remind you that Optimus is a 28 feet tall robot, who weighs 4.3 tonnes, and can flip cars with a finger. A few minutes later, there’s a slo-mo sequence where a rally car hits a man in the face. Does his head explode? You don’t seem to be getting the pattern here. I don’t really have a choice but to dock some points for that. Poor show Michael. 

But on the bright side, it’s revealed that in the battle at the end of the last film that levelled the entirety of Chicago, apparently only 1300 people died. In a battle that destroyed an entire city. A city that hadn’t been evacuated or had any shelter system of even the most rudimentary kind installed. So that’s a plus.

One thing that didn’t bother me was the 2 hours and 45 minute running time. That is almost a lethal spell to be in a cinema for. A period of time so extended that there should be adverts beforehand warning of DVT. 2001: A Space Odyssey was just over 2 hours long, and that goes from the origins of man to the birth of a new species. Transformers doesn’t. In 2 hours and 45 minutes you could fly to Malta, or Romania or Iceland. But I was so engrossed in trying to keep a mental list of all the plot holes that I didn’t notice the running time at all.

It’s like they used the first draft of the script that no one had re-read; it was more full of holes than the Titanic, a packet of Hula Hoops and a colander combined.

Why is Optimus in an abandoned cinema at the beginning of the film? You would expect to find a lot of interesting stuff in an old cinema, but not a mortar-shelled HGV lorry. How does Wahlberg’s character, a jumped-up electrician, have the requisite skill and knowledge to repair an alien transforming robot who even says he needs his robot friends to fix him? Why, when Optimus is on the run from the government and needs to be covert, does he repaint himself in the gaudy red and blue that he is globally infamous for looking like? How does Wahlberg, a man wanted by the CIA, walk through the front door into a top security arms-production plant? Why does a ship designed for 28 feet tall robots carry guns that are human-sized? Since when can Optimus fly? Wouldn’t that have been a useful thing to crack out, oh, I don’t know, in any of the three preceding films? Where do all the new Autobots come from? Why are the dinosaur robots left to randomly roam across China at the end of the film? Why do all the characters insist on using lifts when it is manifest that collapsing buildings are regular occurrences? 

But if counting that isn’t entertaining enough, then you could also try and keep track of the number of product placement scenes in the film. What with the contribution by the Chinese Tourism Board and the breathtaking number of crass advert moments, this could well be the first blockbuster film to have no budget at all.

It is nice that the product placement scenes are made to seem almost coincidental. So now, when the robots transform, it just happens that the car logo stays on their chest. Or that Stanley Tucci really did want a carton of Shuhua milk after being chased to the top of a building by government assassins. Or that a bus with Victoria Secret emblazoned on it just happened to be in the middle of an extended panning shot. Or that the alien ship just happened to crash into a Budweiser Light truck. Or that there is now a transformer that turns into a Beats speaker. But then again, what else would you expect from a film franchise that has to have a mandatory trademark insignia in the title?

In the end, the film is exactly what I was expecting. It was like meeting an old acquaintance, whom you were never very fond of to begin with, and asking them to urinate into your eyes. All you’re left with is a warm stream of sterile repetitiveness marinating your retinas. 

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