Transformers: Age of Extinction, which opens this Friday in 4,000 theaters, is one of the biggest, noisiest, most stupid, and, yes, most dazzling movies ever made. It manages to be extremely complicated and full of nothingness at the same time. It's a feature based on an '80s Hasbro toy line that makes use of the most cutting edge filmmaking and special effects technology available. It has product placement so blatant and shameless, it's kind of awesome. It has dinosaur robots and nanobot ones, as well as a Transformer voiced by John Goodman who's basically just John Goodman in the form of a giant metal dude who can turn into a military truck. And he has a robot beard, raising so many questions about Transformer facial hair that — spoilers! — remain unanswered.
Director Michael Bay, Hollywood's über-bro and a legitimate virtuoso when it comes to pure spectacle, has overseen all four of the films in this franchise (soon to be five), and watching them for me has become a deeply conflicting experience. On one hand, these movies are ridiculous — incoherent, overlong, containing insanely terrible instances of dialogue, character development, and story twists. On the other hand, these movies are ridiculous — they're gleeful odes to excess that never pretend to be anything else than the cinematic equivalent of a double hamburger topped with bacon sandwiched between two grilled cheeses instead of buns.
With Transformers: Age of Extinction opening this week, here's my conversation with myself over how I feel about the movie. In keeping with the spirit of the franchise, I've labeled my pro side "Autobot" and the con "Decepticon."
Autobot: At a time when movies have gotten very exposition-happy, there's something giddily freeing about how little interest Transformers: Age of Extinction has in consistency or even explaining what's going on. What became of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the hero of the past three films? Who cares! He's unmentioned in this new installment, even as his good friend Bumblebee has, like all Transformers, become prey for a special black ops CIA department headed up by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and led on the ground by James Savoy (Titus Welliver, who deserves an Oscar for the way he delivers the line, "My face is my warrant!" when asked for one).
In the indeterminate time since the Chicago battle of 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harold's led a secret campaign to exterminate all Transformers that the White House is somehow unaware of. He's partnered with a hubristic Steve Jobs-type, a billionaire entrepreneur named Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who's making man-made Transformers by melting dead ones to harvest the material they're made of, which is called, hilariously, Transformium. None of this makes sense, per se — Harold's motivations are best described as "being evil" and if Transformium's as great as it's depicted, just making weapons out of it is a huge waste. But the movie never gets bogged down in such niceties, charging headlong for an almost three-hour running time toward the next big set piece.
Decepticon: But that lack of coherence also means so many things are laughably out of the blue. For example, this installment has been heralded for including the arrival of the Dinobots, supersized Transformers who turn into dinosaurs instead of vehicles or appliances for...some reason, probably. Transformers: Age of Extinction even starts out with a Prometheus-like flashback to prehistoric times that shows spaceships causing an early extinction event. Ah, you think, an origin story — but no, when the Dinobots appear, they're in no apparent way linked, and even other Transformers are surprised when one turns into a T-rex. Their fate at the end of the movie is priceless, but not as funny as when one character suddenly reveals an ability to fly that would have come in handy earlier.
There are also so many bad and semi-bad guys in this movie — there's the human combo of Harold, James, and Joshua, then there are wicked Transformers Galvatron and Stinger, plus some kind of cybertronian mercenary named Lockdown. They're all chasing down vague, poorly outlined goals that lead them to intersect in crushing city battles (Chicago and Hong Kong) where it's easy to forget who's firing at our heroes. The movie's got a plot it'd be nearly impossible to recount to someone after seeing it, and that's not because it's so incredibly clever.
Autobot: But Mark Wahlberg's entertaining in the part of Texas single dad Cade Yeager, because he plays exactly to the level of the movie. He can be a savvy actor, but here, he doesn't try to be convincing as a Texan or as a struggling robotics entrepreneur at all — he declares he's an inventor with himbo conviction that recalls Denise Richards announcing herself as a doctor of physics in The World Is Not Enough, and he fills out a tight shirt just as impressively. Cade's also the audience stand-in in terms of stunned expressions — if Steven Spielberg is known for having characters stare in awe, Bay's signature face is a kind of slackjawed, half-brainless and half-terrified shock. Not that Cade doesn't also enjoy himself — he takes the time to note, mid-fight, "This alien gun can really kick ass!"
Decepticon: OK, but Cade's teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) may be the worst female character Bay's ever included in a movie, and this from a director who shot Megan Fox as if she were a human blow-up doll. Tessa's relentlessly leered at by the camera while also being used as a helpless thing to be rescued and protected — the film cuts multiple times to her weeping face, while also showcasing that she's had time to reapply her lip gloss between alien robot shootouts. One particular scene involving wires strung from a spaceship is so annoying, I longed for the character to fall to her death, which would also mean an end to the creepy dad-has-a-shotgun bickering between Cade and Shane (Jack Reynor), the boyfriend Tessa's been keeping secret. It's meant to be silly, but verges on purity-ball worthy (Cade even forbids his daughter from taking a date to prom, offering to be her chaperone instead). At least Reynor's almost as objectified as Peltz.
Autobot: Transformers: Age of Extinction is as contemporary as a blockbuster can be — not just in terms of the visual effects, which are, as always, solid, sumptuous, and shown off in periodic, lush slow motion, but as a piece of modern movie product. The feature starts off in a shuttered old theater where there's some metacommentary about the state of cinema ("Movies these days — sequels and remakes, bunch of crap," mutters the elderly owner). But Age of Extinction is the future of the medium: a franchise as pitched to international audiences as it is American ones. The action doesn't move to the other side of the globe halfway through on a whim — the film's co-produced by China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises, and features Chinese actress Li Bingbing in a prominent role as well as a gratuitous nod to the central Chinese government's willingness to protect Hong Kong.
It also features product placement so obvious, it becomes a punchline — not only do cans of Bud Light get scattered on the ground after some Transformer-led crash, but Wahlberg picks one up, and drinks some of it! Plopping down logos in the middle of sequences of mass destruction come across as jokes, intentional or not, and the movie may have the first instance of Chinese product placement I've ever scene, as Li and then Tucci take very carefully framed drinks from label-facing-out containers. It's so boldly crass, it makes you want to crush a beer can (maybe of the Budweiser family) on your forehead while hollering, "'Merica!" — except we clearly don't have a monopoly on such things anymore.
Decepticon: You can read the movie as pro-government transparency, or anti-corporate, or pro- or anti-globalism. It's messy enough that, like a Rorschach blot, it yields whatever meaning you'd like if you stare at it long enough. But it's so crazily empty headed that by the end, even the characters seem to be getting loopy, as they engage in endless dialogue over whose responsibility it is to trust and respect who — that many numbing explosions, shootouts, giant robot wars, and Dinobot riding will get anyone a little wacky.
Autobot: But the brashness of the movie, it's refusal to be anything other than dumb and fun in the most vacant of ways, also creates a gravitational pull. For whatever it's worth, few features this year will be so fabulously visual.
Decepticon: Yeah, visuals of trucks and cars that turn into robots.
Autobot: Robots in disguise!
Decepticon: Well, if they really wanted to hide out, they could just grow mustaches. Apparently, Transformers can do that.