You don’t have to be a spazzy gearhead to know all about built-in obsolescence, the concept that all consumer products are intended to conk out on a specific timeline. Anyone who’s ever bricked their smartphone after uploading the latest operating system knows the pain of the custom. Normally, the obsolescence applies to objects you can keep in your pocket or on the kitchen counter, but now comes definitive proof that it also affects pop entertainments. What’s surprising is that a director as merchandise-oriented as Michael Bay would allow his showroom model to stall out to this stultifying extent. Not that the Transformers series ever held promise to do anything more than make summer moviegoers temporarily forget how horrible the previous entry was, but even by these lowered standards, the 2014 model sags conspicuously under the weight of its accrued event-movie baggage. Forget iPhones from more than two years ago. The pacing of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s 165 monotonous minutes is so torpid, it feels like it’s being dictated character-by-character from an Apple Newton.
The third, microscopically underrated entry in the series ditched Megan Fox’s thigh gaps in favor of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s. And the fact that the fourth film trades in for Nicola Peltz, obediently prancing around in trial-size Daisy Dukes, would be the confirmation no one needed of Bay’s belief that women are interchangeable if only he hadn’t also jettisoned the rest of his franchise’s cast. Sure, no one is going to miss Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky wrestling his own mental health to the mat. But is everyone ready for Mark Wahlberg to tap in with another test run of his wooden “surprise face”?
Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a fruitless tinkerer in Texas with a 10-gallon barn full of failed inventions. While searching through the ruins of an old movie house, Cade finds a semi truck parked absurdly among the tattered theater seats and tows it home. Spoiler alert: It’s Optimus Prime. (Since there are some franchise devotees who take playtime very seriously, anyone concerned about actual spoilers should check out now.) It takes one ill-advised phone call and about 13 seconds before the full force of governmental black ops descends on Yeager’s ranch. Why? Because even though the Autobots have now saved the human race multiple times, evil C.I.A. head
Sideshow Bob Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has decided that interstellar aliens aren’t subject to good-bad classifications. They’re all undocumented workers and need to be destroyed. Or at least that’s the impression he wants to give, even as he’s secretly aligning himself with spoiled tech-entrepreneur Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, channeling Steve Jobs by way of Robert Downey Jr.) to explore the elemental breakdown of the Transformers’ genetic materials.
And then comes 95 minutes’ worth of explosions, shattering glass, and the spectacle of what it looks and sounds like when the steel flesh is ripped from living, breathing skyscrapers, all accompanied by composer Steve Jablonsky’s musical score of diarrheic robot farts and Bay’s apparently still festering amusement over what minorities look like when they’re running away from scary shit. Bay is self-aware enough to knowingly make fun of his movies’ corrupt iconography, and as per usual establishes early on an inviting sense of junky mockery, as when the owner of the theater where Cade picks up the incognito Optimus waxes meta about how the Art Deco palace didn’t stand a chance when audiences got hooked on endless sequels and remakes. But as always, the tone of his delivery shifts the moment the camera starts caressing chrome and heavy artillery.
Lost amid the tedious chaos is the slapdash script’s one germ of an interesting idea, namely the tension between the ’bots and the humans over which group is really holding the reins, both within the story and regarding the film itself. What bothered so many about the latest Godzilla was the obdurate indifference that film’s monsters seemed to have for the human drama below. Bay’s framing confirms his viewpoint as the total inverse of Gareth Edwards’s: He shoots his chaos from above and his human protagonists from below, emphasizing their default centrality. It betrays Bay’s lack of genuine wonder, and explains why his Transformers series’s “more than meets the eye” becomes far less than what captures the imagination. And still, it remains easy to see what continues to attract pop avant-gardists to Bay’s brand of blockbuster filmmaking. No other comparable director can, in pursuit of the endless climax, so thoroughly rob his films of basic spurious excitement. No one else can deliberately edit their action sequences to more absurdly avoid money shots. No one is better at making fast slow.