TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
After the conclusion of its dialogue-free, if very noisy, prelude - one in which we discover that it was actually extraterrestrial robots, and not the Ice Age, that killed off the dinosaurs - the first words heard in Transformers: Age of Extinction are "Oh, shit!" I took that line as a metaphor for what we could expect over the next two and a half hours, but then, during my Friday-morning screening, it was immediately followed by another outburst: the sound of the little kid behind me laughing his ass off.
I never got a look at this child, the timbre of whose voice suggested he was probably seven or eight. But there was no mistaking his giddiness upon hearing that early expletive, or the many expletives that came afterward, and it was impossible to ignore the boy's joy whenever a Transformer morphed from a car into a robot or a robot into a car, because he applauded the sight nearly every single time. (As you might imagine, this kid wound up applauding a lot.) And he wasn't alone. The screening, a relatively packed one for 10:30 a.m. on a weekday, found dozens of tykes cackling and clapping throughout, and as soon as "Directed by Michael Bay" kicked off the end credits, there was sustained applause (and not just from the kids) that lasted from the moment I stood up to after I'd exited the auditorium. That's when the crowd's collective reaction finally made perfect sense to me. They weren't applauding a typically epic-sized, live-action Transformers movie; they were applauding something much rarer: an epic-sized Transformers cartoon with cuss words.
Although, as a 46-year-old, I personally missed the boat, I understand there are a great many viewers who grew up, or are currently growing up, adoring animated Transformers series and feature-length specials on TV and home video. For them, Age of Extinction has to be close to nirvana, because there's almost nothing on-screen to suggest anything beyond a cartoon sensibility - even lead Mark Wahlberg, still showing off the intimidating bulk he put on for last year's Michael Bay comedy Pain & Gain, looks more like Alley Oop than a flesh-and-blood human. (His character Cade Yaeger is also a crackpot inventor here, just like Belle's dad or Gromit's Wallace or the hero of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.) Compared to the relative realism of the movie's many crumbling edifices, the Autobots' and Decepticons' "miraculous" transformations carry the obvious sheen of CGI animation, with the robots' alternately portentous and jokey vocal performances further suggesting a wholly cartoon universe. (John Goodman voices a comically cantankerous grump named Hound who, in a witty touch, smokes a mechanical cigar and, in a less witty touch, blasts away at an adversary with "Take that, bitch!") The storyline is pure Saturday-morning fare, from the vagueness of its central, governmental-conspiracy plot to its clichéd family dynamics, with Wahlberg playing an obsessively overprotective dad who, we're told, bought his 17-year-old daughter a prom dress but wouldn't let her attend the prom without him as her date. (Nicola Peltz, who plays this poor girl, barely exists beyond her wide eyes and endless legs and constant cries of "Help me, Daddy!")
And can anything other than a cartoon be intended when Stanley Tucci, who starts the film as a mildly menacing plutocrat, winds up a cowering, shrieking ninny sucking on a Chinese juice box? Or when Autobots crash through the streets of Hong Kong on the backs of mechanical dinosaurs? Or when one of the crowd-favorite "ethnic" 'bots surveys some impending peril and, summoning his inner Will Smith, exclaims, "Aw, hell, no!" Neither the action nor screenwriter Ehren Kruger's dialogue, in Age of Extinction, ever rises above what a moderately sharp third-grader would come up with in his first comic book, and that appears to be just what the film's delighted fans are responding to. Bay's third Transformers sequel is like a home movie made on a $165-million budget, with a million spent for every minute of its running length. One exceptionally smart action scene, or true narrative surprise, or punchline that could only be gleaned by viewers older than the kid sitting behind me, and the whole thing would fall apart.
As probably goes without saying by this point, I was irritated and bored by Transformers: Age of Extinction practically throughout. But thankfully, unlike with 2009's Revenge of the Fallen - still the series', and maybe modern cinema's, nadir - I did manage to occasionally enjoy myself. As previously suggested, the collapsing debris as Decepticons laid waste to Chicago and Hong Kong was impressively realized, and made for a nice change from 2011's Dark of the Moon, when it was only the Windy City that got pummeled for an entire hour. (Also a nice change: the complete absence of Shia LaBeouf, though I was secretly rooting for cameos by screen parents Julie White and Kevin Dunn.) While I couldn't fathom the purpose behind the climactic spaceship's magnetizing powers - with seemingly every vehicle and metallic object in Hong Kong lifted to the heavens for a few blocks before crashing back to Earth - the effects in this sequence did provide a kick. And Thomas Lennon shows up a couple of times as the president's obsequious chief of staff, and his amusing, stammering nervousness immediately suggested the sorry state this fictional USA must be in. Yet what's the point in damning with faint praise? Whatever your personal feelings about the movie, you can't say Age of Extinction isn't giving its base exactly what it wants - even if you can't say Age of Extinction without saying "stinks," either.