Age of Extinction is hands-down the best film in the modern Transformers franchise. This isn’t to say that it’s a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least I didn’t find this one painful to sit through. Michael Bay seems to be sick and tired of making these damn things, and paradoxically, his laziness is taking over his baser instincts and he’s directed a better film than when he’s actually tried in the past. The film is still over-long and unnecessarily padded, but the action is at least somewhat fun and if explosions are your thing, they’re still here in abundance.
The plot starts off focusing on new characters, headed by Mark Wahlberg as a down-on-his-luck inventor and his teenage daughter. These characters are just as one-dimensional as any of Bay’s past Transformers characters, but the major benefit here is that since Wahlberg is supposed to be the relatable character, we’re saved the adolescent objectification of our female lead, since creeping on the protagonist’s teenage daughter apparently crosses a line. Anyway, Wahlberg accidentally comes across Optimus Prime in hiding from the U.S. government, who is now in league with a robot bounty hunter that is after Optimus’s head for some reason or another. Wahlberg, Optimus and company must now flee the government and also prevent it from creating a knock-off Transformer army of its own. Whereas the previous films had one very simple plot that took convoluted and circuitous routes, this film has too many plots overlapping and competing for screentime. As a consequence, the film feels bloated with too many new story elements that function primarily as teasers for sequels.
On the flipside, however, the film has done away with the franchise’s fascination with nameless dudes in military regalia, and so now the brunt of the film’s storytelling and action falls on the metallic shoulders of the Transformers themselves. With a cast of five main Autobots that have colorful designs and distinctive voice actors (if not unique personalities), this is the best that the robots have ever looked in their own movies, and while I recognize that this isn’t much of an endorsement, the difference is noticeable. They actually engage in dialogue with each other and aren’t relegated to simply being military lapdogs; there’s actually an attempt to acknowledge their alien background and their relationship with humanity as a whole. The characters aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make it work, but it’s a step in the right direction, and one that I hope future directors in the post-Bay Transformers films will deign to capitalize on.
Despite the bulk of this review focusing on the improvements this film has brought to the franchise, I still want to emphasize that Age of Extinction is not a good film by any means. The plots are simultaneously dumb and overcomplicated, the characters are cardboard cut-out archetypes that offer nothing interesting to the narrative, the editing still jumps around so much that you have to piece the shots together with your imagination rather than comprehend what’s actually happening, and the whole experience feels phoned-in and lazy. But if that’s all the negativity I can force myself to muster at a Transformers movie, the franchise’s status has been elevated from abysmally awful to simply below-average. It certainly wasn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, and its stupidity is, at worst, inoffensive. I don’t recommend seeing it, but perhaps the groundwork has been laid for better installments to come.
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