At the end of an especially long and acrimonious election season, it’s totally natural to want to just escape into some mindless entertainment. After more than a year of doom-saying and apocalyptic imagery pummeling you into submission, there’s nothing wrong with wanting some spectacle, some whiz-bang action and some light-hearted adventure to remind you that not everything is about hate and resentment. That’s what big blockbuster summer sequels are made for, after all. Well, most of them are. Unfortunately, there also exist movies like “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which leaves you feeling like you just watched a Super Bowl commercial for nihilism.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” has the distinction of being the second-most misanthropic movie I’ve ever seen, topped only by Sylvester Stallone’s “Cobra.” At least that movie had the excuse of being an R-rated cop movie made in the 1980s based on a trashy pulp novel. This movie is based on a line of toys and cartoons made for children but still somehow manages to be hateful, bleak, and practically irredeemable. This is a movie in which a villain character flippantly says “Just run them over!” during a car chase through a crowded street and it doesn’t land as a joke because it seems so thoroughly consistent with everything else we’ve seen up to that point. This is a movie where the hero solemnly says “Honor to the end” seconds after stabbing his enemy in the back and splitting his head open. This is a movie where not a single character is motivated by anything other than greed, mistrust, or hatred. It is a grueling experience, and ranks up there with “Happiness” as one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever watched. I write this review as a form of therapy.
The entire “Transformers” saga, if you can call it that, is the story of an endless quagmire of a war between the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Both sides are alien robots who transform into machines like cars and planes to avoid detection on Earth, and “Age of Extinction” picks up after the Autobots have apparently rid Earth of the Decepticons but destroyed Chicago in the process. Their leader, Optimus Prime, had formed an alliance with the United States but the winds have shifted and now the remaining Autobots are hunted by a government black ops team called Cemetery Wind and led by Kelsey Grammer. Grammer says he wants the Transformers wiped off the face of the Earth, but as it turns out he’s in league with a tech billionaire played by Stanley Tucci, who wants to steal Transformer technology for profit. Grammer also has help from a Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown.
Drawn into the mix is a Texas-based (but Boston-accented) eccentric inventor played by Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg salvages an old truck that turned out to be a shell-shocked Optimus Prime, and he pieces the giant robot back together in the hopes that he can turn a profit off the technology himself and save his farm. Once the government gets a bead on Optimus Prime, Wahlberg is off and running with Prime, the remaining Autobots, his teenage daughter and her slightly-too-old Irish boyfriend. Along the way, the heroes revive an ancient group of Transformers who take the form of dinosaurs, battle a pair of man-made Transformers based on the Autobots’ worst enemy, and fight over the possession of a bomb that could turn Earth into a robot world.
All of this sounds like a perfectly good mix for a fun sci-fi/action romp, but “Age of Extinction” is so relentlessly acrid it sucks all the fun out of even the idea of robot dinosaurs. The Autobots are bitter, battle-scarred, and callous – a trigger-happy bunch of scowling malcontents who fight not because they want to protect humanity but because they just want to get this shit over with. One of them, a fat bearded robot voiced by John Goodman, encounters an alien caged on Lockdown’s ship. He taunts it into spitting at him, then shoots it in the face and calls it “bitch.” Bumblebee, the ostensible kids’ favorite Autobot, speaks only in sound clips from his radio, many of which include the word “motherfucker.” The script explains that Transformers actually have a soul, but there’s very little evidence to back up that claim.
The soullessness of “Age of Extinction” isn’t helped much by Michael Bay’s direction or the overall look of the movie. Bay famously came from the world of music videos and commercials to direct glossy, hyperactive blockbusters like “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” and those sensibilities have become his hallmark. Wahlberg’s farm looks like a Chevy commercial is on the verge of breaking out at any moment, and even the gritty streets of Hong Kong look weirdly artificial through Bay’s lens.
That’s not to say that Bay’s style and tone are bad in and of themselves. “Pain & Gain” has a very similar sheen of sleaze and misanthropic heart, but it’s better suited in what amounts to Bay’s attempt at a Coen Brothers-like crime farce. In an adaptation of a children’s cartoon show, it’s like having Daniel Tosh deliver your grandmother’s eulogy. It’s a very poor fit if the movie is meant to be taken at face value, and a resounding failure if it’s supposed to be meant as a “Starship Troopers” kind of satire.
As if sitting through nearly three hours of pointless violence with no hope of redemption wasn’t enough, “Age of Extinction” concludes with one heck of a sequel hook – Optimus Prime flies into space intent on confronting the alien race that created the Transformers. Simply put, Optimus Prime is out to kill God, underscoring the meaninglessness and nastiness that has been the core of the movie to that point. Life, as the Transformers know it, is a pointless orgy of destruction and brutality, so perhaps sparing Earth from becoming a Transformers world is the one noble thing the Autobots accomplish, even if it is achieved through destruction.
Maybe the reason I’m down on the Transformers franchise is because it already feels superfluous to me. There already exists a movie series about a team of cartoonish characters who also exist as automotive avatars the can perform outlandish stunts. I’m talking about the “Fast & Furious” series, and for all its unchecked machismo and frenetic violence, it never once plumbs the depths of despair “Age of Extinction” sinks to. “Age of Extinction” is the rare summer blockbuster that seeks not to give us an escape from our troubles, but to present us with something potentially worse.