This year, the big guns are pulled the week before the holiday, in form of Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," the fourth (!) entry in the based-on-the-plastic-toys franchise that began way back in 2007 with a relatively straightforward (and fun) tale of a teenage boy and his first car, which turns out to be a robotic alien shape-shifter. Ah, those were simpler times.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is, like all of the other movies, directed (with flair) by Michael Bay, a man whose last film was last year's "low budget" crime movie "Pain & Gain." (Even on a smaller scale, he managed to indulge brilliantly, like cramming in more self-aware voice over narration than "Casino.") Well, Bay is back doing what Bay does best: pitting the heroic Autobots against the more morally questionable Decepticons, and letting them get at it. (Yes, there are some humans, who are this time played by Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, and Kelsey Grammer, amongst others.)
So does the pyrotechnically-prone Bay pull off a late-in-the-series triumph? Or is this a case of been there, transformed that?
1. The Talk of an In-Franchise Reboot Have Been Grossly Overstated
There was a lot of chatter before the movie opened that it would be something of an in-series reboot, considering the entirety of the human cast (led by Shia LeBeouf) had been jettisoned and replaced, and only a handful of the Autobots that we know and love were scheduled to return (Bumblebee, we love you!) This was a way for Bay to keep things interesting, to refresh the franchise while also chugging along with what had come before it. And for a while you get the sense that this is true, with the opening of the movie having a cool, homespun "Friday Night Lights" vibe, as we're introduced to Wahlberg's inventor (WHOSE NAME IS CADE YEAGER) and his improbably hot daughter (Nicola Peltz), who, despite living in some backwater Texas town, looks like a glamorous supermodel, plucked and waxed and lacquered within an inch of her life. (The Texas setting, combined with a dinosaur-filled prologue, and many honeyed shots of sunset, make you feel like Bay might be making a run at Terrence Malick and "Tree of Life." This is probably wishful thinking.) But then the movie starts referencing the events of the last film -- the big battle that destroyed much of Chicago and the fact that evil aliens and shadowy members of the United States government are hunting Optimus Prime (voiced, since the original animated series, by Peter Cullen). Then it becomes very clear: this is just the next movie, with a slightly reconfigured cast. Now I get it.
2. It's a Lot Like the Third One
The third "Transformers" movie, 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," was probably the second best entry in the franchise, after the original, and had a whole bunch of genuinely dazzling imagery (like the space battle prologue and the climactic Chicago showdown) and ballsy narrative flourishes (including a JFK-centered opening sequence that played like Oliver Stone-goes-summer blockbuster). So it's understandable that they'd want to return to that well again, but so soon? And so explicitly? There's more wanton destruction, again of Chicago but also of urban Hong Kong, and some of the same spaceships from the earlier film (I think). It's all just a little too familiar. Transformers can literally do anything. And yet they just keep doing the same things.
3. The Plot Is Indecipherable
These movies have never made much sense but they've also gotten progressively nonsensical. To the point that I had no idea what was happening in any scene, really, and was even more confused how one scene connected to the next (much less to several scenes down the line). Maybe this is some kind of experimental filmmaking Bay is attempting and this will be studied and dissected for decades to come. But I kind of doubt that.
4. It's Both Action-Packed and Totally Boring
There is so much destruction and carnage and robots crashing into buildings that it becomes numbing and, honestly, a bit dull. The usual "beats" of an action sequence, the careful placement of suspense and tension, are all gone, replaced instead by large swaths of ransacking madness. Not only is the plot incoherent, but the action is too; it stops working on any kind of level as something we would identify as a movie. Also:
5. The Running Time Is Nearly 3-Hours
So just keep that in mind. It's almost the same length as "Boyhood," where you watch a kid age 12 years. Woof.
6. T.J. Miller Is Great
If you have seen "Silicon Valley," then you know how amazing T.J. Miller is. Here he gets to flex his comedic muscle as a doofus who works alongside Wahlberg's CADE YEAGER. (Do you understand? His name is CADE YEAGER. No one in the history of mankind or autobot has ever been named CADE YEAGER. NEVER.) There's a great chase sequence where Bay periodically cuts to Miller, who gets spot-on, what-the-hell-is-happening commentary.
7. The Dinobots Are Only in It for a Few Minutes
Much of the promotional materials and marketing for "Transformers: Age of Extinction" have been built around the image of Optimus Prime riding a giant, dragon-like robot that fans will handily identify as Grimlock, the leader of the Dinobots. So, yes, Paramount and Hasbro have been loudly trumpeting the fact that THERE ARE DINOBOTS IN THIS MOVIE. So what a disappointment, then, that these giant robot beasts, which also includes a two-headed pterodactyl character and a triceratops and this other dude with giant spines on its back, show up in what feels like the third act of the third act, for only a handful of minutes. They do get to do some cool stuff, like breathe fire and break skyscrapers and things, but honestly it's too little, too late, and shot so chaotically that we never get to drink in the full majesty of them.
8. The IMAX 3D Is Pretty Cool
I'll give it that. But, again, not a noticeable improvement over the third film, in which Bay seemed to be more measured and disciplined, especially when it came to the 3D technology, which benefits from longer takes and more fluid editing. Still, seeing those giant robots on a screen that big is always fun.
9. Yes, It Sets Up Yet Another Movie
The movie ends with a dangling question mark, one that was established before the movie even properly starts (so, yes, that's three-hours of no-answers). With any luck Cade Yeager will be back to set things right. Honestly, I'm not sure if there was anything after the credits. I was starting to lose sensation in my lower half and regaining blood flow to my foreign parts seemed more vital than some post-credits cookie.
10. There's Another Sci-Fi Movie Premiering This Weekend That May Be More Worthy of Your Time
So, in limited release this weekend is "Snowpiercer," a film by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho that features Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer. "Snowpiercer" follows a group of survivors of a global warming-related disaster as they travel from the back of the train to the front; to get answers and truly assess how bad the situation is. It's a thrilling, visionary masterpiece, on the level of "Blade Runner" or "WALL-E," and it demands to be seen.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" hits theaters June 27.