Well, here’s a surprise: A movie review by me. If you read this page, then you know I review a variety of things: Toys, comic books, food, and of course, video games. Strangely enough, movies tend to feel a little more out of my depth, so I don’t talk about them as much. But with Transformers 4, nee Transformers: Age of Extinction… well, I have quite a bit to say.
As it turns out, though, a lot of what I have to say involves spoilers, so I’m going to try to get the non-spoilerish, more general stuff out of the way first. After that, I’ll go over some thoughts on more specific aspects.
First things first: If you didn’t like any of the first three Michael Bay Transformers movies, this is probably not going to change your mind. That said, I enjoyed it, and think it’s probably the best one of the entire four-movie series he has done, and I’m kind of looking forward to more. I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s good, mind you, but I went in with lowered expectations and came out pleased by the aspects I was most looking forward to, and felt Bay did address some of my grievances from prior films in the series (but more on that in the spoilers).
Am I eager to watch it again? Not really; three hours is a long time for any movie, and while I can certainly appreciate that maybe Michael Bay is trying to provide a better “value” in the form of more bang for your buck amidst rising movie prices which grow even more when you start taking 3D and IMAX into account, it’s still a three hour movie. Once the action gets rolling, it remains going for most of the film, with little downtime. It’s kind of draining, to be honest; not necessarily in a bad way, but definitely in a way that makes you feel like you need a break when it’s done.
Or maybe that’s just my age talking. There’s probably something to be said about pacing here, too, but I’m not really the guy for that.
There were two particular highlights of the movie for me: Galvatron and the Dinobots. Could those parts have been better? Yes, and I’ll get into that behind the spoilers, but I did enjoy what was there.
One thing I was looking forward to in this installment was a complete lack of Shia LaBeouf. Not for anything against the actor himself (though there are apparently plenty of reasons for anyone who wants them), but moreover because I grew really, really tired of his character, Sam Witwicky, over the course of the first three movies. Whether it’s because of how he played Sam or how he was directed to, I don’t care; I was tired of Sam by the end of Dark of the Moon, and knowing he wasn’t going to be in this one was a big note in the “plus” column for me to look forward to it.
Ironically, though, there might have actually been too little regarding Sam in this one. Despite being the Autobots’ staunchest ally outside of members of the N.E.S.T. military unit, there was not a single mention of what happened to him after the last film throughout the entirety of this one. We find out that the U.S. government dissolved their alliance with the Autobots, which is about all we get for what happened to N.E.S.T. A little closure might have been nice, but I’m happy to assume that Sam went back to that normal life he so desperately wanted (at least until the third movie).
Perhaps in some way as a result of this, Age of Extinction actually comes across as more focused movie than its predecessors. The last three movies had this sort of convergence where you had Sam Witwicky doing something or other, the Autobots and N.E.S.T. doing something else involving hunting Decepticons or some-such, and then the Decepticons themselves, along with whatever allies or other antagonists doing their thing as well, and they all eventually come together. That’s not really the case here.
Instead, we get Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, Nicola Peltz as Tessa, the daughter he’s overprotective of, and Jack Reynor as Shane Dyson, her not-so secret anymore boyfriend. They discover Optimus Prime in hiding, and basically go along for the ride as the government comes after them, joining up with the other Autobots as they figure out what’s going on. Unlike Sam, who always felt like an outlier in what was going on who happened to be the focal point, these guys really get involved, and feel like an actual part of this– sort of like N.E.S.T. did in those rare instances in which they actually got to be onscreen fighting the Decepticons alongside the Autobots. By the end, he even gets his own weapon (that packs quite a punch, no less), and he is really a part of this.
The group does do a bit of running for their life, but it feels like they do more than that as well, in ways that Sam and company never did.
Incidentally, while I liked the human crew in this one– relatively speaking, at least– my wife felt quite the opposite. She was creeped out by Wahlberg’s overprotective dad schtick, didn’t feel that Shane was much better, and liked Tessa at first, until she became a mostly-helpless “cypher” (though she does get into the heat of things a bit at the end).
One grievance I had with the earlier movies was a lack of focus on the eponymous species of transforming aliens from Cybertron, and I felt like that was far and away not the case here. Again, with that streamlining mentioned before, it manages to bring the Autobots more into focus in the foreground of the story, rather than running around the background while the main human characters do their thing. There’s a greater sense of equality.
This feels perhaps best exemplified by none other than Optimus Prime. Generally regarded as the series’ star, it’s usually the kid-friendly Bumblebee who seemed to get the most face time with the humans in the previous trilogy, even though Optimus managed to get more of the “big” moments. Here, though, Prime is large and in charge as a focal point across several threads and moments. There is no question who the lead Transformer is here.
That said… he doesn’t feel like Optimus for most of the movie. In truth, all the Autobots are pretty much jerks, and perhaps they have every right to be– they defend humankind and lose their home planet in that defense, only to be hunted down and indiscriminately killed so that the material their bodies are comprised of can be harvested for recycling into new knock-off versions of themselves. Still, even among themselves, none seem particularly likable– not even Bumblebee, who is pretty much just a Raphael-styled hothead who is ready to pick a fight in an instant (and still talks via radio). If any, John Goodman as Hound was probably the most likable bot of the lot.
While Wahlberg’s character has his own arc throughout the movie to be not-so protective over his daughter, it seems Optimus has one of his own. One might say he seems pushed to his very limit by the way humanity has treated him and his Autobots, and he’s ready to just leave us to it. Overall, he seems to find his way in the end towards resembling the Optimus we’re supposed to know and love, but as others have pointed out, the way he acts throughout the series doesn’t feel like that Optimus. In one breath he talks about not harming humans, while in the next talking about killing one or another or a whole lot of them. He just tends to say “I’ll kill you” a lot more than he should.
So, yeah… our heroes aren’t quite the heroes we want them to be. On the bright side? They look pretty good this time around, in my opinion. Though it can still be tough to make out some things, as usual per these designs, I think it’s a bit easier now than it’s ever been. You might not be able to make out every detail, but the action is overall easier to follow. And I think the robot modes in general, be they Autobot or Decepticon, have more color going on and look pretty good. Not as memorable as most designs from literally any other branch of the franchise in its 30-year history, but not bad.
On the other hand, they don’t look like they really transform from one mode to the other. These “Bayformers” are known for having far, far more moving parts than any toy, and therefore wind up doing the impossible many times over, but these models take it to an all-new level. Other than some color cues between their robot and vehicle modes, you would likely never, ever guess there was any relation between the two. It’s like imagining Batman turning into the Batmobile, or a Power Ranger turning into a Zord. And I don’t mean in a “oh, they made a toy that can do that” kind of way, I mean what you see on screen is what you get in either instance.
But that’s just the Autobots; for the Decepticons, they’ve taken it to a level not seen since the “morphing” of Beast Machines and well beyond, as they literally, literally come apart with a particle effect and rearrange themselves to take on their other form. It’s visually impressive, and admittedly kind of neat in itself, yet feels like it goes against the spirit of transformation as we know it. Perhaps this was Hasbro trying to nudge in some sort of marketing of their Kre-o line of LEGO-like toy bricks, which tend to come apart and rearrange in different forms, rather than actually shift and convert.
Speaking of the Decepticons, I was extremely pleased by Galvatron. Without giving away his whole plot, the big question was where he came from and how he figures into things, as well as how he relates– if at all– to Megatron, and I liked what we got. More than that, though, I was thrilled to find out that Frank Welker was reprising the role, sort of taking over from Hugo Weaving. Welker came in with his Megatron voice (rather than the raving lunatic Galvatron from the Sunbow cartoon) as we know it from Transformers Prime, a more subdued version of the voice he used for the character in the mid-80s.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a whole lot of Galvatron; just enough to whet our appetite, really, and it seems he’s being saved for the next movie. Instead, the main villain in this movie was Lockdown, an unaffiliated Transformer who was after Optimus Prime on behalf of their creators, who went unnamed (the Quintessons?). In previous iterations, Lockdown has been depicted as a bounty hunter, and I think they overall did well by the character.
That leaves us with the Dinobots. They don’t take up a lot of the movie, mainly coming in for the climax, but they were pretty awesome. They looked good, particularly in dinosaur mode, though unlike the more colorful and interesting-looking toys, they’re pretty much all silver here. On the downside, they get no dialogue at all. None. No “Dinobots transform!” or “Me, Grimlock” to be heard. Heck, I’m not even sure they were actually referred to as “Dinobots.” They’re pretty much just beasts/set pieces here, but seeing them tear things up is still pretty delightful, and I’ll admit there were some points I was concerned for some of them, if only because they’re the Dinobots, rather than for any characterization they should have had.
What makes this more disappointing though is that due to the events of the film, Optimus takes it upon himself to fly off into space with the film’s MacGuffin (apparently he can do that now; why he didn’t just fly away when the humans began hunting them, I don’t know) to keep the rest safe. The Dinobots are “freed,” and go off to who knows where on their own. The disappointing part is that if Grimlock had been in character, much less having any character beyond “butts heads with Optimus before being put in his place,” maybe he could have been left in charge to watch over his Dinobots and Prime’s Autobots in the leader’s absence. Lord knows none of them are fit to lead– not even Bumblebee, who has wound up in a few leadership roles across different media as of late.
I think that’s the long and the short (mostly the long) of it. Again, I think it’s arguably the best entry in the series, perhaps only bested by the original thanks to Spielberg’s touch and a sense of brevity (Edit: Okay, so I’ve since learned that it’s only a 20-minute difference. That each film is longer than the last kind of makes it feel like the older ones are shorter, but I forgot it was actually that long). At the same time, I wouldn’t describe it as a great film, but I think I got most of what I was looking for out of it, and I’m eager to see what comes next. But maybe Bay and Paramount could do us a favor and make one of these at half-length every year, rather than this length every two? Just a thought.