Tellingly the first words spoken in the fourth Transformers movie are "oh, shit." Some years after the decimation of Chicago in the last film the heroic Autobots are in hiding from a ruthless CIA task force acting, ostensibly, in the interest of national security. In reality however, shady agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar) is allowing an evil robot bounty hunter from space to hunt Autobots across America in exchange for a prized piece of alien tech. Struggling inventor-cum-rugged single dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his inevitably sexy teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) unearth a decrepit old truck that turns out to be none other than Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Forced to flee the family farm along with Tessa's racer boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), the Yeagers and their newfound Autobot allies uncover a conspiracy involving the CIA, an evil alien race and a multi-billion dollar defense contractor run by self-aggrandizing tech magnate Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) out to manufacture their own line of Transformers. The good guys set out to save the world, lots of shit blows up, low camera angles ogle Tessa in her tight denim short-shorts, you know the drill. Oh, and the Dinobots show up.
One must confess to a guilty but genuine fondness for the original Transformers (2007). As one of the (very) rare instances where Michael Bay's bombastic aesthetic attack plan to stir the loins of fourteen year old boys across America worked like gangbusters the first film encapsulates the empty but flashy seductiveness of hormone-addled American pop culture in its simple tale of a boy and his car out to save the world and bag the uber-hot girl. In that instance Bay had producer Steven Spielberg and a charming (yes, really) script by skilled comic book sci-fi specialists Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to rein in his worst excesses but was left to his own devices for the execrable sequels. Could things get any worse with Transformers: Age of Extinction? In some ways no, and yet while the highest grossing film of 2014 it remains no great triumph of blockbuster filmmaking.
Bay aims for an epic scope with cross-continental action, including a much-discussed third act trip to Hong Kong and China, and bum-numbing running time. Opening with a prehistoric prologue wherein mile-long alien spaceships blast the dinosaurs into extinction the visuals are undeniably spectacular yet emotionally hollow. Bay executes the familiar car chases, laser shoot-outs and giant robot-on-giant robot set-pieces with gusto but no panache. There is whole lot of collateral damage but no-one seems to care. Missing is anything resembling an empathetic connection between humans and robots as the characters seem to tolerate each other at best. The father-daughter dynamic adds a pleasing new dimension, but while Tessa plays a key role in the climax, the plot (for lack of a better word) more often relegates actress Nicola Peltz to Bay's usual screaming eye-candy stereotype. As has become tiresomely predictable all the female characters are set up for a bigger role than they eventually get, including token glamorous science babes Sophia Myles and Li Bingbing, though the latter at least has her own small action sequence to pacify her Chinese fan-base.
Playing a human in a Transformers movie is a thankless task made worse by scripter Ehren Kruger's risibile dialogue although Mark Wahlberg brings affability and charisma to an almost charming update of a classic sci-fi B movie archetype: the brawny he-man scientist. On the other hand those who slam Bay for his vacuous female characters should take note of his failed attempts to endear charmless hunk Shane to the audience. It does not help that Kruger's script flips the character from posturing bad boy to screeching coward scene-by-scene but with his wooden personality and bizarre flip-flopping accent (actor Jack Reynor is Irish but at some points wavers into Aussie and Southern American) Shane bags all the worst scenes, culminating in a jaw-dropping discussion about statutory rape and moment where he insists Cade should be grateful he is fucking his daughter. Additionally the Autobots are the kind of crass one-dimensional stereotypes one would expect from an Eighties television cartoon. But did the original Transformers curse that much or make jizz jokes? Perhaps the strangest aspect of Transformers: Age of Extinction is its cack-handed attempt at sociopolitical commentary. 2014 was of course the year of the sociopolitical blockbuster where fast-paced entertainments like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 took a stab at addressing the anxieties of the day. And so Michael Bay throws his hat into the ring resulting in some clumsy commentary about the socio-economic collapse, post-9/11 paranoia and abuse of national security culminating in a risible gag about water-boarding. Then of course there is the much talked about third act ass-kissing of the Chinese government wherein the mainland gallantly forgives years of pro-democracy protests and deploys the air-force to help the Transformers save Hong Kong. Hilarious. Yet in many ways the Chinese are the saviours of the Transformers saga, albeit not in the movie but in real life as their record turn out for a foreign blockbuster ensured there will be another sequel. Thanks, China.