The last time we visited with Paramount/Hasbro's blockbuster Transformers feature franchise (based on the immortal action figure line, natch), Chicago was burning, Shia LeBouf was screaming, and Zaki Hasan was (briefly) sleeping. Thus, when it came time to take in the series' fourth installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction, yet again directed by Michael Bay despite his protestations that he was done after the last one, the (very) low bar I'd set for myself was that it not put me to sleep. Well, it didn't. In fact, I actually found myself mostly engaged throughout.
Now, just to be clear, this isn't a total paradigm shift in the way that, for example, X-Men: First Class in 2011 jolted life back into the corpse of that series after two increasingly dire entries (leading to one of its strongest installments yet just a few weeks ago). Age of Extinction is still a Michael Bay Transformers movie, with everything that implies. Nonetheless, it manages to navigate the perimeter of that specific box with a good deal more aplomb than I'd have expected after my nerve-deadening, sleep-inducing experience with the previous two films.
While the prior trilogy (2007's Transformers, 2009's Revenge of the Fallen, and 2011's Dark of the Moon) centered on the travails of LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky as he navigated the road from adolescence to adulthood, the one-time Louis Stevens chose to exit after Dark of the Moon. And while it would typically be the kiss of death for a series to lose its leading man, the reality is that LeBeouf was never really the lead of these films, and the increasing focus on Sam's various relationship/professional life only drew attention away from the giant robot smashy-smashy that audiences were paying to see.
Thus, Lebeouf's altogether timely exit was actually the best thing that could have happened for this franchise, as it allows the creatives (Bay, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, writer Ehren Kruger) to effectively "soft reboot" the series, preserving the accumulated mythology (well, "mythology") while also moving things in an entirely different direction, both cast and story-wise. As such, no LeBeouf, no Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as military officers Lennox & Epps, and no John Turturro as ex-fed Seymour Simmons.
Instead, stepping into the "human lead" role for Age of Extinction is Mark Wahlberg, who previously paired with Bay on last year's Pain & Gain (which turned out to be more pain than gain), and whose previous go at a big budget franchise flick didn't work out so well for him (or us, for that matter). Here, Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a down-on-his-luck inventor in Texas (all cornfields and sepia tones in Bay's America) who's just trying to scrape together enough money to send his plucky teen daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) to college.
When he stumbles upon the wrecked carcass of a certain familiar looking truck, Yeager finds out that it's none other than Autobot leader Optimus Prime (again voiced by the prime Prime, Peter Cullen), on the run from shadowy government forces. You see, after the alien invasion antics that left Chicago in ruins last time, a splinter group within the US government (personified by Kelsey Grammer's shady CIA honcho Harold Attinger) has begun hunting down all Transformers on Earth in search of the newly-discovered element Transformium (which is on the periodic table right next to Unobtainium, I believe).
Once a new threat to all of humanity reveals itself via alien bounty hunter Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan), it's up to Wahlberg, plucky teen daughter, and plucky teen daughter's boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to work with Optimus, as well as new Autobots Hound (voiced by John Goodman) and Drift (Ken Watanabe), to save the day. What ensues is the usual sturm-und-drang we've come to expect from any movie with the words "directed by Michael Bay" affixed to the credits. No surprise there. What did surprise is how Bay managed to keep the sensory overload to dull roar, while taking full advantage of the added dimension of 3D and the added scope of IMAX.
The effects by ILM are not only perfectly seamless with the live action elements, but it's actually possible to tell the baddies and goodies apart, which I'd always struggled with. Also, thanks again to LeBeouf's vacating, the focus is actually on the titular robots. Sure, there's an attempt to develop the human characters, but they mostly rely on auds' fondness for Wahlberg to do the heavy lifting there. And while Peltz and Reynor don't really make much of a mark, Grammer chews the scenery with relish, and Stanley Tucci actually gets something of an arc as a Steve Jobs-esque genius who inadvertently revives Decepticon leader Megatron in a new configuration as Galvatron (which should make longtime fans smile, especially when they learn he's voiced by the original Megatron himself, Frank Welker).
Notice how I haven't mentioned the Dinobots that have been all over the advertising for this thing? That's because they're given so little importance in the overall narrative, tossed in as third act deux ex machina at the end, that they hardly seemed worth the effort to include, much less talk about here. At 165 minutes (about thirty minutes more than it really needed), Transformers: Age of Extinction is a time commitment, but Michael Bay having final edit is just one of those realities we have to live with in this world. That said, the runtime is indulgent, but not oppressive. If history is our guide, Age of Extinction will clean up at the box office, and we'll get another one of these flicks in a few years. In a surprise to me, I'm actually open to seeing what they come up with. Talk about a transformation. B