For many critics, Michael Bay's Transformers series represents a constant reminder of their cultural irrelevance, as each ensuing film racks up millions of dollars in defiance of a nearly unanimous scream of disapproval. Some detractors might even be tempted to take solace in the subtitle of the latest installment Age of Extinction, hoping in vain that this time, these clunky, poorly defined robots might finally go the way of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately for them, Transformers 4 is anything but the last gasp of a dying franchise, doing everything in its power to redeem itself for the sins of the past and revitalize a premise that we've all seen perhaps a few too many times before. Also, the dinosaurs are actually back in this one, and they're pretty awesome.
Just describing the plot of this two and half hour behemoth of a movie is fairly challenging, which isn’t to say that its particularly complex, as much as its stuffed to the gills with enough new characters and subplots that you’d think they were after some kind of record. There are at least five major villains in the film, three human, two alien robots, and that’s on top of the need to introduce a whole new slate of human protagonists to replace the Witwicky clan, a new set of previously unseen Autobots, and an ancient sect of savage Dinobots. All you really need to know going in is that after all the chaos of the last trilogy, Earth has turned against all alien robots good and bad, except for the ones they hire to take out the remaining good ones, or the ones they reverse engineer with tech from the evilest one of them all (because nothing could go wrong there).
I defy you to even remember what the last two Transformers movies were even about (you know, other than explosions and punching). Do you remember who the Fallen or the Leonard Nimoy voiced villain of Dark of the Moon even were, or were you even paying attention at the time? Age of Extinction seems to assume we weren’t (and I wasn’t), referring only to a vague assault on a major city that might as well be the one from the first movie, which just so happens to be the last halfway decent one. From the very beginning, this new Transformers movie feels as much like a reboot as it does a sequel, giving this franchise the Days of Future Past treatment, emphasizing the good stuff from before, and burying the bad in a ditch somewhere and pretending like it never happened.
And for the most part it succeeds. I shouldn’t even have to say that Mark Walberg is a far better alternative to Shia LaBouf even before the latter’s well publicized meltdown, or that a grizzled old Kelsey Grammer is a much better military villain than Jon Voight, or that Titus Welliver is a much better spook than John Turturro, or that Stanley Tucci is a much better dick than whoever his equivalent was. All around the cast and the characters they play feel more ingrained and important to the story, which for all its convoluted massiveness clips along at a quick pace and is almost never difficult to understand despite everything its juggling. Even the robots look cleaner and more colorful to beat back the classic complaint that they all end up looking the same when they start to wrassle each other.
The Autobots here are much more visually engaging and interesting as characters than ever before, led by a newly cynical Optimus Prime, whose finally sick of helping humans and getting nothing back in return. We also get an enigmatic samurai helicopter, a trenchcoat wearing gunslinger, and a big fat John Goodman robot whose every line is clearly just Goodman in the studio with a beer in his hand let loose to say whatever crazy bullshit he wants. And of course there’s the Dinobots. Being savage beasts, they lack personality, but more than make up for it with sheer destructive awesomeness. The only problem is that they are hinted at for so long and make up so much of the advertising, but only really enter the action towards the very end of the third act, making me feel cheated out of what I sincerely hoped would be an entire movie of Optimus riding a robotic T-Rex like a horse.
The main bad guy, a Transformer bounty hunter who literally has a gun for a face, is a little one note, but brings with him a very intriguing idea for future movies. He’s been sent by the Transformers’ creators, an apparently organic alien race briefly seen in the first few minutes of the movie, and from what he says, they want their creations back, and aren’t above killing a lot of innocent people to get them. On the evil human side, you have Tucci as the standout, an inventor turned tech billionaire out to unlock the secrets of programmable matter to basically turn Transformer technology into commercial goods and military hardware, knocking drones and the commercialization of the franchise itself in one fell swoop. If anything, the obligatory return of Megatron seems completely superfluous by the end, a fifth wheel in a series that you would think couldn’t survive without him.
There are problems of course, chief among them being the aforementioned running time, but then all of these movies have been obscenely long, and at least this time its consistently entertaining in its greedy consumption of time. Frankly, given how much they wanted to do, I would prefer a longer movie to a rushed one, as I’ve always maintained that a long movie is only bad if the time is wasted, and there isn’t much wasted here. Also, not being a fan of the source material, I can’t speak to any fan outrage due to inconsistencies, though even I know that the character Galvatron is completely different than what is presented in this movie. Its a completely unnecessary name check that I imagine will bother the die hards.
Still, that’s a pretty paltry list of flaws for any movie, let alone a Transformers movie. I can’t think of another film franchise that has made this big of a leap in quality between films, at least in a positive direction, and with how often it happens in the other direction, making this kind of effort to get it right should be applauded, even if it means having to applaud that great Satan Michael Bay. With the surprisingly great Pain and Gain, a good Transformers movie, and a pretty bad ass looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the way, things appear to be looking up for the guy who, well, frankly never had a career downturn to speak of, despite what the internet outrage might suggest. Critics still hate him, and most will probably hate this, but personally, I feel a little better about the prospect of more Bay to come.