Everything you learned in science class about dinosaurs turns out to have been wrong. The prehistoric creatures weren’t killed off by global warming or a meteor smashing into Earth: In the opening minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction, we learn it was Michael Bay and his computer-generated aliens who wiped the creatures out. If the rest of this visually stunning, technically impressive and crushingly dumb and overlong picture doesn’t also quite kill off the cinematic art entirely, at least it sends you home feeling like you won’t be going back to a movie theater for a good while.
To say that Age of Extinction is the best installment in the money-minting Transformers franchise is like saying the best episode of The Love Boat was the one that had Charo in it: The praise is so faint, it’s close to meaningless. Although Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have swabbed the decks clean — no more Shia LaBeouf, no more soldiers standing around uselessly, no more overacting by John Turturro — some things remain the same, such as the characters’ tendency to spout redundant dialogue that explains what you’re seeing onscreen (“It’s a big magnet that’s sucking up metal and dropping it down again!”) Some of the previous films, which centered on the ongoing battle between the Autobots (the good Transformers) and the Decepticons (the bad ones), had plots so complex only viewers weaned on the 1980s TV cartoon could follow them.
This time around, Bay keeps the plot easy enough for an eight year-old newbie to understand. After Chicago was flattened in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, mankind decided to wage war on the giant alien machines capable of turning into cars, building our own robots to hunt down the outsiders and exterminate them. But after Cade (Mark Wahlberg), a repairman and inventor in rural Texas with a teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz) allergic to pants, buys an old tractor trailer, he discovers the rig is actually Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the former leader of the Autobots, badly wounded and in need of repair.
One of the complaints leveled at the earlier Transformers movies is that it was hard to tell the robots apart, so Bay makes them all distinct this time. Aside from Optimus, there’s the one that looks like a samurai, the one that speaks with an Irish accent, the one that sounds just like John Goodman, and so on. The villains in Age of Extinction are the usual greedy billionaires (Stanley Tucci) and shady government types (Kelsey Grammer) out to make a fortune by stealing the alien technology and turning it into military weaponry. But just because we managed to wipe out all the Transformers on Earth doesn’t mean there aren’t others drifting around the galaxy, ready to drop in for a visit.
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The editing rhythm in Age of Extinction is noticeably slower than in the previous Transformers, and Bay holds on shots longer this time: You can actually tell what’s happening when the machines tear into each other. Unlike LaBeouf, who spent most of the first three movies running around underfoot trying not to get squashed, Wahlberg, still sporting his Pain and Gain biceps, makes for a believable hero who can at least make a chink in the robots’ armor. Although Bay suddenly seems to be trying to top J.J. Abrams for the highest number of lens flares in a single movie, the director pulls off some formidable setpieces, such as a high-wire chase between our heroes and mechanical hyenas, or some neat stuntwork in which Wahlberg flees from a baddie by rappelling down the windowsills and fire escapes of a Hong Kong tenement building.
There are also, of course, at least 847 car chases, because Bay just doesn’t know when to quit: His idea of entertainment is pummeling the audience unconscious and send you home reeling and worn out instead of tickled and energized. By the time the heroes are fleeing from dinosaur robots while an enormous spaceship is dropping an oceanliner on their heads and a tidal wave is bearing down, Transformers: Age of Extinction, which runs close to three hours, has sailed far past the point of overkill into sheer exhaustion. At least we’ll have a couple of years to recover before Transformers 5, rumored to already be in pre-production, stomps into theaters in 2017. Can’t wait.