The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Right before the release of 2007's Transformers, a lot of people were openly skeptical. It was, after all, a movie based on a toy. Not exactly the most promising basis for a major motion picture. That its director was Michael Bay did little to inspire confidence. Transformers worked, though, and went on to become a massive hit. The first sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was terrible – the kind of stupid, cinematic gibberish many folks expected the original to be. Nonetheless, it was a blockbuster, too, leading to the slightly improved, but still subpar Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Like the first two, its box office was through the roof. Love this series or hate it, you can't deny that it has massive appeal. The fourth installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction swaps out the lead actor and adds dinosaurs, but basically does little else to alter the formula that has paid off so handsomely thus far. There are some fun action moments scattered throughout, although they're largely negated by a screenplay that somehow manages to be overstuffed yet still thin.

Following the battle in Chicago that ended the previous sequel, the Autobots (i.e. good Transformers) have gone into hiding. An impoverished Texas inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) goes on a scrap run, only to discover a beat-up old semi-truck. He buys it and takes it back to his barn to fix, much to the dismay of his teen daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). The truck turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime. Cade nurses him back to health, inadvertently signaling the robot's presence to Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar), the leader of a Black Ops program that wants to use Transformer technology for evil. (The film awkwardly works in allusions to such topical issues as immigration reform and military drone use.) Attinger is working in conjunction with billionaire technology magnate Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), and the existence of Autobots jeopardizes the entire plan. Cade, Tessa, and Optimus must work together to foil Attinger. And, oh yeah, there are Transformer dinosaurs.

I won't even bother to explain that. Transformers: Age of Extinction will explain it for you. Boy, will the film ever explain it. Plot and character development are all well and good, but AOE falls victim to the misguided belief that every “tentpole” movie has to create an elaborate, detailed mythology. In addition to advancing the ongoing Autobots versus Decepticons idea, Ehren Kruger's lame script also has to explain how Transformers are responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs here on Earth, as well as the occasionally complex relationship between robots and humans. On top of that, there's stuff about Cade's protectiveness of Tessa, the girl's romance with a young race car driver, and the government using technology for less than humanitarian purposes. All this material pads out the running time to a butt-numbing 165 minutes. Age of Extinction is further slowed down by an incessant need to stop for bits of gratuitous product placement. Seriously, this movie invents new forms of flagrant commercialization, such as a moment in which one person shoves a Beats by Dre speaker right at our faces in 3D. Movies of this sort are better when they are shorter and tighter. Age of Extinction draws every single thing out, weighing down the momentum in the process.

I will give this series credit for one thing: it really captures the chaotic way many children – especially boys – play with action figures. It's all crashing and smashing and destruction. Some have criticized Transformers for that, but what else would it be? The films visually capture the frenzied way kids create their own adventures. No wonder the franchise is so popular. It taps into something deep inside the youthful subconscious that involves fantasies of power, strength, and super-ability.

Age of Extinction certainly delivers on that count. When it's not saddling us with dull exposition, which is far too often, it's actually kind of fun. Bay creates a number of frenetic action sequences, buoyed by exceptional use of 3D, that provide all the robot-smashing insanity a viewer could ask for. One of the best scenes finds Cade and crew escaping a Decepticon ship by traversing the cables that connect it to the top of a skyscraper. The last 40 minutes, meanwhile, take place in Hong Kong and Beijing, where Transformers of all stripes, including the dinosaurs, engage in a massive battle. There's no substance or depth to this stuff; it's sheer playfulness, designed to be the visual equivalent of a bunch of 11-year-old boys waging war with their Transformers toys. Is that such a bad thing? Not if you cherish the memories of yourself doing the same thing with similar toys once upon a time.

In the end, I'll recycle a criticism I used in relation to the prior Transformers movie. Transformers: Age of Extinction is entertaining for about two-fifths of its running time - that is to say, the sections involving hardcore robot action. The other three-fifths are filled with leaden plotting, dull characterization, and assorted other bits of dreary nonsense. The review scale therefore tips into the negative zone. When the inevitable fifth installment comes along, I hope Bay and his team have the guts to trim the fat and release a leaner, meaner, shorter product. When you've got sports cars and trucks turning into giant robots who then fight each other while riding dinosaurs, you really don't need anything else.

( 1/2 out of four)

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

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