One of the clumsily proffered themes of Age Of Extinction is the concept of souls. There’s a moment early on where Mark Wahlberg, playing a widowed, down-on-his-luck Texan inventor (yup, you read that correctly) named Cade Yeager is examining some sort of glowing glowiness in Optimus Prime’s chest, and Prime solemnly intones that it’s what they call their “spark.” Yeager breathlessly announces that humans call it a soul, and it’s done in the midst of lens-flarey, dappled light with rippling orchestral music swelling in the background, as if to slap you in the dick and say “HEY! THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MOMENT.” But it’s not. It’s barely ever called back to, despite the fact that one of the many villains in the film is a transformer constructed by humans for nefarious purposes, one built without that “spark.” Yet the theme is never revisited other than when, in the midst of one of the films many interminable, deafening, brain-scraping battle sequences, Prime bellows “YOU HAVE NO SOUL!” to his opponent. As if that’s an important thematic element.
It’s that moment that the film hits its apogee of irony, for Age Of Extinction is utterly soulless, absolutely devoid of anything resembling heart or intellect or warmth. It’s a horrendous two hours and forty-five minutes (not including credits!) of lights and motion and rote, awful dialogue, yet all it ever does is replay the same series of vignettes, over and over again. After trashing Chicago in Dark Of The Moon, a secret government agency led by Kelsey Grammar is hunting down all transformers. His two chief weapons are a dead-eyed Titus Welliver, and a bounty hunter transformer whose name I forget, maybe Lockdown? Downlock? Lockup? Fucklock? Whatever, no one cares. Anyway. they’re hunting Autobots and Decepticons alike, and Mark Wahlberg, in between fretting about his daughter being a teenager (guys, this is going to sound surprising, but he’s overprotective and doesn’t like her dating boys) and being down on his luck, salvages an old wreck of a truck that is of course Optimus Prime. Anyway, the bad guys find them, shit blows up, they discover some bad guy secrets, and then run away.
That scenario then plays out about fifteen more times. It happens again in Chicago, then on a highway somewhere, then in a couple more places, then on a space ship, and then in Hong Kong. Sure, there are different variations beyond locale — after a while, they pick up additional Autobots, and Fucklock barfs out more sinister expository nonsense, and Stanley Tucci is there bringing shame upon his family for a derivative portrayal of an arrogant scientist (now that John Turturro is gone, apparently a slot opened up for a quirky, well-loved character actor to embarrass himself). But otherwise, it’s just the same crap, over and over and over. Every scene takes place in either a shining, blandly modern building, or is filmed outside at sunset. Almost all of the outdoor scenes take place at sunset, to maximize the lens flare potential and so we can be sure to capture every bit of glistening sweat on every character, because lord, do these people do some Top Gun caliber sweating.
In case you were worried that director Michael Bay had begun to develop interesting, unique characters with original backstories and depth, rest at ease. Everyone — everyone — is played as ridiculously broad stereotypes once again, with only the shallowest of backgrounds. Oh, and don’t fret, there’s plenty of questionable, if not downright terrible racial humor. Yeager’s daughter (Nicola Peltz) is thin and blonde and blue eyed and screams a lot, while also petulantly rebelling against her father and complaining that he doesn’t take care of his family. She has a boyfriend (Jack Reynor) who is Irish, and since Yeager doesn’t like him, he calls him Lucky Charms. But as usual, Bay saves his best stereotypes for the robots. There’s a big fat robot who smokes a cigar (WHY WOULD A ROBOT BE FAT AND SMOKE A CIGAR IN FACT WHY DO THEY EVEN HAVE MOUTHS WHY WHY WHY THAT MAKES NO SENSE) and sounds like John Goodman, who is voiced by John Goodman. He’s quite jolly. There’s a British one, who is haughty and obnoxious, voiced by John Dimaggio. He uses a parachute and sneers. Then there’s one who transforms into a robot that looks like a samurai and uses a giant robotic samurai sword. He speaks in horrible fortune cookie aphorisms and is voiced by — and you have no idea how much it pains me to type this out — Ken Watanabe. And amid all of it, the bafflingly miscast Wahlberg — when he isn’t busy treating his daughter like some sort of stupid sex-magnet who can’t be trusted to cross the street by herself — yells things like “WHAT IS GOING ON?” and “LEAVE MY FAMILY OUT OF THIS!”.
Eventually, all this loud, garish, shiny nonsense comes to a head in Hong Kong in a vulgarly ostentatious climax that involves Prime riding into battle on top of a giant robot Tyrannosaurus. This is a scene that should have been a nerd’s wet dream, but it’s done with such absolute ineptitude, and comes after such an endless parade of hideously trite dialogue, exposition-for-dummies, and two hours of deafening, headache-inducing, incoherent action that by that point, you don’t care. You just want it to be over with. The entire agonizing waste of dollars and talent is the culmination of four films worth of excess and arrogance and steroid-laced bread and circus, and you just want it to end. But here’s the funniest/saddest thing about Transformers: Age Of Extinction: it isn’t that it’s an atrociously scripted, kick-in-the-nuts dumb, incoherent mess. It’s that the best part of the film is the hilarious TJ Miller, and (SPOILER) he dies in the first 20 minutes. It was at that point that I wish I’d died too, because I simply don’t want to have to endure any more of this.