I don't think there's a series more fitting of a total reboot, but if Michael Bay needs to keep making these movies, at least this is a step in the right direction.
I'll say this upfront: the first three Transformers movies were utter crap, only marginally saved by Peter Cullen's earnest voice performance as Optimus Prime and the bloated spectacle for which Michael Bay is famous. As for everything else in those first three movies? Well, the series has been marred by cheesy and occasionally racist humor, paper thin plots, and dialogue that makes George Lucas look like a word smith. How does this one compare?
Age of Extinction has several things going for it, especially in comparison to the first three films. The cast is better, and so is the acting. The characters, while thinly sketched, are a marked improvement over anything the series has done before. Lastly, the plot, while stretched and convoluted, at least made some logical sense.
Mark Wahlberg is not my favorite actor by a long shot, but here he works as an earnest but eccentric inventor who is also a single dad. His character Cade Yeager functions as the core to the human story, but unfortunately he's not alone. Along for the ride is his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her dull boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor).
At first Tessa seems like a strong capable character, but she quickly slips into a helpless female persona as soon as Shane is introduced. She is then reduced even further to the point where she is nothing more than a character the male leads have to rescue, and then drag along as the action ramps up. Still she's never as annoying or pointless as Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) or either of his girlfriends, but that's probably damning with faint praise.
Thankfully most of rest of the human characters were a lot more fun. Kelsey Grammer plays the primary human antagonist, a marvelously shady character. But I think he's overshadowed (pun intended) slightly by Titus Welliver's turn as a badass CIA black ops commander. Stanley Tucci also gives a fun performance as a mildly slimy tech CEO. Unfortunately, Sophia Myles doesn't get much to do as a field scientist for Tucci's company.
Then there are the Transformers themselves, where we finally have some major progress. I won't say much about the Dinobots, except they are not as relevant as I would've liked. Still, all three new Autobots really shine both in appearance and personality, specifically Hound (voiced by John Goodman). Lockdown, one of the main antagonists, is also very well done. He's an impressive example of what Bay probably had in mind when he approved the designs for the Transformers back when the original was made.
The main point is, all the characters, both human and robot, worked on some level at least -- especially the villains, who were set up really well very early on in the movie. Because of that, I was finally able to root for the heroes to win and the villains to lose, and in that respect this was a very successful film.
There were also a pretty heavy set of conflicting, incoherent messages running throughout the plot. For example: there was a distinctly anti-establishment theme focused on the main heroes, but they also had an underlying patriotism that undermined that theme. The way the intelligence operatives acted was practically at an SS level of fascism, including lying to their own government and hunting down both allies and enemies simply because they were 'alien'. This created an interesting moral dilemma for the Autobots to work through, which was probably the most successful plot element in the movie.
Then there were the corporate characters who were painted not only as opportunistic, profit minded, and heartless, but somehow also sympathetic and even occasionally heroic. Specifically, Tucci's character, who probably has the best 'arc' in the film, was wildly unbalanced. In the end there was definitely a pro-scientist feel, but at the same time the message was that science should be treated with kid gloves, because sometimes inventions are the bane of society. In other words, the messaging was a mess.
Although there was some of Bay's trademark juvenile humor, at least it wasn't nearly as eye-rollingly bad as it was in the rest of the series.
There was one obviously racially cast character, but although painfully stereotypical, he actually worked because he was voiced by the wonderful Ken Watanabe.
Frank Welker returned to voice a new character named Galvatron, whom any fan of the original cartoons might remember pretty well. This was a lot of fun because Welker voiced Megatron in the first Transformers movie from the 1980's, which was famous for the death of Optimus Prime.
This might be a small thing, but the voice actors are never billed at the same level as the human characters. This was Optimus Prime's movie, and Peter Cullen didn't get first or second billing. I know this is contractual, but it always bugs me.
The visual designs of Lockdown's spaceship were fascinating, and for the first time organic aliens were introduced even though they were basically used as set dressing.
The Dinobots were never named, which was disappointing, I wanted Grimlock to say his name at least once.
Even with uneven themes, sketchy writing and acting, and a plot that was far too complicated, this was a decently made explosion-filled feast for the eyes, with some of the best (and oddly, worst) special effects work I've seen in a while. It runs almost three hours long though, and could've been made better by some judicial script clean up or post production editing. That being said, at least it was fun and overall I didn't have any major problems with it.
2 1/2 out of 4 Giant robot dinosaurs
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related. He reviews Arrow and Farscape and cool new movies that strike his fancy.