It’s not just that the Autobots look more distinctive and easier to tell apart than ever in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” — as Optimus Prime never tires of reminding us, these robots have actual souls. So who cares if the human characters are even more dispensable and the plot even more scattershot than usual? Resurrected to take on man-made knock-offs of themselves, these metallic superheroes cause so much destruction, it’s as if they’re trying to find a literal new definition for the term “blockbuster” — and indeed, as in the 2007-11 trilogy, which raked in $2.6 billion globally, helmer Michael Bay continues to evolve ways to make robotic shape-shifting look increasingly seamless and realistic in 3D. Extensive location shooting in Hong Kong and China provides a colorful new battlefield as well as an opportunity to cash in on the franchise’s second most lucrative market, and boffo B.O. is expected globally following the pic’s world premiere in Hong Kong and its public unveiling at the Shanghai Film Festival.
Set to be released in 2D, 3D and Imax 3D worldwide, the $165 million mega-production will reportedly kickstart a brand-new trilogy with a complete change of human cast (Mark Wahlberg steps in for Shia LaBeouf here) and the introduction of a new species, the Dinobots, which may have some crossover appeal for fans of another soon-to-be-rebooted franchise, “Jurassic Park.” Paramount is eyeing especially sky-high returns in China, where “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is the fourth highest-grossing film of all time with nearly $180 million, and where “Age of Extinction” received mainland production assistance from 1905 (Beijing) Network Technology Co., China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises. Still, it’s Hong Kong that gets the lion’s share of the attention onscreen, taking up about 30 minutes of the film’s 165-minute running time (a franchise record).
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The plot, as scripted by Ehren Kruger (who penned the last two “Transformers” movies) bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Just as the X-Men are hunted by Sentinels engineered by a paranoid government using mutant DNA, so the Autobots, after siding with humans in an apocalyptic clash against the evil Decepticons, are being targeted for elimination by a second generation of human-designed Transformers. The project is spearheaded by FBI agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who’s commissioned tech corp KSI, founded by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) to do the R&D, using the severed head of Decepticon leader Megatron as a blueprint.
SEE ALSO: Review: ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’
At a Texas movie theater marked for demolition (no doubt a nod to the end of cinema as we know it), A.I. hobbyist and widower Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) discovers a rusty old truck among a pile of film cans and brings it home, much to the chagrin of his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz, “Bates Motel”), and his assistant, Lucas (T.J. Miller). When the vehicle reveals its identity as Optimus Prime (again voiced by Peter Cullen), the strongest of the Autobots, Yeager fixes up his injuries while Lucas runs off to report him for a reward. Attinger dispatches his henchmen, forcing Yeager, Tessa and Optimus Prime to go on the run.
It’s nearly 40 minutes into the pic before Optimus Prime gets into a proper fight with a man-made Transformer, and this is preceded by a no less confrontational scenario, when Yeager meets Tessa’s professional race-car driver beau, Shane (Jack Reynor). The affectionate bickering among the nerdy but overprotective dad, his bossy bombshell daughter and her hot-headed b.f. feels like a warm-up act before the rock stars come onstage. That happens when, in classic Western fashion, Optimus Prime summons the surviving Autobots — Bumblebee, Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio), and later, Brains (Reno Wilson) — to form his own Magnificent Seven.
Bay really lets rip when the Autobots, with the help of their human allies, break into KSI Headquarters in Chicago, ground zero in the previous installment. It’s an exhilarating sequence in which two man-made Transformers, Stinger and Galvatron (Frank Welker), slug it out with the good bots. When a spaceship enters the fray, the story goes into quasi-biblical mode with talk of a “Creator” and an all-important “seed,” replacing the Allspark as the MacGuffin here.
While the Chinese element is certainly generating buzz prior to the film’s theatrical release, the third leg of the pic is all over the map, geographically and structurally. Joyce is supposed to head to his branch operation in southern Guangzhou, but Chinese audiences will recognize random shots of Beijing mixed in with footage of the South China Karst, the much-touted Unesco World Heritage site in Chongqing (this lasts all but a few minutes). Then, Joyce and his beautiful regional manager Su Yueming (Li Bingbing) beam down to Hong Kong and end up in a ludicrous elevator sequence that confirms the stereotype that every Chinese (or Asian, for that matter) is a kung fu master. Once all the characters converge in Hong Kong, however, the stage is set for an epic showdown that proves well worth the not-inconsiderable wait.
Though “Pacific Rim” beat “Age of Extinction” to location shooting in the former British colony, the lurid images Guillermo del Toro served up made the ultra-modern city look like Chinatown. Kudos to Bay, then (despite the surreally ubiquitous lanterns), for capturing the city’s gleaming high-rises and seedy alleyways with lively verisimilitude. In several scenes, the dull, rusty hues of the man-made Transformers blend especially well with the grimy tenements, which resemble stacks of matchboxes. There’s even one stunt that may or may not be a reference to an incident that took place during production, when local gangsters demanding a “turf fee” reportedly threw an air conditioner at Bay (an indefensible act nonetheless in keeping with the spirit of the franchise’s electrical-appliance fetish).
As the sine qua non of the franchise, it’s the robots — endowed here with character-rich physicality and almost human-scaled facial features — who give the film its emotional heft. Optimus Prime’s charismatic leadership of his team, as well as his unwavering compassion for the humans, again makes him the movie’s moral anchor. Drift, with his samurai getup and Watanabe’s dignified line readings, strikes a neat balance with Goodman’s cigar-chewing, wisecracking Hound. Still, the character most likely to be beloved by audiences, especially tykes, remains Bumblebee, whose mischievous personality brings much-needed comic relief.
Among the human actors, only Tucci (suggesting a cross between a mad scientist and a tax collector) has any sort of character arc as he subtly evolves from a snarky comic role to a more fully fleshed-out character with a conscience. Li, whose appearance has been highly anticipated in China, oozes sex appeal while projecting a strong image as a hard-assed career woman, but her role sadly limits her to a few angry or stressed-out expressions.
Industrial Light & Magic again provides an orgy of visual effects and animation, delivering lightning-fast, acrobatic movements from the colossal Dinobots, and conjuring the man-made Transformers from graceful cubic formations. While light rays and spots are noticeably blurry against pitch-black backdrops, other 3D effects provide immersive experiences of large-scale destruction, pelting the viewer with a beautiful confetti shower of splintered metal and exploding debris. The furiously mobile lensing by d.p. Amir Mokri (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Man of Steel”), making use of smaller digital Imax 3D cameras for the first time, is even more tactile than before, though it still tries to squeeze too much into the frame.
That visual overkill extends to even the shorter scenes of individual bot-to-bot combat, and several haphazardly staged car chases appear to have been inserted to satisfy the auto lovers in the audience. The aggressive sensory assault is borne out by the breakneck editing of William Goldenberg, Roger Barton and Paul Rubell, and also by the score by Bay’s regular composer, Steve Jablonsky, which achieves a thundering majesty whenever the Autobots make a dramatic entrance, but is otherwise drowned out by the din of the Dolby Atmos sound mix.