Two veterans of the Michael Bay Transformers movies attended Transformers: Age of Extinction. Below is their attempt to sort out what they saw. It’s possible there are spoilers in what follows; it’s also possible they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Swansburg: Autobots, roll out!
Wickman: *Transforms into dino mode.*
Swansburg: Glad you’re in dino mode, Forrest, because we’ve got some big questions to chew on here. So, we went to see Transformers: Age of Extinction last night.
Wickman: I know this because my 3-D headache is still receding. The terrible (and racist) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was 150 minutes long, and the interminable Transformers: Dark of the Moon was 157 minutes. This movie was a torturous 165 minutes.
Swansburg: Yes, but this one has dinosaurs! And Stanley Tucci! And Mark Wahlberg playing a character named Cade Yeager.
Wickman: I was excited for those dinosaurs. Weaponized animals seem to be the big theme of this blockbuster summer, from the monkeys on horses with shotguns of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to the gun-totin’ raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper!) of Guardians of the Galaxy. But can we just note that the Dinobots don’t even show up until after almost the complete runtime of the movie?
Swansburg: That’s a very good point.
Wickman: I’m also not exactly sure where they came from, which was confusing thing No. 37 about this movie. (I hope you will be able to address my questions about confusing things Nos. 1 through 36.)
Swansburg: I was astonished at how late their appearance was. They were a deus ex triceratops. When I first saw the dinos in the trailer for this movie, I thought it would be more like the classic episode of the original animated series, “S.O.S. Dinobots,” which I owned on VHS as a kid. (Confession: I still own it.)
Swansburg: So the movie opens in the Pleistocene, or thereabouts. And, if I’m not mistaken, the opening sequence posited that the dinosaur extinction was somehow related to the Transformers, or their ancestors. Did you get that sense?
Wickman: Yes, I believe the Transformers triggered the Ice Age.
Swansburg: Any idea why?
Wickman: I believe that they were terraforming it. Or, since they are Transformers, that’s not quite the right word. They were Transformers-forming it.
Swansburg: So that they could ...
Wickman: Take it over for themselves? But then clearly they didn’t do that, because they still made room for the great descendants, the Witwickys. Oh, I dunno, JUST CUT TO THE NEXT SCENE, SWANSBURG.
Swansburg: OK, we’ll leave the mystery of the film’s strange overture unsolved. As A.O. Scott points out in his review, Michael Bay is an art-house auteur who revels in ambiguity, so we must learn to embrace the many shades of possible meaning in his work.
Wickman: Fair enough, but it is not a good sign that we do not even understand the basic premise of the movie.
Swansburg: Not even close. Let’s leave behind the dinos for now and discuss the main plot of the movie. So this movie is set a few years after the last one.
Wickman: “Texas, USA,” as the on-screen titles tells us, lest we confuse it with the other Texases.
That’s where we meet our main (human) character. But see, I’m already confused again: And that is because Mark Wahlberg is supposed to be playing an inventor.
Swansburg: Right. An inventah.
Wickman: Now, I realize he wasn’t exactly supposed to be Thomas Edison, but I’m also pretty sure that Wahlberg is not the guy you cast to play an expert in robotics.
Swansburg: That was a bit of a tough sell. A Texan inventor no less. Must be Southie Texas.
Wickman: Can I ask another question about our main characters?
Wickman: So there’s his daughter, who I’m sure we’ll get to in a second when the camera finishes panning up her legs.
Swansburg: That pan, the first of many fond takes of Nicola Peltz’s gams, made me uncomfortable. As Cade Yeager is fond of reminding us, she’s underage.
Wickman: An entire action sequence was framed by Nicola Peltz’s legs!
Swansburg: Let’s talk about how Cade Yeager and his leggy daughter meet our old friends the Autobots.
Wickman: Right. They find a truck inside a movie theater, of course.
Swansburg: Obviously. The movie theater scene was really weird. There were several possibly meta jokes about the movies that didn’t really land. Could you distill a message from those musings?
Wickman: I could not. There was definitely a part where someone complained about how all the movies these days were sequels and remakes, but it didn’t seem like the makers of Transformers 4 were the butt of the joke. It felt more like we were the butt of the joke, for watching.
Swansburg: That sounds about right. OK, so the goodly Autobots! Our heroes from the previous three pictures. They’ve gone into hiding. Because they’re being systematically hunted down and killed. By Frasier Crane.
Wickman: Yes, Frasier doesn’t like illegal immigrants.
Swansburg: He does not. Frasier runs some kind of CIA black ops group, called, wonderfully, Cemetery Wind.
Wickman: And they like to wear black all the time. And sunglasses. And trench coats in the middle of the Texas USA summer. So we’re pretty sure they’re evil.
Swansburg: So they’re hunting down the Autobots in order to ... what? They want their special metal?
Wickman: Transformium, yes, for making Transformers. Though this becomes confusing later, when we find out that Frasier is planning on using a Transforma-forming bomb to create an unlimited quantity of this resource. Do you have any way of resolving this?
Swansburg: I wish that I did, Forrest. My favorite part of the Frasier plot is that it is eventually revealed that he has engaged in a prodigious amount of nefarious activity, including making an obviously terrible deal with a dastardly alien robot bounty hunter and killing off several beloved Autobots and untold innocent human civilians, in order to secure a job with an Apple-esque tech company that has promised him ... a “seven-figure” salary.
It’s a total Dr. Evil moment. Frasier puts the fate of his country, nay the world, in the balance for ... one million dollars. Like, hold out for eight figures, Dr. Crane!
Wickman: We should note that this movie generally seems to have little patience for questions. When the black ops crew shows up at Mr. Cade Yeager’s house, he asks a pretty good question, which is whether they have a warrant. Grumpy black-ops dude’s response? “My face is my warrant.”
Swansburg: LOL. That was the best line of the movie.
My other favorite moment was when Stanley Tucci, who plays a kind of evil Steve Jobs, yelled “Algorithms!”
Wickman: There’s a similar moment with Frasier that might be similarly instructive. Which is when one of the baddies says something like, “What about the saying, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’?” And another responds: “I also have a saying: I don’t care.”
Swansburg: Let’s turn to Megatron, the Decepticon leader, but first I need to issue a correction. I misspoke earlier. My favorite moment was when Stanley Tucci takes a glob of Transformium, and in order to demonstrate its properties, turns it (with his mind?) into a Beats by Dre pill speaker. A close second was the bombed-out Chinese bus with a somehow pristine advertisement for Victoria’s Secret painted on the front.
Wickman: I sincerely enjoyed the Transformer who was literally branded by Oreo. I also appreciated when Mark Wahlberg stopped in the middle of the final battle to drink a Bud Light, because that battle really did need something to break it up.
Swansburg: That was astonishing. And, I must say, it did look thirst quenching.
If I’m ever in Hong Kong in the midst of an apocalyptic battle between Dinobots, Autobots, reconstituted Decepticon leaders, evil CIA agents, venal tech CEOs, and Chinese nationals conveniently trained in kung-fu, I can only hope there’s a Bud Light on hand to refresh me.
Wickman: We should set up that final battle. It takes place in Hong Kong because … is it just because of the box office potential? Is it because Michael Bay has already destroyed Chicago and every other major city?
Swansburg: What did Chicago do to Michael Bay? He never misses a chance to, at the very least, poke some holes in the Hancock Tower. As to the Hong Kong setting—yeah, we ended up in China on the thinnest of pretenses. Megatron (or the Megatron-like robot possessed by his spirit—we haven’t even gotten to “Galvatron”) wants to detonate “the seed”—that’s the name of the Transformaforming bomb—in a populous city.
Wickman: Oh right, the most populous city. So it really was the box office thing. Though Megatron must not be up on his population statistics?
Swansburg: Anyway, it remains populous, since the good guys carry the day. Speaking of the good guys, I wonder if you shared this criticism of the latest installment: The Autobots have been reduced to about four in number, and other than the redoubtable Optimus, the Autobots are a pretty unlikable bunch—they’re either wishing death or calamity on humans, jockeying for power (a very Decepticon-ish trait), or perpetrating questionable racial stereotypes—I’m looking at you, generically-Asian-bot.
Wickman: Yes, I’m not sure that the stereotypically Japanese Samurai-bot, who offers a haiku in his very first lines, was the right way to appeal to the Tokyo market. Even Optimus’ exit is pretty undercooked. The reasons for his leaving were very unclear to me. It’s a total Poochie ending: “I have to go now. Cybertron needs me.”
In fact, his actual final speech is even worse, less Poochie than An American Tail: “When you look at the stars, think of one of them as my soul.”
Swansburg: That ending was amazing. Here’s how I have it in my notes: “There are some things in the universe we’re not meant to understand. One of them is the movie you just watched. Sucker.”
Wickman: Before we close (at least until the next two chapters) we should talk about this movie’s really abhorrent sexism. In addition to the Nicola Peltz character, who’s basically only addressed so that other characters can point out that she’s “hot,” they’re even sexist towards the aliens! Did you notice when they put a giant vagina dentata alien in the movie, just to blow her away? (The line: “Take that, bitch.”)
Swansburg: That was ridiculous. And that scene in which Shia LaBeouf got drunk and started hitting on random women—oh wait, that was real life.
Wickman: No wonder he was upset at Cabaret. He thought he was seeing Age of Extinction!
Swansburg: I bet you Michael Bay knows all the words to “Money.” I suppose you could say that the men don’t fare much better—this is a movie in which several fine male actors are reduced to impotently attempting to get their hands on “the seed.” “I need that seed!”
Wickman: Vaginas are blown away, but “the seed” has the force of a tactical nuke!
Wickman: I think it’s safe to say that this is one Michael Bay movie that will not be joining his others in the Criterion Collection.
Swansburg: OK Forrest, I think it’s time we mosey on back to our Texas USA ranches.
Wickman: I will bid farewell to you in the form of my favorite Age of Extinction line, which I can’t believe we haven’t gotten to yet: “We don’t have a home, Dad. It blew up.”