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 expendable 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, 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.
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.”
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.
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 boyfriend 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.
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 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.