The script for the new Transformers movie is basically: Noise. Explosions. Chases. Guy-on-guy fighting. Transformer-on-Transformer fighting. Brief pauses for father-teenage daughter conflict, father-boyfriend of the teenage daughter conflict, paranoia-inducing rogue government operatives, paranoia-inducing megalomaniacal one-percenter, and a flicker of a robot existential crisis. Then back to the noise, explosions, and massive PG-13 destruction, meaning more damage to buildings than people or giant robots, though one of the human characters does get incinerated early on. Repeat. Repeat again.
Yes, this movie is nearly three hours long. That’s a lot of robots. It is long, and it is loud. The primary focus is the special effects, including the use of the first-ever IMAX 3D camera (though the credits reveal some post-production 3D work as well). The depth of the frame is impressive.
That’s expected and it is fine. The special effects are better than the non-special effects moments, which come down to 1. Exposition, which makes very little sense, 2. Banter, which is weak, and 3. In-jokes about sequels and product placement.
The special effects are excellent. And I can’t help it, I still love to see cars turn into robots and robots turn into cars. This time there are even Transformer dinosaurs!
Somewhere among the robots, there’s an all-new human cast in this fourth Transformers movie, again inspired by the Hasbro toys and the animated television series. Mark Wahlberg takes over the lead as Cade Yeager, broke inventor and overprotective widowed dad of a 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz as Tessa). His specialty is “making junk into different junk,” and he has a barn that serves as his lab/repair shop. He buys a beat-up old truck that turns out to be none other than alpha-bot Optimus Prime (again with the deep and resonant voice of Peter Cullen). The problem is that since the massive destruction of Chicago in the last movie, which we recall as Cade drives by billboards that say “Remember Chicago,” the consensus in the human population is that all Transformers have to be eliminated.
A government operative named Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) is leading a black ops program to rid the planet of all Transformers, regardless of whether they are autobots or decepticons. He refuses to give any information to a clueless and ineffectual White House Chief of Staff (Thomas Lennon). And he plots with one-percenter Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), an inventor/multi-billionaire sort of cross between Tony Stark and Donald Trump.
So the injured Optimus Prime and his friends are the target of attacks by a business mogul, a government agency, a sort of bounty hunter, and the decepticons, including a sort of re-animator version of Megatron. That means a lot of collateral damage back in Chicago and in China as well, though the cities are not as well differentiated as the robots and that is not saying much. While there seem to be references to current debates about immigration and terrorism, the themes are less overtly political (or dramatic) than a random assortment of words selected for their emotional charge.
Notoriously unreconstructed Michael Bay directs as though it is the first iteration of the Transformers, back in the 1980’s. The racial and gender stereotyping is only slightly less clunky than in earlier installments, which means that the autobots represent various ethnic caricatures for no particular reason and Cade calls his daughter’s Irish boyfriend “Lucky Charms.” It also means that despite the almost infinite budget for the film, apparently there was not enough to pay for enough material to clothe teenage Tessa. No matter what she wears, for some reason there is always a lot of skin showing. There are various sexist comments (jellyfish are compared to women because they are “erotic and dangerous”) and an ooky discussion of why it is not statutory rape when a 20 year old has sex with a 17 year old (the 20 year old in question helpfully carries a copy of the Texas “Romeo and Juliet” law in his wallet, along, I hope, with other protection as well). The politics of the movie are as incoherent as the fight scenes; in both, it is not always clear who the good guys are supposed to be. Basically, everyone is bad except the autobots and their human friends. And the movie is bad except for the robots.
Parents should know that this film includes strong language (s-words, b-words, one f-word), suggestive discussion of teen sex and teen pregnancy, extensive sci-fi action-style violence, constant peril and chases, some characters injured and killed (one burned to a crisp) and widespread destruction and explosions, references to genocide, some disturbing images and scary creatures, some ethnic stereotyping and alcohol (intrusive, if self-mocking, product placement).
Family discussion: What mistakes have turned out well for you? Why was it important to Cade to turn junk into something useful? Why did Attinger insist that all Transformers were bad?
If you like this, try: the other “Transformers” movies and the television series, and “The Iron Giant”