"I know you have a conscience because you're an inventor like me."
And with that line, in all of its randomness and stupidity, my head started throbbing.
That's said about halfway into Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth explosions-over-substance entry into director Michael Bay's juggernaut movie franchise. The deliverer: Mark Wahlberg, playing single father/amateur inventor Cade Yeager. He's trying to talk the douchey Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) out of putting money over America's collective well-being; Joyce is in possession of something called the "Seed," a nuclear bomb that once eradicated our Earth's dinosaurs and is now targeted by Galvatron, the man-made Transformers green-lit by Joyce's company and programmed using the severed head/brain-power of fallen Decepticon leader Megatron. Which is all superfluous, really, because Transformers: Age of Extinction has an embarrassingly poor screenplay from the franchise's go-to writer, Ehren Kruger, and Bay, per usual with these movies, couldn't give a damn less about plot.
Hence why he'd let a line of dialogue as idiotic as "I know you have a conscience because you're an inventor like me" make it into the final cut. In a press screening earlier this week, the crowd of journalists and critics mostly there out of a professional obligation laughed in unison once Wahlberg said that sentence. Not unlike how those same critics surely responded when Wahlberg spoke with the same geniality while talking to a plastic houseplant in M. Night Shyamalan's notoriously inept The Happening. Me? I didn't chuckle—I rolled my eyes, checked my watch, and sulked upon the realization that there was still another 80 minutes left of Bay's needlessly 160-minute movie.
That's the moment when Transformers: Age of Extinction broke me. And not even those Dinobots could help.
A week ago, I was one of Michael Bay's Transformers apologists. Barring any discussions about the second film, 2009's reprehensible Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is undeniably rotten, I've repeatedly defended Transformers (2007) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) in the presence of the myriad friends and colleagues who subscribe to the popular theory that Michael Bay is cinema's Antichrist.
Because, come on—those two Transformers movies are the quintessential Hollywood summer blockbusters. Granted, yes, they're also sloppily written and harbor misogyny, vapid female characters, and aggressive racial stereotypes (Mudflap's black-guy robot speak; Ken Jeong's trademark "heightened Asian jackass" performance), but there's a bit of magic in both. In Transformers, there's the obvious touch of producer Steven Spielberg, pitching all of the slam!, bang!, and kaboom! through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenage boy (Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky) and his beloved new car/BFF, Autobot recon machine Bumblebee. It's the grown-up, lobotomized version of E.T.'s Elliott and the titular home-phoning alien. As for Dark of the Moon, it's admittedly a trifle until its gargantuan third act, a 40-plus-minute battle set in Chicago that's the most ambitious and insanely staged thing Michael Bay's ever shot. It's also one of the best sustained action set-pieces you're ever likely to see—every dollar's on the screen.
There's none of that in Age of Extinction, though. Not long after Wahlberg's Cade Yeager, his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and Cade's unfunny comic-relief best friend Lucas (T.J. Miller), were introduced, I found myself thinking, I kind of miss Sam Witwicky right now. In the other Transformers films, when something blows up, or a giant talking robot smashes through buildings in Sam's presence, he's meant to be the audience's conduit. He's the Average Joe we're expected to relate to as he reacts to the spectacles with simultaneous amazement and fear. Wahlberg's Cade, however, is merely a walking checklist of underdog cliches. He's a dreamer first, moneymaker and domestic provider second, and third; he's getting evicted out of his house. His kid acts more maturely than he does.
Cade's brain functions on overprotective father auto-pilot, with nearly everything he says having something to do with keeping his daughter on a short leash. Even though, naturally, she has a secret boyfriend, the arrogant stud Shane (Jack Reynor), a flesh-covered automaton with no discernible qualities other than being a first-class douche. Shane's only memorable quote comes as he and Cade are trying to rescue Tessa, who's been kidnapped by Galvatron: "I'm not here to help you get your daughter; you're here to help me get my girlfriend." Where art thou, comparably awesome young man Sam Witwicky?
I know, I know—criticizing one of Bay's Transformers movies for having underdeveloped characters is like attacking a True Blood episode for showing too much skin. Besides, there's plenty much more to despise about Age of Extinction. The film's shoddy characters speak to its most egregious sin, though. They're proof that Bay and Kruger didn't have time for fresh ideas or justifiable reasons to continue this franchise other than financial gain.
If the previous Transformers were numb-skulled pricks just fun-loving enough to make one forgive their shallowness, Age of Extinction is that kind of numb-skulled asshole who's evolved into a total corporate shill. In lieu of likable protagonists or narrative decency, this fourth Hasbro-backed movie has a scattered array of obnoxiously transparent product placement. A robot crashes through a brightly lit and foregrounded Bud Light truck, sending dozens of BL cans flying all over the street, one conveniently landing next to Wahlberg so he can take a quick chug as the can's label side flashes right into the camera. During a later Autobot/Galvatron battle, a Victoria's Secret truck receives the same treatment, though, to Bay's minimal credit, no lingerie-clad models flee from the wreckage. And earlier, Tucci's Joyce demonstrates the "transformeum" he uses to replicate the aliens' morphing powers by having a small prototype transform into a white Beats by Dre Pill.
More obvious than those visuals is the decision to set Age of Extinction's overlong and expectedly action-crammed finale in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Hong Kong. Bay's Transformers movies regularly do ridiculously profitable numbers in China, the world's second-largest movie market. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Bay and company cast several of the film's actors through a Chinese reality show, and the film's splashy red carpet happened in Hong Kong, not Los Angeles nor New York.
Per the same WSJ article, "Paramount executives have high hopes for the new Transformers, which they believe could break the Chinese box-office record set by the 2009 movie Avatar, which grossed $204 million in China, according to EntGroup, a market research company." Sure, Age of Extinction isn't the first big-studio movie to gear itself towards a lucrative international market; last year's Iron Man 3 was made under similar China-centric pretenses. But when everything about Age of Extinctionis so badly executed, it's hard not to loathe its business-first mentality. Its China-set extravaganza of a climax was predetermined by suits long before Ehren Kruger started typing a single "INT." or "EXT." He then just typed "$$$." throughout the screenplay.
Come Monday, Transformers: Age of Extinction will have, most likely, earned upwards of $100 million domestically at the box office. Beats by Dre will see its profits soar, too, though a good portion of those sales will derive from the company's headphones, not Pill packages, since the latest Transformers sequel is the franchise's noisiest, most migraine-inducing barrage of explosions, metallic robots-turning-into-cars sounds, and more explosions yet. I saw the film Wednesday night, it's currently Thursday evening as I write this, and the inner workings of my head still feel like a pinball machine. In Dark of the Moon, the finale's wall-to-wall destruction goes overboard and leaves all storytelling in its rubble, but it's always clear why it's all happening; Age of Extinction's closing China section, on the other hand, is an incomprehensible clusterfuck, splicing in character asides with the Yeagers, Stanley Tucci at maximum ham, the CIA, and sassy Autobots. It's a neverending jumble of calamity and confusion that left me pulverized my eyes, ears, and wits, turning me into Brick Tamland:
And the general public won't care. Youngsters and less-discerning, older moviegoers anticipate Transformers movies because, indeed, they want to see all of those explosions and CGI extra-terrestrial trucks and sports cars. What infuriates cinephiles and hating critics about Bay's franchise are exactly what attracts the massive audiences and explains why Bay and Paramount were already planning two more Transformers movies before this one opened. Three years ago, indulging in Dark of the Moon's enormous conclusion, I was just like them. In the presence of Age of Extinction, though, I joined the other side.
Shortly after that "all inventors have consciences" line, Mark Wahlberg's Cade Yeager drops another pearl of nonsensical wisdom, this time to Optimus Prime: "I'm asking you to do what I do—I'm asking you to look at all the junk and see the treasure."
I certainly tried—I truly did. But while I was looking at the (estimated) $165 million junk pile that is Transformers: Age of Extinction for nearly three hours, all I could see was red.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer needs Dawn of the Planet of the Apes now more than ever. He tweets here.