Believe it or not, during Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay's fourth rattling of the toy box, I felt one moment of near transcendence. Three-fourths of the way through the punishing 165-minute runtime — and 15 minutes after my seatmate took off her 3-D glasses in exhaustion — my brain left my body, crying out as it fled, "How could a space robot riding a fire-breathing metal T. rex be so boring?"
Enduring the longest, loudest, laziest entry in the franchise takes the Zen calm of someone who needs nothing more from a day at the movies than a jumbo popcorn. It begins with thrilling stupidity, the 65-million-years-late revelation that the dinosaurs were murdered by evil cheeseburger-shaped spaceships from a civilization that built their own car-shaped society from their bones, the literalization of fossil fuels. From there, Age of Extinction gets even more moronic and metaphorical.
The events of the third film, in which Shia LaBeouf saved Chicago (fragments of it, at least) from Megatron, have become in this sequel America's new 9/11. Thirteen-hundred civilians died that day, a rare instance of a movie giving a body count for the usual city-destroying smash-'em-ups. LaBeouf could be dead, too, for all we know. In his stead, we have Mark Wahlberg as a single dad and small-town inventor named Cade, who lives in a Disneyland version of Texas with his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), one of those long-limbed, snub-nosed Southern girls shellacked with terrible pink lipstick. Also around: Cade's new scrap-junk purchase, a bullet-riddled 18-wheeler that just happens to be Optimus Prime in disguise, hiding out from the corrupt U.S. politicians who want him dead.
Despite the American flags that decorate everything from his barn to his welding mask, Cade is less concerned with protecting his homeland from terrorist Transformers than he is with safeguarding Tessa's virginity. He "fixes" the broken Autobot hero — odd, as Optimus later proves perfectly able to regenerate his entire body, even sprouting new chrome exhaust pipes — and even after that kindness causes the CIA to smash up his home and force the family to flee for their lives, frequently halts the plot to keep his daughter from kissing. Pops, get it together. Meanwhile, Bay zooms in so tight on Peltz's booty shorts, you expect Wahlberg to punch the camera. When Tessa's older boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), a Red Bull-sponsored race car driver, whips out a photocopy of a Texas statute giving him the legal okay to paw a 17-year-old girlfriend, it's as if Bay is extending the court's blessing to himself, the audience, and the extraterrestrial that wraps his 4-foot-long tongue around Peltz's thigh.
Bay's jailbait lust is the most honest thing in the movie, which otherwise mixes lowbrow thrills with high-minded, but logically nonsensical, political parallels. His War on Terror allegory is just a feint at depth. When a government baddy refers to the Autobots as "alien combatants here illegally," we're supposed to nod as if we understand the allusion.
Bay's fake politics mean the film can't be a romp, yet talk — and lives — are cheap. Age of Extinction is reckless with casualties. Once again, civilians in sedans just trying to drive home get kicked around like cans. During an urban car chase crowded by pedestrians, one of the heroes — the heroes! — yells in frustration, "Just run over them!" Later, an enemy explains that he fights the Transformers because his sister died in Chicago, but how can her death have weight when the film treats humans so disposably? And it's not just the extras. When Bay offs an obnoxious character in the first act, one person in the audience burst into thankful applause. But then the camera lingers over the smoking corpse as if daring us to cry.
The script by Ehren Kruger isn't written so much as it is soldered. No one goes to a Transformers movie for the plot, so then why overwhelm us with more than 2 1/2 hours of it, especially one that doesn't even make sense? The movie's crammed with useless nuts and bolts, the storytelling the equivalent of a mechanic who lifts the hood of your car and says, "That's everything, fix it yourself." Not even the fights have thrills. Optimus' idea of a catchphrase is the blunt, "Here I am!" A more verbose Autobot, a WWII-era loudmouth voiced by John Goodman, delivers such zinging one-liners as "Take that bitch — you're dead."
There isn't enough visual beauty to forgive the screenplay's ugliness. Bay can take a big Gone With the Wind sunset and make it even sunset-ier, but his eternal battle scenes are still grimly monochromatic. Occasionally, he gets it right. There's a slow-motion shot in which a tire runs over a goon's face so crisply that you can see the saliva hurtle from his mouth, and only Bay can make a glass skyscraper shattering into shards sound like a million bucks (which it probably cost). But for a film so synthetic and expensive that it could put any insane fantasy on-screen, Age of Extinction has a tawdry lack of imagination. A key plotline involves a Steve Jobs-ian engineer named Josh (Stanley Tucci) who's using the Transformers' metal to create a device that could literally shape-shift into anything. With such great power at his fingertips, he whips up a Beats by Dre Bluetooth speaker, currently retailing for $199.95. Commercialism is to be expected in a franchise predicated on the fact that a mighty, mutating space alien can think of no greater thing to be than a Chevy. Still, that Josh goes on to use smelted Transformers to simply manufacture other, soulless Transformers feels like a waste — especially because the premise is so silly, Bay should have gone all the way and given them an evil pink Lyft mustache.
Bay does brave a daring new standard in product placement. He doesn't just show a Bud Light truck — he wrecks it, scatters beer bottles across the road, and then has Mark pick one up and take a swig. It's so calculated, it gets a knowing laugh, as if the audience is relieved that at least there's one joke that doesn't insult their intelligence. Later, when the robot brawl relocates to Hong Kong, Bay flatters the increasingly important Chinese ticket buyers by paying them his two biggest compliments: first, that they have a city worth destroying, and second, that he'll linger on their own local juice boxes and water bottles, whose brand names Western viewers can't even read. Thus having fulfilled its primary obligations to commerce over creativity, Transformers: Age of Extinction ends the way you knew it would all along: with six cornball speeches, the threat of a sequel, and a headache.