"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is not the title of a movie so much as the tag of a natural disaster we knew was coming, sort of like the schedule of names (Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, etc., in 2014) we prepare for hurricane season. The next cacophonous, disorienting, exhausting installment in this series will be the fifth, a development that children of the '80s should have embraced with a fervor. Instead, what is there to say about these things other than to reach for aspirin?
Director Michael Bay has distilled his formula down to a lightly scripted series of flash grenade explosions set to the occasional dialogue of digital monster robots and their human buddies. It's a 165-minute gantlet. Then you're left to stagger back into the world, and if anyone asked you what the movie was about, you'd stammer a moment. What did happen?
Something something alien ships that destroy things, a steel dinosaur head in the arctic, and then we're in Texas, right? Mark Wahlberg is a down-on-his-luck inventor single father who buys a beat-up truck that his teenaged daughter (Nicola Peltz) thinks is dumb. Then we learn it's Optimus Prime and a bunch of U.S. black ops types, steered by Kelsey Grammer, show up to confiscate the Transformer because they're on a nationwide Autobot hunt. There's a big car chase when the daughter's heretofore secret Irish professional rally car driver boyfriend (Jack Reynor) shows up just in the nick of time, and now the humans are on the lam.
Meanwhile a power-driven billionaire inventor (Stanley Tucci) runs a defense contractor in Chicago where they're melting down Autobot corpses for its constituent metal, an endlessly pliable substance they call Transformium. The scientists are using it to build their own Transformers, but because they're also downloading the know-how from leftover Decepticon parts, they keep winding up with less control over the machines' design (and, subsequently, behavior) than they were expecting.
Then, the aliens want to take Optimus Prime prisoner. They're working with the CIA. Chicago got the worst of it in the previous "Transformers" and the city doesn't escape this film unscathed. Later everyone goes to China for some reason and there are Dinobots, who, to give the movie props wherein they are due, are fairly awesome. In fact, the visuals throughout are more or less mind-bending. In all, this is a highly ogleable bit of moviemaking. Were but there an Academy Award for mayhem.
But on the whole, this is a disheartening slog of a movie. Used to be my parents would sniff that the cartoons I watched as a tyke were little more than toy commercials. Of course, when kids get the toys, a good cartoon vaults them toward scripting their own impromptu versions of stories. Movies like the "Transformers" franchise, done right, help kids propel their toys, these characters, through adventures and perils of their own imaginations.
These Transformers don't get enough personality, don't display enough thoughts, to evince much in the way of inner lives. They mostly just sprint, shoot, kill, hoot. What to make of Bay, other than to see an oversized child swinging action figures with both hands? He does the voices, makes up one-liners and smashes the figures together, clackity-smackity, again and again and again, as he trills laser sounds at himself. This is a lot of pew-pew-pew! you can just imagine for yourself.