The most touching moment in Michael Bay’s new Transformers movie takes place in the prologue. A cute dinosaur looks up at a giant spaceship that resembles an angry, glowing mollusk. The little guy’s eyes fill with awe, then terror as the vessel unleashes a barrage of explosions, stampeding all his dinosaur friends and blasting them to cinders.
My heart went out to the critter, CGI figment though it was, knowing that once he was gone, no one else would evince as much pathos. Then, I thought, could Bay be alluding to Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” or maybe Disney’s “Fantasia”?
Sorry, just kidding. Just bracing myself for 165 minutes of explosions, car chases, cars turning into robots, images of cars, robots, and tiny human figures spinning in slow motion after an explosion or a car chase, ludicrous bathos, tight shots looking up Nicola Peltz’s tiny shorts, stentorian sound effects, cheap Wagnerian music, all shot and edited as if by a Cuisinart. In short, the cinematic equivalent of being tied in a bag and being beaten by pipes.
One thing you have to give Bay credit for: He has a knack for bringing A-list talent down to his level. Like Mark Wahlberg, Oscar nominee for “The Fighter” and “The Departed.” Wahlberg took a role in Bay’s previous movie “Pain & Gain,” apparently willing to accept the former for the latter, and now he’s taking the place of Shia LaBoeuf as this film’s token human. Wahlberg spends a lot of time looking with awe and terror into the blankness of a green screen, later filled in post-production by Bay’s monumental, juvenile special effects. Sad to say, if they were giving out Oscars for that kind of performance, it would probably go to the dinosaur.
Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a wannabe Texas inventor, but mostly just a junk collector, who’s trying to come up with a gizmo that will make enough money to send his daughter Tessa (Peltz) to college — though unless it’s just the vapid acting and terrible dialogue, Tessa doesn’t exactly seem like college material. Yeager buys up the contents of an old movie theater, which includes a battered old tractor trailer. When he brings the heap home, wouldn’t you know it, it’s our old friend Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).
It seems that since the last installment, when the Autobots defeated the Decepticons (if these terms mean nothing to you, I’m not going to help you), folks weren’t happy that they took out most of Chicago in the process. So now the humans are hunting down all alien animated hardware, whether good or evil. Signs urge people to “Remember Chicago!” and the xenophobia gives CIA spook Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) a free hand to use whatever means necessary.
So much for allusions to the war on terror. As for the rest, let’s just say my ears are still ringing, and I’ll also add what a pompous bore Optimus is. He needs a new speech writer.
Meanwhile, getting back to the dinosaur at the beginning. Bay does pursue the theme of extinction — after all, the word is in the title. So it is apt that Cade comes across Optimus in a ruined movie house amid derelict projectors with an old guy muttering about sequels and remakes ruining the movies. Since at least two more Transformer movies are in the works, they aren’t the endangered species — movies are.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.