There comes a time when you start to think, "Am I really going to start ranking the Transformers films?", and the answer turns out to be "apparently". Because there's a lot of chatter out there about how Transformers: Age of Extinction is so godalmighty awful, and it's really not, actually. Now, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, that's the franchise's second film, from 2009 - that's a godalmighty awful motion picture that, five years after I saw it, still makes me reel from the aesthetic savagery of it, the complete refusal to function in the most basic terms as a work of cinema or piece of narrative. Age of Extinction isn't very good, for it is still a Transformers picture, but it comes at least kind of close; I'd put in on par with/above the original Transformers from 2007, and a hair below 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The latter of which remains, after 613 minutes worth of franchise, the only one of the movies that was able to put together an entire action sequence that's actually worth a damn.

In part, it comes down to the human element. A sentence that I'm pleased to have typed out, since I was half-convinced that my keyboard would erupt in flames before I finished it. Not the human element of the protagonists, since they're awful - in fact, screenwriter Ehren Kruger has somehow managed to write leads for the new wave of Transformers movies even worse than the scrawny geek fantasy Shia LaBeouf played in the last trilogy. And the casting director found an actress bad enough to make the model from Dark of the Moon seem modestly talented, and to make Megan Fox seem like an important young actress of exceptional talent and psychological insight. Besides which, any hint of decent characterisation is quite wiped out by a story that proceeds through some insanely convoluted bends for a franchise that requires no more narrative complexity than "Make these robot toys shoot at those robot toys. No, you're doing it wrong! Mooooooom!", and manages to leave damn near every single one of its plot threads, from the biggest to the smallest, dangling without much more than the illusion of resolution at the end. And the most unresolved threads are the ones having to do with the emotional relationships of the main characters, despite the first hour of a movie that ends up stretching to a comically unjustified 165 minutes indulging itself with lots of highly specific and methodical exposition and action setting up those emotional relationships. So when the "overprotective dad & scoundrel-ish boyfriend" conflict seems to have largely taken care of itself offscreen, it's easy to be even pissier at the film than normal.

But I was starting off like I wanted to compliment the movie... so, anyway, the human element. By which I exclusively refer to Joshua Joyce, the film's requisite Bad Capitalist who shifts over the course of the movie from being the secret chief villain to being the foppish secondary villain to being the comic anti-hero sidekick, none of which would augur well for him if he weren't being played by Stanley Tucci, and thus turning into, no two ways about it, the best human-sized thing in any of the movies of the series to date. He brings the same camp/diva hamminess that John Malkovich had in Dark of the Moon, but in a vastly larger role, and while his snitty, prissy bossiness isn't exactly great Acting-with-a-capital-A, and is plainly no challenge for Tucci of all actors, it's absolutely perfect for a popcorn movie, with its big notes and broad strokes and flawlessly-honed sense of fun.

Nobody, mind you, goes into a movie like this expecting to give much if any of a damn about the characters, so Tucci's effectiveness is more of a bonus than anything, but it's still nice to have it. Particularly given that nothing else in Age of Extinction is even slightly better than it has to be, and is often less. For all that the series' defenders like to accuse people like myself of hating movies where you just go and have a good time at the theater, I have to confess that it's not remotely clear what about this is supposed to be a good time. The visual effects are as costly and perfect as ever, and the titular robots just keep getting easier and easier to actually look at as distinct figures and not vaguely anthropoid clusters of sharp, chrome-covered points; the sound mix flawlessly combines several layers of chaotic noise and booming music in a hugely convincing and even coherent flurry of activity and energy. So on a purely experiential level, Age of Extinction works: but what experience is it creating, anyway? Like its three predecessors, it's only really great at pummeling the viewer into oblivion, and if that's really enough to qualify as "fun" these days, I'd prefer to be constantly bored.

Technical polish or not, this still isn't effective action: it's not as dizzying in its incoherence as Revenge of the Fallen - what could be? - but it feels more like an assembly edit than a final cut, with so many tiny continuity errors that you couldn't even make a drinking game out of them. But the bigger problem it that so many scenes and shots simply don't flow: we see a character in the Arctic and then a few seconds later he's in Chicago, or a character is on one side of the road and then manages to be walking down the road on the other quickly enough that it just feels wrong, in some itchy but not quite definable way. I have, I think, discovered something about the cinema of Michael Bay, in this his eleventh feature film as director: he's great at constructing images of violent balletic poetry, of making the most picturesque explosions and iconic moments from what feel like the world's biggest beer commercial (which phrase comes across rather literally in view of the combustive amounts of product placement in Age of Extinction, for both American and Chinese products - a most peculiar psychological disorientation results from watching what are obviously product shots for products you don't recognise), and in this case, he is aided considerably by cinematographer Amir Mokri, bringing some of the cod-Malick tenderness he developed in shooting Man of Steel to the film's Norman Rockwelly scenes of rural Texas. Parts of Age of Extinction, almost solely in the first hour, are actively gorgeous, and there are perfectly-framed shots of chaos and action throughout. But if he is a great maker of images, what Bay can't do at all is to combine those images in a row: every cut feels like it introduces a brand new physical reality. And there are, in fairness, fewer of them: Age of Extinction slows down quite a lot from its predecessors. I was timing it, in fact, and it takes more than two minutes for the first shot with a duration of less than three seconds - that's downright Tarr-esque, by Transformers standards. Even so, the editing is so bad at establishing any relationship between moments that the most stately, long-take Bayhem still refuses to build up any momentum.

Or it could just be form following content: the story of Age of Extinction is, itself, such a clusterfuck of disconnected ideas that don't build on each other, the editing is, in a sense, merely doing its job. There's a shitload going on involving the death of the dinosaurs, an alien metal given the delightfully tacky name of Transformium, the CIA joining forces with a shady defense contractor, a rogue Transformer bounty hunter, and the rural inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, completely lost at sea) - the most transcendentally fake movie name of this or many recent years; I would expect a particularly low-rent Chuck Norris vehicle to come up with that - who discovers the dusty remains of Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), leader of the good Transformers, in hiding these years since the war between Autobots and Decepticons nearly destroyed Chicago. Cade has a hot daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz); Tessa has a hot illicit older racing boyfriend, Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor), and if you suppose that Shane's skill for tricky driving would come in handy in a movie about robots who transform into cars, you'd be unbelievably wrong. Tessa and Shane exist pretty much for no reason other than to provide attractive people for the adolescent audience to ogle; Kruger provides a nifty very long scene indicating how exactly a 20-year-old can fuck a 17-year-old in Texas and have it not be statutory rape, a narrative dead-end that communicates mostly that the writer has done an amount of research into the fine details of age of consent laws that I am not, personally, very comfortable with. Shane is from Ireland, as Cade points out in mocking his accent, a scene that apparently only exists to make the audience uncomfortably aware that the man mocking the kid for being from "Dublin, Texas" is himself pretty unmistakably from Boston, Texas, and should really shut his trap.

These people find themselves squaring off against the impeccably beardy black ops mastermind Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, everyone's favorite movie thug), and it ends up involving robot dinosaurs and an exploding terraforming device that turns animals into tranformium, and the late evil robot Megatron endeavors to resurrect himself in the body of the human-build prototype Galvatron, and he now, very excitingly, is voiced by the legendary Frank Welker, whose characters would otherwise be all dead. What Age of Extinction never does, nor even apparently considers doing, is explaining why the hell we care: the basic stakes and conflict of the movie are so murky, shift so frequently, and virtually never have anything to do with the protagonists beyond the fact that they keep being dragged along. Now, not every action movie needs to be conceptually sound, or conceptually coherent, even; not if it has solid, well-crafted action sequences to make up for it. And in the abstract, Age of Extinction has that, but though all the ingredients are readily visible, they haven't been made into an actual, functioning cinematic object. It's the difference between putting flour, butter, and sugar on somebody's plate, or giving them a slice of cake. And Michael Bay has made a pretty damn lousy cake.

Reviews in this series
Transformers (Bay, 2007)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Bay, 2009)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011)
Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay, 2014)
Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay, 2017)