If nothing else, the latest addition to one of the most successful contemporary franchises demonstrates once again that Hollywood can build a movie, whatever its quality, on the most unlikely foundation. Novels, short stories, plays, comic books, songs, even most recently a painting ("Belle") provide the sources for hundreds of films, but the "Transformer" series — the latest chapter delineated as "Age of Extinction" — shows that enormously expensive, enormously profitable blockbusters can grow from a child's toy: amazing.
Beyond its predictable sequences of violent action, automobile chases and crashes, shootouts, explosions, and those familiar metamorphoses, the new movie employs some well-known performers and a surprisingly complicated back story. In the process of telling that story it jumps all over the world, creating several different narrative threads that twine together after a considerable length of time.
It begins with a couple of visual allusions to some classic science fiction movies, showing for example the real reason for the annihilation of the dinosaurs — not an asteroid, an ice age, or the No Vacancy sign on Noah's Ark — the landing of some extraterrestrial machines in an echo of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Then in a moment recalling "The Thing from Another World," the scene shifts to the Arctic, where a group of technicians and scientists discover a space ship half buried in the ice.
After those moments, the film settles into its several stories, populated by some recognizable stars. Mark Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a mechanic and inventor in the great American tinkering tradition — Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers — who in the process of salvaging obsolete machinery, stumbles on a truck that he brings back to his laboratory/garage. When he repairs the truck he discovers that it's actually the autobot Optimus Prime, the leader of a band of "good" Transformers who assisted humanity against the baddies in previous chapters.
The most important back story involves Yeager and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), a lovely teenager who resists her widowed father's attempts to restrict her social life.
The conflict between father and daughter explodes when her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) shows up, just in time to rescue the pair from an attack by a gang of CIA agents perfectly willing to kill Tessa to find out the location of Optimus.
That attack underlines the movie's reversal of the traditional conflict between man and machine by showing that favorite cinema cartel, the CIA, led by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), as the bad guys. Attinger spouts some noble nonsense about defending the world by attempting to destroy all of Optimus Prime's autobots. He works with Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), whose lab creates a new element, transformium, which enables them to build the most powerful autobot of them all, an evil machine called Galvatron.
Once those characters and their stories emerge, the movie naturally turns into a long series of all the usual spectacular effects of contemporary cinema. It moves all over the world, finally settling in Hong Kong, where innumerable car chases pretty much mess up the city, assisted by lengthy combat scenes between Optimus Prime's gang of four autobots and Attinger's own crew of mechanical monsters. These all-too-familiar sequences after a while make a long movie seem even longer; something must be very wrong when constant explosive action becomes intensely boring.
All that repeated action alternates with far too many tiresome scenes of ersatz emotion involving the conflict between Yeager and his daughter, who themselves must perform a remarkable series of heroic deeds. The most impressive characters in the movie, of course, remain the Transformers themselves, whose transmutations provide the most fun — sleek muscle cars, nifty diesel trucks, and other items of equipment magically turn into huge robots bristling with cannons, missile launchers, machine guns, even swords; John Goodman voices Hound, the most engaging of them, delivering wisecracks and smoking an electronic cigar.
As if all that weren't enough, the movie also indulges in something like theology. Optimus Prime speaks of the aliens who created him and his colleagues as beings with a particular, if mysterious, design. His speech, delivered with a sort of angry resignation — odd for a robot — tends toward the mystical, but also of course promises a sequel. Prepare yourself, America.