I’d forgotten to check the running time of Transformers: Age of Extinction before I arrived at the cinema. As I entered I asked one of the ushers how long it was. His answer was shocking.
‘Three hours?’ I repeated.
He checked with a colleague. It was definitely two hours something.
Actually it’s 2 hours 24 minutes. That’s too long for a movie about almost anything – but especially one about robots that turn into cars.
Compared with the CGI mayhem that will be unleashed for the majority of the film, the first twenty of those 144 minutes are pleasantly calm. At a small holding in middle America Mark Wahlberg is introduced as over-protective Cade. He’s the single parent of teenaged Tessa – played with buckets of insouciance by Nicola Peltz. He’s a crazed inventor, making bad electronic guard dogs and buying up junk to try and recycle into robots.
One day he visits an old cinema, from where he buys an old truck. That is the start of his woes, as it quickly turns out to be not so much an old truck as an injured transformer. And not just any transformer, but the leader of the autobots, Optimus Prime.
The CIA come looking, wanting to get their hands on O. Prime. Of course he/it doesn’t want to go with the CIA, and from then on various battles are fought between the government and robots, with Cade finding himself fighting on the side of the autobots.
For a while the human characters are introduced amidst normal sound levels. There are sunny scenes around Cade’s barn that could be from a completely different and more interesting movie – one with no aliens – that makes a study of the father-daughter dynamic. But soon the shooting starts and the unremitting noise and explosions kick in. The camera sweeps, it circles, it zooms, it rotates. It does everything except stay still and let you watch what is happening.
Focus changes quickly, which was exaggerated by the huge IMAX screen of the screening. The part of the screen you are looking at suddenly blurs as focus moves somewhere else. You are left struggling to keep up – not with the content of the film but with the more basic issue of where to look.
It is hard to take seriously a movie that keeps talking of transformium and where cars keep turning into robots and vice versa. But it is possible to read humanity’s falling out with the transformers as a parallel to the way colonising forces fall out with their local allies in places like Iraq. What starts as a happy alliance disintegrates.
The animation is cutting-edge and is easily the best part of the film. There are moments of humour, and Stanley Tucci brings an intense nuttiness to his self-obsessed billionaire. But ultimately this a CGI adventure that lives completely on its own terms. There’s no getting away from the fact that it is about cars that turn into robots. Once you’ve experienced the clever animation a few times you’ll be willing the autobots or the CIA , or anyone to win ASAP. Unfortunately they take over two hours to reach the robotic denouement. It is wearying, confusing and very long.