★★ (M) 149 minutes
To make one Transformers film may be regarded as a misfortune. To make five? Well, at this point the series looks like a multi-car pile-up, with no end to the mayhem in sight.
With director Michael Bay yet again at the helm, the latest 2½-hour addition to cinema’s most epic series of toy commercials credits several writers new to the series, including the team responsible for 2008’s Iron Man.
But this only confirms that the creative impulse is all Bay, all the way – there’s little discernible difference from previous instalments, apart from a slight rise in esoteric whimsy.
We open on Bay’s notion of a mediaeval battlefield, with fireballs and flaming arrows hurled at the camera (naturally, in 3D).
From here, the story jumps forward to a present where Transformers have been outlawed (save in Cuba, thanks to Castro, apparently still living in this timeline).
Displaying impressive emotional commitment in a void, Mark Wahlberg is back as crank inventor Cade Yeager, now off the grid and hiding out in a massive wrecking yard with his entourage of robot clowns.
Fresh from playing Chris Pratt’s doomed mum in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Laura Haddock is the latest imperious heroine: a sexy Oxford professor who wears spectacles when lecturing to her students, but not otherwise.
Elsewhere, it’s business as usual. Sparks fly, smoke drifts. Gleaming bodies, human and mechanical, loom over us, often set against pristine blue sky.
Long, nonsensical speeches are assigned to exposition machine Anthony Hopkins, as an eccentric British lord attended by a twittering 700-year-old robot butler (voiced by Jim Carter) with an explicitly noted resemblance to Star Wars‘ C3PO.
There’s a history-mangling World War II flashback to rival Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; a scrappy orphan (Isabela Moner) who wants to be Cade’s apprentice; and a hint of the horror that might ensue were Bay ever tapped to direct a remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
As ever, most of the comedy is bizarrely removed from actual humour – unless you get an automatic laugh from the pompous Hopkins using words like “dickhead”.
Somewhat more amusing is the notion of the Witwiccans, a secret society named for original series protagonist Sam Witwicky, played in the first three films by human punchline Shia LaBeouf.
In accordance with Witwiccan prophecy, Cade and company have to avert apocalypse by hunting down Merlin’s long-lost staff; but whatever you might surmise from this last plot point, Freudian concepts are of little help in interpreting Bay’s leering – yet thoroughly anti-erotic – work. For all the tumescent energy being squandered, the morphing machines and subsequent pyrotechnics are a substitute for sex – not a metaphor for it.
One question persists: just what are the Transformers? Technically, they’re not robots but extra-terrestrials, meaning they have at least some of the qualities of organic lifeforms. But five films have not provided the space to elaborate a persuasive origin story.
From another angle, they suggest musclebound slaves, generating an uneasy racial subtext which Bay does nothing to dispel thanks to his enduring fondness for having them gibber in zany “ethnic” accents.
Lumbering yet weightless, mechanical yet impossible, the Transformers embody the idea of the 21st-century blockbuster: a mutant form of cinema that threatens to obliterate conventional notions of goodness and badness, as well as character and plot.
In his own fashion, Bay is as serenely indifferent to storytelling norms as Terrence Malick. But to view him as a closet avant-gardist does either more or less than justice to his commitment to vulgarity for its own sake.
In other words, the pleasures on offer here are strictly masochistic – and even fans must eventually concede that enough is enough.