‘Transformers 4’: How long is too long for a giant robot movie?

Love him or hate him (or love to hate him), Michael Bay is a this-knob-goes-to-11 kind of director. He has never subscribed to the philosophy of “always leave them wanting more” — and, judging by his box office record, at least, it’s hard to argue with the results. But in the case of Bay’s latest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” if the largely scathing reviews are any indication, many who see the movie this weekend may be left wanting a little less.

With each successive installment in the “Transformers” franchise, the running time has grown longer. The first “Transformers” film came in at a relatively svelte 2 hours, 24 minutes; the second ran 2 hours, 30 minutes; the third was 2 hours, 37 minutes. And the fourth? It tips the scales at a whopping 2 hours, 45 minutes. That’s 165 minutes of cars turning into giant robots and making smashy smashy.

It’s not uncommon for some bloat to creep into ongoing franchises, as directors feel both emboldened by their success and pressured to top themselves. The first film in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy ran 2 hours, 58 minutes, but by the third trek through Middle-earth, that run-time was up to 3 hours, 21 minutes. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy went from 2 hours, 21 minutes for “Batman Begins” to 2 hours, 45 minutes for “The Dark Knight Returns.”

But while many critics and moviegoers felt those films earned their lengths with a certain thematic heft, it’s fair to ask whether any movie based on a line of toys really needs to be nearly three hours long. To put things in perspective, the original cut of “Apocalypse Now” was just 2 hours, 33 minutes long — and there Francis Ford Coppola was taking on the Vietnam War, not the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. But in today’s Hollywood, it’s the Jacksons, Nolans and Bays who are swinging for the fences with the kind of long cinematic epics that used to be the province of filmmakers like Coppola, David Lean, and Akira Kurosawa.

One might wonder why you’d even want to make such a long movie in the first place if your primary target audience is attention-span-challenged 10-to-15-year-old boys. But the fact is, there are more than aesthetic considerations at play here. By releasing the fourth “Transformers” film at 165 minutes, Paramount Pictures is potentially cutting into its own grosses. It’s simple math: the longer the movie, the fewer the times it can be shown in any given theater.


Make no mistake: “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will earn vast amounts of money in its opening weekend, and Bay will likely brush off the negative reviews, as he always does. “They castrate me,” he once said of critics. “They think I’m the devil.” (For the record, Times critic Betsy Sharkey found plenty to like about the movie.) But if the film comes in at significantly below the $100-million benchmark many have set for its opening, some observers will inevitably be asking on Monday whether Bay should have reined things in just a bit. After all, the Transformers are already “more than meets the eye.” Isn’t that enough?

Follow @joshrottenberg for more movie news