Transformers: Age of Extinction is something of a paradox. Compared to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the original Transformers, the film is better acted, better written and better made. Rather than the usual barrage of ill-connecting set-pieces, Age of Extinction’s plot has a beginning, middle and end constructed around a cast of characters who not only speak in complete sentences but also behave in a manner suggesting the presence of recognisable human emotions and comprehensible motives. The comedy (though still irritatingly broad) is somewhat less offensive and better integrated into the beats of the film while the action sequences are much easier to follow thanks to digital effects technology having now reached a point where Michael Bay can finally stage and shoot a fight between two giant robots without having to keep dipping the camera behind obstacles whenever the bit-rate sinks below the photo-realistic. Transformers: Age of Extinction is a real paradox as while it is unquestionably the best made film in the series, it is also the most excruciatingly shit.
As I said when I wrote about Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon in 2011, I am a big fan of Michael Bay’s methods. Since the start of the blockbuster era, Hollywood has been locked in battle with an increasingly cynical and sophisticated audience. For example, back in 1998, Michael Bay held global cinema audiences spell-bound when a huge meteor wiped Paris off the face of the Earth in the film Armageddon. In 2014, James Gunn concluded the film Guardians of the Galaxy by having a space ship the size of Lichtenstein crash into an alien cityscape only for audiences to yawn and roll their eyes in boredom. Every time Hollywood pushes the limit on what cinema can achieve, audiences grow just that little bit more jaded forcing Hollywood to raise the stakes yet again. The films of Michael Bay can be seen as a logical conclusion to this line of thought as Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon pushed the envelope so far that it resulted in a film that was as incoherent as it is spectacular. My previous piece about Michael Bay hailed him as a visionary held back by a sentimental attachment to such outdated notions as plot and character:
The tension between what Transformers wants to become and what Transformers is forced to be is evident in every misjudged comic line and in every underdeveloped plot line.
Unfortunately for advertisers and his contacts in the US military, Bay has allowed sentiment to impede great propaganda resulting in the most technically conservative and well-made Transformers film to date. Rather than striving to transcend human emotions and continuing to embrace pure sensory onslaught, Bay has taken his foot off the accelerator and put more effort into ensuring that both his narrative and characters make some sort of sense. The problem is that while these human elements make the film more comprehensible, they struggle to hold the attention:
- After half an hour of watching Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz and Shane Dyson recreate the same weirdly incestuous love triangle that snared Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck in Armageddon, I was hoping that Shia LaBeouf would turn up and entertain us by flailing his limbs and falling over.
- After an hour of listening to Optimus Prime carefully explain who everyone is and why they are fighting, I felt nostalgic for Bay’s tendency to rely on pre-release trailers to handle any and all detailed exposition.
- After two hours of watching John Goodman’s Hound and Ken Watanabe’s Drift banter witlessly with each other, I was ready to go back to having dozens of unnamed Transformers who rarely held their shape for more than fifteen seconds and spoke only in bellows of pain, anguish and triumph.
In order to understand how Transformers: Age of Extinction improved all of its individual components and yet still wound up being the worst Transformers film to date you first need to understand how the brain processes information. Humans are not passive recipients of story; rather than sitting patiently and waiting for a story to snap into focus, our brains process information by comparing a text to pre-existing bodies of knowledge known as schemata. Read a book and while your eyes glide over the text, your brain is comparing it to everything you know about people, the world and stories in order to help you to make sense of what you are reading.
Different cinematic traditions have developed different attitudes to the way that our brains process information. For example, art house films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life work with the process by presenting the audience with evocative yet ambiguous imagery that encourages the audience to develop their own creative and interpretative powers. Conversely, Hollywood blockbusters are less interested in encouraging audiences to make up their own minds than they are in producing a carefully curated experience in which the audience is told what to think, what to feel and when to feel it. In this type of oppressive creator-consumer relationship, breathing room is the last thing you want as the more audiences are allowed to think for themselves, the harder it becomes to ensure that audiences are having the type of cinematic experience that can be sold to advertisers and government bodies.
Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon worked because Bay positioned his film so far ahead of the cognitive curve that human elements such as plot and characterisation ceased to matter. The resources of the conscious mind were so tied up trying to impose order on the sensory chaos and fill in all the gaps in the narrative that audiences lost the capacity to form aesthetic judgements and completely failed to notice the patriotic imagery and product placement that was aimed directly at their lizard brains. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon didn’t just deny you the chance to be cynical, it made an enemy of consciousness itself by denying you the processing power to handle even rudimentary functions like noticing the passage of time or the fact that your chin was covered in drool.
Bay’s latest film is boring because it falls between two stools. Bay doesn’t nail his audience to the wall with sound and fury or tie their brains up with massive plot-holes and characters who emote furiously for no apparent reason, but nor does he provide stories and characters that hold the audience’s attention. Instead, he relies upon stock characters and conventional plot lines that are easily broken down and processed by our Hollywood-trained brains meaning that we are allowed enough time and space in which to think about what it is that we are seeing on screen. The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu would frequently include images of trains, streets and scenery in his films as a means of providing the audience some space in which to collect their thoughts and generate ideas. While it would perhaps be premature to think of Michael Bay as the 21st Century’s answer to Ozu, his extensive use of explosions does show a similar interest in providing the audience with space to think. The first time you see a car explode and flip end-over-end, you are entertained but the fifteenth time you see it, you are so bored that you cannot help but reflect upon the film’s ideological nuances. In fact, it is almost as though Michael Bay is encouraging us to ask questions.
One unexpected outbreak of thoughtfulness can be found in the way that Bay chooses to portray America. Much of the imagery we have come to associate with the films of Michael Bay comes from the fact that he would stretch his (already generous) budgets by brokering deals with the US military. In exchange for access to US military vehicles and personnel, Bay would make the US military look incredibly cool and portray them in as positive a light as sanity would allow. This meant that all of Bay’s films wound up looking like a 21st Century Triumph of the Will in which jack-booted patriots leapt from gleaming black Esplanades while fighter jets screamed across skies framed by the proud but tattered remains of American flags. Transformers: Age of Extinction seems to have been made without assistance from the US military and this has given Bay the space in which to create a less terrifying vision of America.
Unlike previous Transformers films that moved between unnecessarily remote foreign locations and major American cities, Transformers: Age of Extinction opens in a rural Texas as beautiful as it is run down. Having been targeted by a government still reeling from the destruction visited on Chicago at the end of Dark Side of the Moon, a wounded Optimus Prime is hiding out in an abandoned cinema. Supremely silly and impractical, this choice of hiding place allows Bay to include images of boarded-up and run-down towns from the heartland of America. The juxtaposition of beautiful landscapes and depressing small towns creates the impression that America is a truly amazing place that is also in a good deal of trouble. The scenes in the cinema neatly underline this sense of economic and cultural crisis as the aged owner of the cinema wants to rebuild it while his avaricious son simply wants to strip it out and sell it on. Yes… this nostalgic vision of a troubled small-town America is undoubtedly inspired by the cultural and economic conservatism of the American right but it does mean that Transformers: Age of Extinction is the first film in the series to portray America as anything other than a morally flawless military hegemon.
This vein of thoughtfulness continues when security cameras allow the CIA to detect Optimus Prime prompting them to dispatch a Transformer-hunting black ops team known as Cemetery Wind. Clad all in black and packing heavy weaponry, the CIA black ops team show up at Mark Wahlberg’s home and put a gun to his daughter’s head and threaten to kill her if he does not reveal the location of Optimus Prime. Wahlberg inexplicably refuses to play ball and the family escape pursued by a fleet of powerful black four-by-fours that one of the characters describes as ‘so scary’. Though an under-written and poorly-delivered line, the very idea that the US government could be an intimidating and unwelcome presence would have been anathema in previous Transformers films and this critical gesture opens the film up to a more nuanced political vista.
Of course… there is absolutely nothing brave or interesting about saying that the government is not to be trusted. When the optimism of the 1960s soured into the paranoia of the 1970s, it immediately caught the rising tide of neoliberalism. Rather than prompting people to demand the wholesale reform of state institutions, the fall of Richard Nixon and classics of paranoid cinema like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View wound up feeding into the idea that the public sector was inherently less competent and trustworthy than the private sector. Instead of setting us free, the paranoid cinema of the 1970s encouraged us to transfer our trust away from publicly accountable governments and towards privately owned corporations who are nothing if not less trustworthy and more inefficient than the public institutions they have come to replace.
Given that most of the companies responsible for the production of popular culture are now in the hands of multinational corporations, it is not surprising that pop culture has failed to notice that time has melted its paranoia into a sludge of complacency. Blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and TV series like Person of Interest pay homage to the cultural paranoia of the 1970s and ape its distrust of government institutions whilst remaining entirely uncritical of the existence of corporate hegemons like Tony Stark or Harold Finch. In the American popular imagination, governments tend to corruption and bureaucratic deadlock while corporations allow individuals the freedom and resources to make positive changes in the world. The pro-corporate posture of American popular culture is particularly evident in the world of superhero comics where characters such as the X-Men and Batman have traded the support of philanthropic organisations for backing from multi-national corporations with ostensibly benign agendas. I’m not sure what the mission statement of Batman Incorporated might be but I imagine it is something along the lines of “Don’t be Evil”.
Bay’s depictions of corporate America are no less sycophantic than his depictions of the US Military but while his depictions of the US Military revolve around gleaming technology, vast explosions and heroic poses, his depictions of corporate power involve eye-catching architecture, designer suits and attractively-dressed (female) secretarial staff. This unsettling sexualisation of corporate iconography reached its absolute nadir in Dark Side of the Moon where an evil plutocrat appeared to be working out of a version of the Milwaukee Art Museum that had been inexplicably filled with classic cars.
What makes Age of Extinction’s depiction of corporate power interesting is the suggestion that corporations owe their wealth and power to resources developed in the public sector at public expense. Indeed, one of the film’s main villains is a Steve Jobs-style corporate megalomaniac who boasts incessantly about building the future. However, while the corporation claims to have designed and built humanity’s own fleet of transforming robots, their ability to deliver said technology turns out to be the product of a corrupt relationship with senior CIA officials who provide them with dead transformers who are then modified, re-programmed, patented and sold back to the US government at great expense. This vision of corporate power as something dependent upon state subsidy secured by a revolving door between public and private sectors stands in stark opposition to the decaying high streets and impoverished Americans that populate the opening act of the film. It is almost as though Bay is trying to suggest that American public money should be used to help impoverished Americans rather than supporting a vast military-industrial complex that is at best morally compromised and more likely part of the problems it claims to be trying to solve.
While I enjoyed Age of Extinction’s muted political imagery, I remain disappointed by the fact that Bay allowed me the time to notice it in the first place. At their best, Michael Bay’s films are visceral experiences that by-pass human consciousness and so any Michael Bay film that encourages conscious thought rather than eliminating it must be deemed a failure. How can foreign audiences expect to be cowed by the might of the American military when they are allowed to notice the ineptitude of its leaders? How can Americans be expected to internalise plutocratic values and perpetuate the objectification of women and the oppression of people of colour when they are given the space to become aware of their place in a corrupt and dehumanising system? Bay has long been one of the most talented members of corporate America’s psychological warfare division but this latest eruption of nuance and thoughtfulness seriously threaten his standing. Much more of this shit and Michael Bay will be forced to remember how to be a proper film director.