Monday, June 29, 2009

Transformers 2: Take Two; or, The Revenge of Michael Bay

I want to start this second post on Transformers 2 off with a few choice quotes. The first comes from Maryann Johnson, whose review of the film I linked to at the end of my last post. In it she astutely points out that,

“… Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like the most totally awesome artifact ever of the end of the American empire. It’s so us, a preposterously perfect reflection of who we are: loud, obnoxious, sexist, racist, juvenile, unthinking, visceral, and violent... and in love with ourselves for it. And Michael Bay is the high priest of our self-engrossment. … What we have right here is the Easter Island statue of our legacy.”

Once again, her full review is available at
6/062309transformers_revenge_of_the_fa.html, and it's one of the better pieces on the movie out there. Now, somewhat more succinctly, I want to quote David Chen of /Film, discussing Transformers 2 at the beginning of last week’s /Filmcast. In discussing his initial, unformed thought on Michael Bay’s latest opus, he says,

“Basically I think Transformers 2 perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong, not only with America, but with American cinema.”

The always fantastic /Filmcast is available every week at, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Anyways, the reason I wanted to begin this post with those two quotes is because I wanted to discuss the degree to which both the Transformers films have tried and failed to become the modern encapsulation of the red-blooded American dream. When Stephen Spielberg got involved with the first film the internet resounded with word that he was pushing Bay to focus the film around Sam and Bumblebee, a boy and his first car, and in that way capture the very essence of what it means to be an upper middle-class, white, American male.

The film was going to centre around clich├ęs like the awkward high school experience, the quest to get the hottest girl in school, and the discovery that there’s more to her beneath the jock-loving surface, and the eventual coming-into-one’s-own, attainment of the girl, and victory over adversity. The movie would capture perfectly the coming-of-age experience that, I’m certain, parallels all of our lives in meaningful ways. The only change from our boring, everyday, largely explosion-less existence would be the relatively minor addition of giant alien robots that transform into GM vehicles. It also doesn’t hurt that the robots in question just happened to be inscribed with a nostalgia quality that made them pretty much 1:1 representative of the childhoods of they key age-demographic of summer action blockbusters, not unlike the pulp influences behind Indiana Jones and Star Wars that helped make them such powerhouses in their day.

All of that actually sounds like a pretty decent Spielberg film on paper, doesn’t it? Formulaic, definitely, but then it is Spielberg. Unfortunately that’s not quite what we got, though Bay doesn’t seem to realize that. Or at least he doesn’t care. The difference between what he doesn’t know and what he doesn’t care about is pretty much nonexistent.

Bay’s films always have and always will be clusterfucks of stimuli. They’re inundated with stereotypical characters, dizzying but beautiful camera-work, and above all else spectacular action set-pieces with lots of explosions. In this respect the Transformers franchise seems perfectly suited for him: it is based on a children’s cartoon and follows giant robots waging an alien war on Earth on a global scale. To depict this on film would require remarkable military cooperation and coordination, a huge budget, a diverse ensemble cast, and a plot that conveniently and simplistically tied all of its threads together at the end. Oh, and gigantic explosions, of course.

Honestly, who else besides Michael Bay could they possibly have hired?

What we ended up with in Transformers was sort of an atavistic crossbreed between the Spielberg and Bay formulas, and it did exactly what you’d expect from hearing it described as such: it stank like a flaming skunk turd but still printed money like nobody’s goddamn business. That inevitable result has been completely replicated by the sequel in both design and reception, but this time around Bay has the added justification of prior success. This has allowed him to spend the annual budget of South America to essentially express his id as a white, red-blooded American filmmaker through the medium of giant, transforming robots.

I’m hoping by now you can see why I started with those two quotes.

Transformers 2 is simultaneously a complete failure and resounding success in that it tries to capture the stereotypical essence of what it is to be white, have money, and be a patriot in America today. If you’re not for this movie you’re against it, and against freedom. You’re probably also reasonably intelligent and prone to asking questions.

It fails to successfully tell the coming-of-age tale of the average American boy and his transforming robot car, just as the first one did, but it does try. Between that attempt and the explosive spectacle of testosterone and pure military might that takes place, the movie becomes something in between. It’s not quite E.T., and it’s not quite The Rock, but it’s got elements of both, and it’s undeniably American at its core.

I know that it is one of the worst movies ever made, objectively speaking, but at the same time I quite enjoyed it. I see what it represents, and what it says about American culture and cinema, but none of it is news to me. I already knew that there was this strain of Western culture, and that Michael Bay represented it, and in my mind those only thing that Transformers 2 does is epitomize it. The film captures in a pure form the essence of what it means to be the kind of person Bay is, to believe the kinds of things he does, and to be as self-assured as he is, and it capitalizes on it.

Between the nostalgia factor of the Transformers themselves, the amalgamation of two economically proven types of filmmaking, and the focus on the American identity that is at the core of the film, Transformers 2 is destined to be a huge success. It might even become one of if not the most successful movie of all time. This would not represent the death knell of American cinema, or the general stupidity of the masses. Rather it would simply signal the absolute perfection of the summer blockbuster model. These movies have evolved such that they are made to make money as well as entertain, in that order, and this movie does both brilliantly.

Lets make a checklist. Does Transformers 2 contain the following:
1) Babes? Check
2) Explosions? Check
3) Optimus Prime? Check
4) Comedic material? Check, subjective qualms aside since they really don’t matter
5) Drama, or at least something like it? Check
6) Americana? It is Americana

Even while I was offended, embarrassed, confused, frustrated, and at times bored throughout the film, there was always something entertaining on screen, and I do not regret seeing it. As if my petty contribution to its grosses really made any difference; my seat would have been filled in a heartbeat had I forgone it. The laughter and pleasure of the people sitting behind me (they gave it a freaking standing ovation, no joke) proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that this movie is transcendent in its ability to nullify potential reproach. As many have called it, the movie is critic-proof, it’s impossible to fault it because there’s just no point. What good does it do to complain that shit smells bad?

The film can be called narrative cinema only insofar as there are characters with names, and they speak words that sound something like dialogue that sort of add up sequentially between the big CGI robot fights. The movie is not about plot, it is about spectacle and the projection of identity from the viewer towards the screen and vice versa. The viewer is Sam Witwicky, and Sam Witwicky is the viewer, regardless of gender because quite frankly that’s secondary to the overriding identifier of nationality.

In engaging with Transformers 2 one temporarily becomes the stereotypical American, a part of the faceless masses pouring into the theatres on opening weekend to experience Bay’s conception of their lives while they empty their wallets into his awaiting gullet. It’s similar to when the largest robot in the movie, the aptly named Devastator, sucks in the sand from an Egyptian desert like a vacuum. This movie is a behemoth that will consume every cent in its path, and because it is so large its path will be suitably sized. But this has all happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again, next summer if not next month.

We can stand in the minority and call the movie terrible all we want, but it wont make any difference, and that’s not because we wont be heard. It’s because people already know everything we’re going to say, they knew it months ago before the movie even came out. All Transformers 2 does it demonstrate that which is already understood to be true in western society. It’s not necessarily agreed with, but it’s accepted because we are a liberal people, more or less. Michael Bay has the summer blockbuster in his pocket (again, this is not news), but that’s all. If this kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea then do not go see the movie, but then I’m sure you knew that already and didn’t need my review to tell you.

That’s the point I’ve been getting at exactly: nothing here is new ground. This movie is what it was always going to be and what you always knew it would be, and what it always will be regardless of whatever we say. All the claims that this film represents all that is “wrong” with American cinema and/or culture aren’t necessarily wrong (though they’re certainly subjective), but they don’t matter. This is the perfect blockbuster film, and that type of film is not going away. You can go see other movies, but that wont make Transformers 2 any less of a reality or a success. With that in mind, see it or don’t, just know what you’re getting into: the subject position of the stereotypical average white male, the spectacle of a summer blockbuster, and the reality of what Michael Bay believes to be true and American. This movie isn’t changing anything, it’s just saying it more loudly and explosively than before. The legacy of American culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is already secured, now it just has a symbol that is appropriately modeled after a GM car.

Append on July 5th, 2009: I want to clarify that I am not defending Transformers 2. I think it is a terrible, terrible movie. I enjoyed parts of it, but was also bored by parts of it, disgusted with parts of it, and overall I think it's a terrible sign that it's done as well as it has. My attitude is just that this was inevitable, predictable, and could happen again. This is what our culture venerates, myself included based on the fact that I saw it twice (it made less sense the second time). Every aspect of it, in isolation, was perfect in terms of its execution as a part of a summer blockbuster film. Together, however, they added up to something quite... wrong... My point is that the final sum isn't what matters here as much as the fulfillment of the checklist I noted earlier. It is not a good movie, but it was never going to be. I hope you didn't expect it to be.

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