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Latest Transformers is 3 hours of cooled remove

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 27, 2014 at 2:02 a.m.

I have not seen Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, and I probably won't see it today. Paramount understands that it's a critic-proof movie. Although they did screen the film for some critics Wednesday night and it opened in Hong Kong last weekend, we weren't able to find a review before our deadlines.

I'm not heartbroken about this. I think Paramount is right -- a lot of critics will like the movie, some will hate it and others will simply use it as an opportunity to make fun of the director. I don't know what I would have written. I suspect I will see at least some of it in the not too distant future, and when I do I will probably be more amused than disgusted by it. That's how I reacted to the first three movies -- amazed and dazzled and a little let down.

I am not immune to the power of state-of-the-art computer-generated effects or the encompassing rumble of a first-rate digital sound system. I would not argue that Bay isn't a savant of noise and imagery, that there isn't something gleeful and alive in his incoherent blasts of color and form. I think I get what he does well, and I understand why his movies -- especially his Transformers movies -- have their fans. Bay fire-hoses his screen with stomping monsters, shiny breakables and fields of flesh. It's not mysterious; he serves our collective id.

I like his movies, for a while, before I inevitably begin to think about them. I liked Pain & Gain almost all the way through. I found Pearl Harbor risible, but impressive in a horrifying, ahistoric way. I imagine Bay is capable of making what I would consider very good movies, but he has so far proved better with explosions and caricatures than with grown-up stories and actors working in nuanced modes. But I don't begrudge him anything. I'm just not invested in the sort of movies he has done up until now.

I have to say that the very idea of a movie based on Hasbro's Transformers toys seems grotesque to me, but my experience is not that of the target demographic. I understand that a lot of people -- a lot of friends of mine, actually -- grew up playing with these toys and watching the complementary cartoons on TV. The Transformers multiverse is to them what Star Trek is to some of my contemporaries. Figures like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are deeply layered characters to them -- they've followed their iterations, they've critiqued them, they have an idea how they ought to be employed. Like the Superman fans who felt betrayed by (spoiler alert) the murder of General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, they have a strong sense of what the characters are about.

I, on the other hand, can't tell Autobot from Decepticon. And if I'm going to spend my time learning another language, frankly, it's going to be Spanish. (Although Transformers: Age of Extinction suggests it should probably be some version of Chinese.)

This disconnect might, in the eyes of some fanboys, disqualify me from voicing a public opinion about the new Transformers, but I'm not really sure that the best perspective on a cultural moment is an insider's. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing in small doses, when it's understood for the wishful myth that it in fact is, but it's debilitating when we start to talk about what a movie or book or any other putative work of art means. For whatever reason -- and I can think of a few, most of which involve intellectual laziness and the simple fact that too many of us have too much leisure time -- recent generations (starting with the baby boomers) of Americans have remained deeply invested in the artifacts of their childhood even as they assumed the rights and responsibilities of adulthood.

Being deeply invested in something like Transformers or Teenage Ninja Turtles (or, for that matter, the Star Wars movies or the Rolling Stones) means your feelings about any new work that makes use of your beloved characters will inevitably be colored by your experience and belief. You will likely have rules about the way the characters should look and behave. You expect certain relationships to be respected. There are things that Batman does and things he would never do. You have internalized this mythology. It matters to you.

But your internalized mythologies say more about your experience than anything else. Your experience is what it is, and you are undeniably the world expert on it, but if you're trying to parse the meaning of a popular film for a general audience, it can get in the way, because nobody knows your secret rules.

A movie is just a riot of dancing light projected for a while on a wall.

Maybe you don't even have to project it on a wall any more -- maybe it can just bounce off the inside of a screen. They aren't regulated, they aren't governed and their conventions are merely conveniences that serve filmmakers and consumers. We expect them to be certain things, to tell certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of ways, and most filmmakers are eager to meet those expectations or at least to make an entertaining game of subverting them. We have shaped the movies with our discretionary income, for Hollywood reacts likes Skinner's rats. If pressing a button yields a reward, the button will be pushed, again and again. This is operant conditioning -- positive consequences tend to strengthen behavior while negative consequences weaken it.

And so the only reason Adam Sandler is allowed to continue to make movies is because Adam Sandler movies are generally profitable ventures. An Adam Sandler movie is a safe bet for a studio. And so the Adam Sandler button will continue to be pushed until pushing it fails to yield positive consequences a couple of times in a row. Meanwhile, the John Carter button got pressed once, and the commercial feedback was not good. You will never see the sequel. This is the way Hollywood works. (And why some of us push back against its cultural hegemony, which isn't just populist, but targeted at a global lowest common denominator.)

It has nothing to do with art and aspiration and the desire to contribute to human discourse. Hollywood is a hive where individual drones may be artists, but the collective intelligence is driven by the bottom line. Movies like Transformers resist serious criticism because they're designed to gratify superficial appetites. They mean to provide us with momentary sensation -- a couple of (or, in Age of Extinction's case, three) hours of air-conditioned sanctuary from summer concerns.

Robot smash. Whee.


MovieStyle on 06/27/2014

Print Headline: Sight unseen/At least, and maybe at most, the latest Transformers is 3 hours of cooled remove


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