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ON FILM: ‘Transformers’: Robot smash. Whee.

by Philip Martin | June 9, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.

I know people who get offended by "Transformers" movies.

I'm not one of them. "Transformers" movies aren't particularly good for the republic, but some seem to like them enough to spend discretionary income on tickets to them, and I have no desire to nanny-state those people.

I can even be sanguine about the way the gravity of movies like this have warped the motion picture universe and driven a certain kind of medium-budget adult-targeted film out of the theaters and onto streaming services. I can watch Paul Schrader and Nicole Holofcener movies in the comfort of my home if I have to. The concessions are a lot cheaper.

Maybe the only genuinely bad thing about science is that it disabuses us of our pretty illusions. The more data we compile, the clearer it becomes that more of us crave sugar, sex and visceral excitement than the sort of unsettling revelations a Cassavetes or Fassbinder film might provide.

Once studios figured out it made more financial sense to take home-run swings rather than nibbling away with singles and doubles, the cinematic middle class started getting squeezed. Algorithms tell us the bottom line is better served by would-be blockbusters, and so now we see more and more movies with numbers in the titles. More reboots. More repeatable franchise films. It's never been so hard to get an original script produced in Hollywood -- the first question the gatekeepers ask is "What's the I.P.?"

That's intellectual property, if you're not up on Hollywood acronyms. Which essentially means no one is willing to take a chance on a movie unless it has already been road-tested as a book, a comic book, or someone's real-life story. There's no business more fiscally conservative than Hollywood; you can keep your studio executive job just by saying "no" to everyone it's possible to say "no" to.

But again, science. We get the sort of movies we deserve -- we vote with our discretionary income.


Still, as someone who writes about the movies, it's a drag to have to say the same things again and again, because we're essentially getting the same movies again and again. I do not hate the occasional mindless spectacle. I do not have anything against robots from outer space. 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 Michael Bay (who only produces these days; the director of the latest film is Steven Caple Jr., and it may well be his dream to serve as Bay's surrogate blow-'em-up boy) isn't a savant of noise and imagery or that there isn't something gleeful and alive in his incoherent blasts of color and form.

I understand why Bay's movies -- especially his Transformers movies -- have 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 will even admit to liking his movies. I enjoyed his early features "Bad Boys" and "Armageddon," although I wouldn't classify them as anything other than good popcorn movies. I found "Pearl Harbor" risible, but impressive in a horrifying, ahistoric way. I enjoyed "Pain & Gain," which may be as close as Bay ever comes to making an art film.


But I lost the thread on the Transformers films about an hour into the first installment. Some viewers were excited about the series; those who grew up with the toys and the cartoon series might have an emotional investment in the characters. I didn't, and so was happy not to review the movie, which seemed all juddering color and ear-splitting noise, a sharp-cut sequence of would-be totemic images.

The very idea of a movie based on Hasbro's Transformers toys seems grotesque, but my experience is not that of the target demographic. A lot of friends 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 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 can't tell Autobot from Decepticon. And if I'm going to spend my time learning another language, it's going to be Spanish.


That's not to say Bay isn't capable of making good cinema. He's the sort of filmmaker who keeps scrapbooks of images he likes; he clips photographs and illustrations from magazines to use as inspiration when he is envisioning one of his films.

While you might see this as a kind of appropriation, I don't think there's anything wrong with a visual artist gathering and hoarding images. It sounds like a sensible thing to do, a way of isolating and rearranging the known world for one's own purposes. A director serves as a surrogate brain for moviegoers. He orders the world in the frame -- he tells us where to look and at what. If the trick is done well, we shouldn't worry about how it's accomplished.

Bay is not my favorite filmmaker. But I've never been able to work up the kind of vitriol for him some critics and more than a few moviegoers have. I get his work, but am indifferent to it.

This indifference might, in the eyes of some fanboys, disqualify me from voicing a public opinion about the new Transformers, but I'm not sure that the best perspective on a cultural moment is an insider's. (Though the insider's viewpoint is certainly valid and often interesting. There's a big Barbie fan I know who I hope will write something about that movie when it comes out.)


Nostalgia is wonderful in small doses, when it's understood for the wishful myth that it 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 reasons -- 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 Mutant Ninja Turtles (or 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.


We should always remember 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 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 pigeons. 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.

The reason Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise are allowed to continue to make movies is because their movies are generally profitable ventures. They are safe bets. And so the Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise buttons will continue to be pushed until they fail to yield positive consequences two or three times in a row.


Critical feedback means nothing if commercial feedback is not good. You are lucky to get a chance, much less a second one. 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 "Transformers: Age of Extinction's" case, nearly three) hours of air-conditioned sanctuary from summer concerns.

You might think them fun to watch. I don't find them amusing anymore.


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