Watching Michael Bay’s Transformers films

I am quite a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. One of the things I enjoy about his criticism is the way in which Kermode places a film in a context of the state of the industry or how it may fit into our culture. Kermode is well known for hating Michael Bay’s films. Recently, Bay’s ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ came out in the UK and it is part of the cultural milleu (along with all the Marvel films) that represents how as I facetiously tweeted: Nerds are here to stay.

 

I’d still like Transformers and comics even if these films didn’t come out. Although now that these kinds of films have come out I have no curiousity of ‘what if’. After seeing Vin Diesel jump over a bridge to save Michelle Rodriguez in Furious 6 last year, I think anything’s possible in cinema. Including the continued success of the action film.

 

I have an admission to make, although I wouldn’t call the latest Transformers film ‘good’ in any stretch of the word, I would probably still go and see a Transformers 5 and 6. I’m reminded of the Richard Dawson character in The Running Man who describes his show as: we give them what they want.

 

There are sometimes films where instead of a director prescribing a view and asking an audience to assent to it, the film appeals to a base nature that covers bases which are sufficiently general: sexuality, action, crude humour or an opportunity to plus action figures and novelty t-shirts after watching the film to highlight where your cultural sensibilities lay. I’ve often said: if you can summarise your views on a t-shirt slogan then your sentiments are utterly pecuniary and hardly engaging to the wider project of a critical perspective to the world – try putting that on a t-shirt.

 

The success of Michael Bay’s films remind me much of the success of the Canadian band Nickelback. Many people love to hate them, but also they are highly successful and it is a testament to having a finger on the pulse.

 

I think the project of criticism should be about how people may see culture decades and centuries from now, and who will be remembered in a larger pantheon of culture to be mentioned alongside say, Riefenstahl or Hitchcock. The reality of course is that there is a lot of culture that is very immanentist (or, ‘of the now’) and successfully reproduces and transmit that way, if we were to think in say, mimetic terms.

 

When I watched the film I took the character of Optimus Prime seriously. I considered how his character is different to the first three films. Prime kills other robots with inpugnity yet initially said how he would not harm humans (and by implication, sentient life in general). One could interpret this in two ways: an abandonment of the idea of what Optimus Prime represents as a character in favour of a film which is a naked vehicle (excuse the pun) to get bums on seats in cinemas, boost DVD sales and sell £70 transforming truck action figures. The other view is that if we took Bay’s Transformer worlds seriously it has become a darker place and so dark that even the most iconic and idealised of heroes has become more of an anti-hero. I am kind of committed to both notions of Optimus.

 

Earlier this month, comedian John Oliver in his US programme said that the problem with FIFA is that despite all its problems (and he makes a long list), he is still very excited about the 2014 World Cup, that Football has such a ubiquitous place in culture that we ignore the criticisms of the institutions around it. Michael Bay’s films are likewise. Bay’s films represent all that is potentially and in actuality wrong with 3D films (I do think there are good ways to do 3D). There are obvious creepy male gaze overtones and racialisation of robots which seems complicit in continuing the lazy and damaging tropes underlying stereotyping. There’s a bit in Pain and Gain which I have pondered on for a while, where a priest makes sexual advances to Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Paul’ character. Pain and Gain is based on (as absurd as it seems) a true story, with certain flourishes and changes to the plot. The homoerotic priest character is placed there simply to be ‘funny’ in the way that he uses the a biblical passage (Matthew 11:28) to make a sexual suggestion. It is added in a way as if to say: this bit is obviously supposed to be funny. If we laugh to this kind of scene, or the gag in which the two robots who speak in ebonics say they cannot read is similarly funny because it tags along to a boring trope; then Michael Bay reflects what is worst about us as a culture. If that is the case, then we truly do live in the world of The Running Man.

 

And like John Oliver said about Fifa: despite all of the problematic things about his films, I’m still looking forward to Transformers 5, I must say I enjoy the fact that I can fall asleep during a film and wake up not having missed any part of the plot – because there literally is no plot.

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