The Collective Yawn Of Losing Shia LaBeouf in ‘Transformers: Age Of Extinction’
On Friday, the fourth movie in the live-action 'Transformers' series of films opens in theaters. This one is called ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction,’ and, like its predecessors, it’s poised to become one of the biggest films of the year, if not the biggest. What’s odd is that in the buildup for this movie, I haven’t heard Shia LaBeouf’s name once -- you know, the guy who was the star of the previous three ‘Transformers’ movies.
Obviously a lot has happened in Mr. LaBeouf’s life over the last six months, from the plagiarism allegations to his even more bizarre apology tour. But, we live in an era of short attention spans when it comes to this kind of thing and the public has forgiven public figures for far more incredulous mistakes. What people usually don’t forgive is the main character of a popular series of movies or television being replaced.
Before the fifth season of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ series stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider were involved in a hotly contested contract dispute. Instead of submitting to Wopat and Schneider’s demands, CBS decided to replace their characters, Luke and Bo Duke, with their lookalike cousins, Coy and Vance Duke. This turned out to be a disaster. As it turned out, people really liked Luke and Bo Duke and didn’t just watch the show for car chases and the General Lee. By the time Bo and Luke returned to the series, the ratings had dipped so low, they never recovered.
A well-known recent example would be the Bourne series of films, with the title character, played by Matt Damon, leaving the series after the third film and being replaced by Jeremy Renner as a character named Coy Aaron Cross. The result: the fourth Bourne film grossed around $170 million less than its Matt Damon-led predecessor. And, to this day, there are still rumors of Matt Damon’s return to Bourne that have been met with cautious optimism from fans of the series that this might happen. (Of course, series producer Frank Marshall says there’s no chance in hell.)
For the life of me, I can’t think of a franchise this popular that can lose/dump its star and no one seems to care one way or another. Sure, we don’t really blink when the James Bond movies switch actors, but that’s a little different. First of all, it’s the same character, and as a society, we’ve been weaned on this idea for 45 years, since the release of the first non-Sean Connery canon Bond film, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – a movie that made considerably less than the previous, Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice.’ So much, in fact, Connery was then persuaded (with a lot of money) to come back and do ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ – which grossed over $50 million more than ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.’ Anyway, the point is, back then, yes, people did care … quite a bit.
The thing is, I don’t believe this collective yawn has anything to do with LaBeouf’s recent controversies. If it did, there would be more of an “and good riddance” feel to this whole thing. Instead, no one cares either way.
This obviously says more about the ‘Transformers’ franchise of movies than it does about LaBeouf.
It’s an odd thing, because I’ve seen every previous ‘Transformers’ movie more than once, but for the life of me, I can’t remember much about LeBeouf’s character, Sam Witwicky -- other than maybe the first half hour of the first movie, before the Transformers become the main focus of the story. What were Sam Witwicky’s dreams? What were Sam Witwicky’s motivations? I’ve spent around seven hours with Sam Witwicky and I don’t know much about him other than he's friends with the Transformers.
To be fair, I’m having a hard time remembering much of anything about the previous three ‘Transformers’ movies. Rewatching 'Dark of the Moon' the other day, I realized that I had completely forgotten that Patrick Dempsey was in that movie at all. I don’t mean that as an insult, even though it kind of inherently is an insult. I find the ‘Transformers’ movies fascinating in a mass spectacle kind of way. (Though remembering plot details is like trying to remember one specific M&M on a 16 Handles yogurt concoction in which you added every available topping. It really is like having one of those desserts shoved down your throat – which can be delicious at times – but isn’t really a pleasant experience and will probably kill you.)
It’s just, after all of that, it would seem reasonable that there would at least be some sort of opinion one way or another. But ‘Transformers’ is a weird franchise in which millions of people watch them, but no one really cares what happens. The fact people show up means that people do enjoy the movies, but I’ve never seen such a popular entity that appealed to people who had such a small investment in the details. Not one, “Aw, I wanted to find out what Sam is doing now,” or, “I wonder if Sam and Bumblebee will remain friends?”
I wonder if when LaBeouf was actually filming these movies he thought his character was important. I suspect he did – he does seem to be giving an honest effort – at least to the extent it was more important than it actually turned out to be.
Compare that to ‘Star Wars,’ where every whisper is met with mass speculation, no one cares about ‘Transformers’ plot rumors. No matter what happens on the screen in front of them, every audience member has this look on their face: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And people will return with that look on their face as long as these movies are made, but I wonder why, at this point, they even bother with the human actors because it’s obvious that no one really cares. And I’m sure Mark Wahlberg puts in an honest effort in the new ‘Transformers’ film, and I’m sure I’ll probably completely forget anything about that effort fairly soon after seeing the movie. And you know what? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.