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Trying to Understand the ‘Transformers’ Franchise: What Is the Meaning of All This?

Transformers 4 explosion
Paramount Pictures

Over the course of four ‘Transformers’ films, we’ve watched big, shiny vehicles that transform into giant, shiny robots battle over human ideals like freedom and existential concepts like having a soul. Director Michael Bay brought his signature “Bayhem,” delivering massive explosions, fast cars, beautiful women, and heroes fighting corruption in the pursuit of the American dream — proving that even advanced sentient robot aliens from another planet only desire the basic liberties promised to citizens of our great nation.

After watching the first three ‘Transformers’ films and sitting through the fourth — ‘Age of Extinction’ — it becomes less and less clear who these films are really made for and what Bay’s grand cinematic purpose is beyond cashing in on brand recognition. The films are too mature and crude for children, yet too infantile for adults. They seemingly exist for man-children, and are the very embodiment of an overgrown adult playing with children’s toys.

Okay, sure, there’s viable media that entertains both adults and children alike — take Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s recent ‘The LEGO Movie,’ or even the films of Pixar. But, those films are primarily made for a youthful audience and they appeal to the inner child in every adult. These films refuse to talk down to their target audience, which is why they feel more mature in both humor and subject matter, and why they can appeal to all ages. Michael Bay takes a weird, reverse approach with the ‘Transformers’ films: the primary target audience for these films is adults, but Bay is talking down to them as if they were children, and the humor and subject matter is exceedingly regressive.

What is the appeal of ‘Transformers’? It’s not as if we have a massive collective fondness for this mediocre cartoon from the 80s. This isn’t about nostalgia; this is about brand recognition. Actually, it’s just about Michael Bay making Michael Bay movies. I don’t think there’s any amazing epiphany to be had, even after watching all four films in a row. Bay has his own formula for the franchise, and for whatever reason (we like giant robots, we like explosions, we like pretty ladies), it works: an entertaining first hour leads to an exhaustive second hour before an all-out and totally absurd ending. Then Optimus Prime gives a moving monologue about freedom and idealism and there’s a Linkin Park song over the credits. (Did Michael Bay make Linkin Park?) There are no climaxes because every scene is a climax, which is why by the second hour of these overlong movies, you feel dazed, numb, and bored. Perhaps in that way, the ‘Transformers’ films are intended as a commentary on how desensitized we are to violence in media. Thinking too deeply about what these films are trying to convey thematically is an exercise in futility, though. They’re basically just Michael Bay’s vision board brought to life: robots, barely legal women, explosions, fast cars, and weirdly reprehensible ethnic stereotyping.

There’s the underdog hero, played in the first three films by Shia LaBeouf, of all people, in a time before we collectively knew better, and he seems to be Bay’s proxy: an ideal image of Bay’s younger self. He’s smarter than people give him credit for, he’s nerdy but quick-witted, he’s too cool for the jocks, drives a badass car, and gets the hottest girl. As a bonus, the hot girl also knows how to work on cars. Many of the women in these films are self-sufficient and skilled, but they’re so woefully underused that maybe they’re only so cool because they’re yet another projection of Bay’s masculine ideals.

The government is always useless and sometimes corrupt, and the third film — ‘Dark of the Moon’ — reveals that the moon landing was a front for a special Transformers-related mission. It is a movie in which serious actress Frances McDormand stands by as Buzz Aldrin (yes, the Buzz Aldrin) explains that the moon landing was a bunch of crap. The power of Michael Bay is vast.

Even though we’ve already determined that these films are clearly intended for an adult audience with a junior high maturity level, I still have a hard time believing that these films are for anyone besides Michael Bay himself. In the first ‘Transformers,’ Autobots crash-land on Earth and an overweight teen, dressed as your typical fanboy, runs by screaming, “This is easily a hundred times cooler than ‘Armageddon,’ I swear to God.” Bay is telling us that these movies are better and cooler than his other movies. He believes he is an arbiter of good taste and can tell us what to like, and we’ll listen. We’re sitting in the theater for a fourth ‘Transformers’ movie, after all, so maybe he’s not wrong.

Even if we know they’re not particularly good movies, we still go for the enormously absurd spectacle, to see just what the hell Michael Bay has done with all that money this time. And in ‘Age of Extinction,’ he’s rebooted his own franchise and replaced Shia with Mark Wahlberg, who plays a Texan farmer/inventor who uses every opportunity to tell other people that he is an inventor. He also wears glasses because he is an inventor and we should take him seriously. His daughter is 17 and dating a 20 year-old guy, but it’s okay because that guy carries around a laminated card detailing the statutory rape laws in Texas, and the movie devotes no less than five minutes to this. Maybe we should be concerned about writer Ehren Kruger, if we weren’t already. In addition to crafting the worst ‘Transformers’ script to date (yes, even worse than the bizarrely racist ‘Revenge of the Fallen’), Kruger seems awfully preoccupied with the legalities of teen sex.

The fourth may be the most poorly written of the ‘Transformers’ series, but it’s the best directed and boasts an impressive supporting cast, including Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci — the latter actually has a scene in which he simply screams “Algorithms! Math! Why can’t we make things the way we want to make them?!” In case you were wondering, Tucci’s character is clearly the on-screen proxy for Bay this time around, though he’d like us to believe it’s Wahlberg’s humble Cade Yeager. Tucci’s Joshua Joyce is a brilliant, immensely wealthy inventor with sleek designs — the kind of guy who doesn’t believe the public is all that deserving of what he’s created. And Joyce can’t exactly be blamed when his good intentions go awry and his creations become sentient, can he?

Like all ‘Transformers’ films, ‘Age of Extinction’ culminates in an absurd finale — this one featuring Optimus Prime riding into battle with his giant sword atop a massive Dinobot. The action has moved to Hong Kong, and the Joshua Joyce-created bots, led by Megatron reincarnated as a bot named Galvatron, are wreaking havoc and destroying the city, while a giant alien spacecraft with a magnet hovers and tries to suck up everything in sight, its commander on a quest for his precious “seed.” A giant robot man runs around shouting about how he needs his seed. How’s that for metaphor? Any rational human being would look upon this entire scenario — Dinobots included — and exclaim, “Da fuhhhh…?” Mark Wahlberg merely looks upon this visual orgy of metal and explosions and fighting robots and gives a silent, confident nod of approval, as if everything is as it should be.

We’ve watched four ‘Transformers’ films and the closest thing to a message any of them can deliver is through the mouth of Optimus Prime, who waxes philosophically about the right of every sentient being to freedom and the value of all life. In a scandalous twist, the fourth one replaces Linkin Park with Imagine Dragons as Optimus Prime delivers his closing speech — something about pursuing justice or … who even knows anymore. He’s just talking to talk at this point, and it sounds cool because he’s a giant robot. That’s really the only point of any of this, isn’t it? Giant robots are cool and so is freedom. And that’s kind of been the theme of Michael Bay’s entire career: America, f— yeah.

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