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Transformers: Age of Extinction

June 28, 2014
Transformers: Age of Extinction

So, we’re back for another Michael-Bay-helmed Transformers movie, and it’s easily better than the first three. That doesn’t set a very high bar, though; it’s still pretty terrible. Still, what did you expect?

And really, what does anyone expect? Everyone knows what they’re getting with Michael Bay blockbusters. They’re so bad that even reviewers that are normally in the tank for any big-budget studio crap feel like they’ve got carte blanche to rip it apart. Panning a Transformers movie is the easy, safe move. That’s not to say I’m going to defend it, but I wonder what a critic is really saying when they put out a scathing review of something everyone knows is awful.

Really, these movies most closely resemble McDonald’s. They’re highly-processed visual junk food that we developed in America and are now exporting to foreign countries — notably in China — and maybe ruining their well-being in the process. The product that McDonald’s and equivalent fast-food chains produce isn’t very high quality, but it’s not exactly toxic aside from the dose. The component flavors are things that we naturally crave: cinematic fats and sugars like sweeping, golden-hour landscape shots and quick, macho sound-bites. We’re primed to respond to these triggers, albeit more on sociological than evolutionary grounds. McBay’s has worked out a recipe consisting of megadoses of the empty calories that audiences crave; maximum desire for minimum buck. And before you point out the huge budgets, remember that the worst-performing movie in the series still made four times what it cost at the box office, and that’s before you factor in DVDs and tie-in merchandise.

So what would it mean if I laid into Bay as a “bad director” making “bad movies”? about as much as it would mean to call McDonald’s a “bad restaurant” selling “bad food”. Everyone knows it’s crap, but it makes billions anyway. At some point, it starts feeling like Bay-the-director and McDonald’s-the-restaurant are actually serving as proxies for criticizing the tastes of the audience.

Complaining about fatty, nutritionally-void food or vapid, haphazardly-plotted action movies is really an indirect way of saying, “you poor, trashy people like the wrong things.” It’s especially problematic when what we’re complaining about is exactly what you’d expect someone to like; Bay movies just reflect our society the same way McDonald’s food reflects our evolutionary history in a radically-distorted funhouse mirror. And besides, we all have our guilty pleasures, making the whole thing a bit hypocritical. Guillermo del Toro may correspond to Chipotle here; the product he offers is higher-quality, but it’s probably still not great for you in excessive quantities.

Like I said, Age of Extinction is the best — or at least the least-bad — of the four. They got rid of that one guy who used to be famous, and replaced him with Mark Wahlberg, who makes pretty much any mainstream film better. John Turturro’s comic relief part has been largely replaced by Stanley Tucci’s caricature of Steve Jobs, which actually manages to be better than Ashton Kutcher’s. Kelsey Grammer is a greedy, self-important, right-wing authoritarian jerk, and he also plays one in the movie. It’s kind of like a McDonald’s salad: probably better than a Big Mac, but it too will be drenched in fatty, sugary, racist, sexist crap, and there’s fewer pieces of dinobot chicken than you expected.

But it’s still a Transformers movie by Michael Bay, and you get what you pay for: a lazy id-fest where the only things less coherent than the action sequences’ editing are the characters’ motivations. I’m not going to blame anyone for wanting exactly that after our wider culture has been training them for decades, and I’m not going to blame Michael Bay for exploiting the culture’s desire for cheap, empty calories. The existence and continuing popularity of these sorts of movies does indicate a problem that needs to be addressed, but Michael Bay is a symptom of that problem, not its cause.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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