The Transformers movies, based on a line of Hasbro toys in which mechanical aliens change into cars, may seem like eight-year-old-boy dreams projected onto a big screen. But as the old Transformers' tagline suggests, there's "more than meets the eye" to this box-office-crushing franchise. For critics who bother to apply ideological analysis to the work of director Michael Bay, the Transformers flicks have been viewed as a glorification of militarism, an affirmation of American triumphalism, a celebration of capitalist consumerism and an assertion of masculine power.
But could all this cinematic certainty be unravelling? In the series' fourth outing, Transformers: Age of Extinction, serial blower-upper Bay seems beset by confusion, and not just the usual narrative kind. (Just remind us why the cab of an 18-wheeler is inside an old movie theatre. And why nobody seems surprised.) Underneath the constant barrage of exploding metal and glass, there's a sense that something else is falling apart.
Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir argues that the franchise has become alienated from its roots in rah-rah Bush-era jingoism and has devolved into incoherent, free-floating Tea Party-style whining and paranoia. For O'Hehir, the prevailing mood of Transformers 4 is "distress and bewilderment."
Meanwhile, over at io9, a science, tech and sci-fi blog, reviewer Charlie Jane Anders claims Transformers 4 is a clear demonstration of the failure of patriarchy. The whole dispiriting experience, she says, replicates "the feeling of spending several weeks trapped in a car (or truck) with your father, watching his midlife crisis curdle into despair."
Several critics suggest that the series is teetering on the edge of some kind of nihilistic pit. You'd almost think that Transformers 4 is a bleak Scandinavian art-house film, rather than a multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster designed to draw crowds to the multiplex.
It's not that Transformers 4 looks drastically different from its predecessors. The movie is still packed with signature Michael Bay moves, including overwrought rock anthems and glowing shots of cornfields at sunset. There are characters who say, "Let's rock," before they go into battle and "We're dying out here," just before reinforcements arrive.
There are racial stereotypes (even, somehow, with alien robots!), glaring product placements, and a girl who screams and runs, and runs and screams.
But somehow all these Bay-like elements don't add up.
First off, there's the sexual confusion. The first two Transformers flicks blatantly ogled Megan Fox, before moving on to Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in the third. In Age of Extinction, Mark Wahlberg plays Texas inventor Cade Yeager, and the movie's central sex object is his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Bay's camera stalks the tanned, toned Tessa with pervy upskirt shots, inviting us to look at Cade's hot underage daughter. Meanwhile, Cade keeps telling everyone in earshot -- especially Shane, Tessa's 20-year-old Irish boyfriend -- to stop looking at his hot underage daughter.
The message isn't just mixed, it's icky and unworkable. Cade is the kind of dad who wants to escort his adolescent daughter to the chastity ball, while Shane keeps a laminated copy of Texas's "Romeo and Juliet" statute in his wallet, just in case he's accused of statutory rape. In the course of this creepy love triangle, when Tessa (as usual) needs rescuing, Shane tells Cade, "I'm not helping you save your daughter. You're helping me save my girlfriend." Bay's viewpoint is still relentlessly male, but it's now weirdly conflicted: Trying to balance the expression of teen lust with the rules of paternal authority, he screws up both.
Then there's the political perplexity. Bay's flag-waving faith seems to be gone, replaced by a murky sense of betrayal. In Transformers 4, power is represented by a shadowy corporate elite aligned with a covert CIA operation with the (unintentionally?) comic moniker of "Cemetery Wind." (The name is actually printed on some of their equipment, which suggests a poor grasp of the word "covert.") These black ops guys show up in black vans and black helicopters and black outfits to threaten sovereign American citizens.
To further complicate things, this distrust of government authority is dropped like a hot rock when the action moves to China (which it does not for compelling story reasons but because Bay relies heavily on Asian funding). In the film's interminable final section, as Hong Kong is menaced by large-scale destruction, a serious man in a uniform declares, "We've got to call the central government for help." This is immediately followed by a scene in which an important man in a suit vows, "The central government will protect Hong Kong at all costs."
So, yes. It looks like Bay's uncomplicated patriotism has been outsourced to China. That's globalization for you.
You don't expect a movie that features alien bounty hunters, giant space magnets and fire-breathing metal dinosaurs to be important. But you do expect it to be fun. Every element of Transformers 4 has been engineered to create a mechanical giant of pure popcorn spectacle. But the final effect is one of baffled exhaustion.
Of course, the critics have always felt that way about the Transformers franchise. But now you sense that director Bay and scripter Ehren Kruger are feeling it, too. And making everything louder, longer and more explosive can't cover that up.