We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!)

Summary:  Films must resonate with our hopes, fears, and visions  to gain an audience . “Transformers: Age of Extinction” does this effectively, and terrifyingly. Film reviewers hated it with good reason, since it’s schlock. A ramshackle plot moved by stilted dialog. But the big opening box office proves that it mirrors things in our minds. Some things too disturbing to discuss, but can be seen in fiction. SPOILERS.

“What is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music.”
— attributed to Pierre Beaumarchais, French playwright (1732 – 1799)

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“Transformers: Age of Extinction” is a horror film. I refer not to the endless jumbled scenes of giant robots boxing and shooting one another, but to overall context of the film’s events. It shows us a world in some ways like our own, exaggerating aspects of America we prefer not to see. Michael Bay plays America’s court jester, saying for entertainment what serious people dare not mention.

Civilian casualties

The the battles in Chicago and Hong Kong created thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of civilian casualties. Dead and injured unremarked by the characters (who reacted afterwards as they would have to a great roller-coaster ride). No ambulances, no rows of corpses.

This mirrors our awareness that our lives mean nothing to our leaders. As we see in the daily news, from GM’s long history of massive recalls for safety defects — to Obama’s extending the Afghanistan War for 8 more years on the flimsiest of reasons (probably his real reason being to look tough and strong).

Also, there was no mention (or even hint) of investigations, arrests, or justice for the powerful billionaire and CIA agents responsible for the carnage. Especially by the Chinese government, who would want to know why these American-made robots fought against the Autobots — wrecking their city. Michael Bay understands the American worldview. Our actions lead to destruction overseas; we assume that we will not be held accountable for the death and destruction. We meant well!

Update: For a deeper analysis of this see Bluestocking’s comment here.

The US government’s treachery

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The US government betrays our allies, the Autobots — who saved us in the first two movies — exterminating them for their metal and technology. This mirrors our history about things we strive to keep in the memory hole. Our treaties with Native America tribes. Our fake pretexts for wars over more than a century: with Spain in 1898, dozens of interventions in Latin America, to Iraq in 2003. Encouraging subject peoples to rebel, then allowing them to be slaughtered — from the revolt of Hungary (1956) to the revolt of the Kurds (1991).

Nicola Peltz in poster for Transformers: Age of Extinction
The perfect poster for 2014 America. How true.

Americans killing government agents

Hostility to government agents has grown during the past several generations. We have come a long way from the law enforcement heroes such as Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (The FBI, 1965 – 74) and Dragnet (1949-70).  A massive increase in regulations. An almost unbelievable militarization of tactics and equipment (e.g., SWAT teams killing innocent people when serving warrants based on intel from criminal informants). And surveillance of a degree we used to associate with totalitarian secret police (e.g,, the Stasi).

As a result, savvy people know not to talk to the police, who use the Reid interrogation technique (effect at producing confessions, too often false).

On the other end of the stick are people encountering our security services (formerly known as “law enforcement”) at places like Ruby Ridge (unconstitutional kill on sight orders, followed by promotions and awards for the Federal agents), the Waco siege (military CS gas improperly used, killing children), and casual brutality at the Occupy protests (e.g., deploying pepper spray for political oppression).

Now begins the push-back. Armed resistance to the Bureau of Land Management by Cliven Bundy and his allies at his Nevada Ranch (see Wikipedia). Cop killing by members of the Sovereign Citizen movement.

Regular film-goers don’t go for that madness, of course. But American society has deteriorated so far so that audiences enjoy watching movies like “Captain America” and “Age of Extinction”, where employes of the government’s security services die like flies. In the 4th Transformers movie one of the heroic everymen kills two government agents with the tires of his car.

It’s a sign of regime decay. Advanced decay.  Implied in the film by the flags shown flying in the background, ironic contrasts with the action in the foreground. We’re not ready to admit this yet. But truths too disturbing to know can be sung to us by Michael Bay on the big screen.

It’s a powerful movie …

if it motivates us to change. America is a nation of hope and change. What matters is not our past (most people’s have dark pasts), but our future and our fidelity to our ideals.

Other reviews

(1)  The best review of a Transformer movie (as art), ever: “Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie“, Charlie Jane Anders, i09, 24 June 2009.

(2)  The most insightful review of a Transformer’s movie: “Transformers 4 is a master class in economics“, Ezra Klein, VOX, 6 July 2014.

(3)  A great analysis of the social implications, what it says about us: “Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America“, Locke Peterseim, 7 July 2014.

For More Information

(a)  See the FM Reference page listing all posts …

  1. About the quiet coup now in progress
  2. About Reforming America: steps to political change

(b)  About films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
  9. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  10. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  11. “Ender’s Game” is a horror movie, showing us our dark side. No worries; we’ll forget faster than we eat the popcorn., 2 November 2013

Bad News, America. We’ll save to save the Republic. There are no heroes but ourselves

Optimus Prime waving an American Flag

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7 thoughts on “We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!)

  1. It is interesting, isn’t it, that American films tend to pay so little attention to the consequences of violence — particularly to innocent bystanders — in comparison with some films from other countries (such as the British film “Threads” or the Russian film “Come And See”)? As I noted in a comment I left on this site in the past, American film audiences seem to prefer extroverted heroes such as Dirty Harry who tend to shoot first and ask questions later — often leaving a trail of destruction in their wake which they are never required to answer or take responsibility for — as opposed to introverted heroes such as Sherlock Holmes who take time to consider, usually for the purposes of clarification or strategy, before acting.

    American heroes, as a rule, seldom experience any misgivings or remorse over their own actions — which is not surprising, since they’re seldom if ever required to take responsibility for them (except as a plot device in which an authority figure tries to prevent them from acting for bureaucratic rather than human reasons) — and these days, they don’t seem to have that much interest in fairness or justice either.

    As FM has pointed out more than once, a culture’s heroes say a lot about who the people are and what they are like. However, I can only assume that what FM said in today’s post about our interventions overseas was a typo since it seems only too clear that we do *not* expect to be held accountable for our actions and we think our good intentions should be enough to excuse us (despite the fact that the proverbial road to Hell is said to be paved with such). {FM: it was a typo. Fixed!}

    I very much doubt that so many people in this country — particularly those who are in a position to calculate the specific costs and consequences of our actions in terms of money and personnel — would be as determined to charge headlong into the fray as they undoubtedly are if we were sincerely expecting to be held accountable for our actions. I also very much doubt that we would encounter such a high degree of “blowback”, or be as surprised as we inevitably are when we’re confronted with it.

    And why should we expect to be held accountable? Our heroes usually aren’t — but we’re apparently choosing to ignore the fact that reality usually bears very little resemblance to myth. Compare our heroes, as an example, with those from the myths of ancient Greece such as Heracles (Hercules) — the Twelve Labors of Hercules were primarily a punishment for misdeeds resulting from his own human failings, and his is not the only story like that.

    One of the things which our heroes (ironically) tell us about ourselves is that we are not a people who value self-reflection — but then again, you don’t need to be a particularly observant or insightful individual to see this. (Actually, this quality is hardly surprising since this is a nation which was settled by political and religious radicals — and self-reflection is not a trait usually associated with zealots.) Two characteristics which tend to walk hand-in-hand with a lack of self-reflection is a low tolerance for ambiguity and complexity and a tendency toward self-rationalization. People who choose not to bother with self-reflection are a little too prone to use themselves as the benchmark for what is virtuous (ethical, healthy, fair, normal, rational, acceptable, etc.) — even when their own behavior is far from virtuous by any objective standard — and place a pejorative label of some sort on anyone who deviates from that benchmark.

    This is the sort of thought process which results in cognitive bias, which in turn has a tendency to create all sorts of problems.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to see ourselves as good, since this is natural and healthy — but it creates problems when we take it to an extreme and refuse to see ourselves as anything other than good (a failing which unfortunately seems to be on the increase in American society, at least from where I’m standing). That blinds us to our own mistakes and misdeeds, which leaves us unable to correct them (because the first step to fighting a monster is recognizing the monster is there) — and it also makes us prone to betray our own ideals.

    The seeming increase in the prevalence of the anti-hero, ironically, seems to confirm rather than contest this because no matter how bad he is, the film tends to overlook or minimize his failings and portray him as far more moral than the villain when this would not be the case in reality. This is part of the trouble with American heroes: they continue to remain simple, but the world is becoming increasingly complex. More and more frequently, our heroes are people following the Law of the Instrument — “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” As far as our films are concerned, there is no problem that can’t be solved by a sufficient application of high explosives…but in real life, that’s far more likely to cause problems rather than solve them.

    1. Note the related phenomenon: at the same time we have no empathy with the victims of violence which is “justified”, we completely reject envisioning that we ourselves might be in the role of said victims; because there is good and there is evil, and good always triumphs over evil, and any suffering of the evil is well deserved, and any suffering of the good is minor and a small sacrifice in order that good might triumph; and, most of all, we are the good, and the good is us.

  2. One of the worst movies I have ever seen. Bay took a cliche gun and blasted everything in sight. Bad dialogue, wooden acting, terrible science, awful story.

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