Summary: Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim. He discusses how Michael Bay’s “Transformers 4”, giant space robots knocking the oil out of each other amidst amber waves of grain, perfectly capturing 21st-century America’s most fevered dreams of itself. Post your comments about the film — and this review!
The Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
By Locke Peterseim
Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
7 July 2013
Reposted here with his generous permission
No, I’m not being facetious. This isn’t winking satire. I’m stone cold Steve Austin serious: Transformers: Age of Extinction is quite possibly the single most important cinematic document so far about how America fever dreams itself into continued existence in the 21st Century.
For the most part, critics have been baffled and stymied by Michael Bay’s seemingly never-ending Transformers action-toy film franchise. Each entry feels bigger, louder, longer, dumber than the last; each one earns more than the last worldwide; and each time out, critics, pundits, fan boys, and anyone concerned about the death of cinema, the death of culture, or just the death of alien space robots that turn into cars has repeated sounded off about the movies’ spastic visual cacophony and narratives that — to the extent they exist — weave in and out of logic and coherence.
And yet, the films keep coming back. Unwavering, unrepentant. We can make snarky jokes about plot holes, and pacing problems, and product placement, and the fetishizing of both girls in jean shorts and American muscle cars until we’re blue in our intellectualized faces and it will make no difference.
Transformers director and maestro of Bayhem, Michael F***ing Bay — the perpetual bad-boy idiot bro-savant — didn’t become Michael F***ing Bay because he stays up at night worrying about what critics and fan boys think of his movies. No, he stays up at night banging hookers on the hoods of solid gold sports cars filled with cocaine because his films have become giant temples of crazed cash-making wretched genius excess.
At this point, I’m both bemused and saddened to see film critics still try gamely to approach these Transformer films with their usual clipboard lists of cinematic criteria, hoping to somehow get up over on the films, stunned and apoplectic that people ignore their vehement derision and still flock to the films in droves.
Acting? Character development? Narrative structure? Sound and vision? By this point, most critics have tossed their hands and notepads in the air.
As Mr. Twain said, never try to teach a pig to sing — not only does it waste your time, but the pig is an outer space robot swine that transforms into an Apache attack helicopter and fires half a dozen missiles back at you.
It’s good to let it go, as the song says. Once you give up fighting the Transformers movies, once you lay back and think of Cybertron, Transformers: Age of Extinction begins to shine back at you, crystalizing into blinding clarity, unfolding and opening up like a nano-tech Georgia O’Keefe painting, its spread petals revealing the truth: This film is about as perfect an image of capital-“A” America as you could ask for. It is a masterpiece of cultural self-actualization.
And as the Transformers movies earn more overseas than in America, they have become our global promotional campaign — these are the ads that pitch the imaginary, over-sized, loud, dumb, and combative U.S. of mutha-humpin’ A.
A spastic visual tone poem in glorious hyper-saturated 3D about cars, guns, beer, God, family, and country, Transformers 4 is every bit an accurate portrait of not just the American Dream gone buck wild on steroids, meth, and high-fructose sugar, but what America dreams of itself: Our rich, dark, loud, staggering, overwhelming, relentless id writ so large it’s blinding, almost seizure-inducing.
Again, I am not joking; when it comes to plunging a probe straight into the myth-drunk cortex of the our national identity’s Uber-mind and drawing out the rich ooze that pumps there, Michael Bay is the 21st century’s conjoined mutant of Frank Capra and John Ford, where Jimmy Stewart is a Shia LaBeouf, Gary Cooper is Mark Wahlberg, and John Wayne is a 50-foot tall fightin’ space robot that turns into a semi truck.
This is Michael Bay’s vision of America, and if those of us who imagine ourselves too sophisticated and cultured to accept, let alone embrace, a nearly three-hour film about the glory of giant space robots punching each other to pieces recoil in sneering revulsion, that’s our failure of vision, not Bay’s, not the film’s.
Make all the shining speeches about shining cities on shining hills you like about the Idea of America and our nation’s hopes and dreams for this century, but deep down in its crazed lizard brain, this is how America sees itself. If America was a souped-up, tricked-out customized muscle van, the glowing mural on the side would be of Optimus Prime with a sword in one robo-hand and an American flag in the other. Riding a robo-dinosaur into the sunset.
If Bay and regular Transformers screenwriter Ehren Kruger could care less about plot holes and narrative sense, they make up for it with ridiculous precision – the Transformers movies are so stunningly, stupidly good at what they want to do, so rigorous, so visually ambitious in all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons, it’s like watching a champion parkour-er — they’ve obviously spent years tirelessly training and practicing and perfecting their craft, they are the best there is at it, yet what they execute so beautifully, so flawlessly is so pointless and silly.
Gone this time out is LaBeouf, who’s central human hero character in the first three films was a sort of nerd proxy, the scrawny pre-Charles Atlas geek. Shia was always too much of a flakey, deviant Euro-hippie wannabe anyway.
Give us instead Mark Wahlberg, he of the confused earnest look, like a Golden Retriever asked to do algebra. This is an actor who only causes controversy when he loves America and its fighting men too much. Baffled, slow on the uptake, always a little lost, naturally Wahlberg plays a DIY robotics engineer and inventor named Cade Yeager from Texas. (Apparently, this is the only way real ‘Mericans will accept “science” — if it comes from Texas… or outer space.)
With Shia’s pseudo teen nerd out of the way, the new Transformers series can focus on rugged, roughneck grown men with broad shoulders and bank troubles, and their teenage daughters in short shorts and low cut tank tops; these virginal blonde unicorns and their Irish rally-racing boyfriends live in a perpetually sexualized post-Victoria’s Secret world.
Transformers 4 is also, tellingly, the most rural of all the Transformer movies, roaming from the cornfields of Texas to the heartland cornfields of Illinois, with a stop in between at that fertile crescent of American cinematic self-mythologizing, vast, empty Monument Valley. Bay wraps the film in the rich golds and greens of those Super Bowl farming commercials, amber fields of grain scorched by space-robot battles.
First glimpsed in those Armageddon cut-aways, Bay’s America is all low-tech grit and sweat on the brows of gearheads as they tinker with their beloved muscle cars; where cowhide and brass meets high-tech weapons of the future as iconic flags flapping slowly in the magic-hour sunlight.
Not that it’s all down on the farm — Transformers 4 swings back to Chicago for car chases on Lower Wacker and high-wire CGI stunts on the Willis/Sears Tower. Stanley Tucci also shows up as a tech CEO, Steve Jobs reimagined as a Bond villain, pictching iWeapons of iDestruction.
There’s also Bay’s endless love of playing soldiers, threading that camouflage needle between glorification of the American fighting man and his military might (John Goodman’s new Transformer character Hound is a cigar-chomping, thick-waisted WWII gunney sergeant — the Greatest Generation of Space Robots) and distrust of the American government, represented here by weak-spined, sniveling, impotent Thomas Lennon as the White House Chief of Staff and granite-jawed Kelsey Grammar as a rogue C.I.A. honcho.
A walking paragon of American paranoia, conspiracy, and greed, Grammar’s character spouts familiar isolationist fear-mongering propaganda about “alien terrorists” and “us versus them” as he wields secret anti-terrorism Black Ops strike teams and predator drones and invades good Americans’ privacy and property.
Cade Yeager, on the other hand, fights only to protect his family, and it should be noted that (to my memory) this is the first Transformers film in which both Optimus Prime and the human hero deliberately kill human villains.
“Go find my seed!” barks one of the Bad Guys about yet another Space Robot plot McGuffin that everyone is fighting over, but it’s Transformers 4 itself that feels like a seed, the essence of something. Big, broad, out-sized in its deluded sense of itself, this is America, full of cars, guns, and beer ads, of sunsets and Lone Star (the beer and the state), of Budweiser and Red Bull, of footballs and picket fences. (Cade literally uses the ol’ pigskin to kill his nemesis.)
And of course, there’s the rampaging Capitalism. Packed with product placement, but forever a commercial for itself, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t just selling box-office tickets and Hasbro toys, it’s selling America, planting this big, weird idea of it across the globe.
If the ultimate purpose of any cinema, or any art is too look into the deepest part of our collective soul and show us the truth about ourselves, this is the greatest film about the American soul in the 21st century. Transformers 4 is not a movie. It’s not entertainment. It’s a goddamn national document. (The kind Nic Cage might fight to protect in some future meta-mutation of the series.)
This film should be downloaded into every exploratory space probe and buried in every time capsule as a definitive digital statement: “This is who we are.” This is our romanticized past and our gleaming future: A giant space robot riding a space robot dinosaur.
And in the most perfect, accurate cinematic climax imaginable and in pursuit of that lucrative overseas box office, this brightly-colored, glowing dream of 21st-century America ends up… in China.
(2) Other reviews of Transformers
(a) The best review of a Transformer movie (as art), ever: “Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie“, Charlie Jane Anders, i09, 24 June 2009.
(b) The most insightful review of a Transformer’s movie: “Transformers 4 is a master class in economics“, Ezra Klein, VOX, 6 July 2014.
(c) 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.
(d) My review of this movie: We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!), 5 July 2014
(3) About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
- Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again
- Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman
- Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much
- “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien
- Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it
(4) For More Information
(a) See all posts about:
(b) Posts about films:
- Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
- About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
- Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
- We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
- Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
- My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
- Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
- Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
- In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
- “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
12 thoughts on “Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America”
Great review! The incisive mind of Camille Paglia, unencumbered by lesbian narrative nor 20th century dictionary…
Can you explain your comment? I have heard of Paglia, and “lesbian narrative” is just words to me — so I need a bit more detail to understand.
I linked to your last entry about this movie, in which you wrote, “We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see…” I like the thesis of your guest instead, it’s exactly what we want to see and want others to see in us. In that same entry, I also linked to a Vox article by Ezra Klein who summed up the economic lessons of the movie as “inequality will keep rising, job security will keep falling, and American companies will contort themselves into all kinds of embarrassing positions to suck up to China.”
That entry of mine received a comment that quoted a NYT review that pointed out that Michael Bay’s movies are always struggles between sense and sensation in which sensation wins. My response was “The NYT is absolutely right about Michael Bay. He’s all about the BOOM! My wife and I are watching “The Last Ship.” When I heard it was a Michael Bay show, I knew to expect a lot of action and things being blown up. I have not been disappointed.”
There is no conflict between the two views. I said that “Michael Bay plays America’s court jester, saying for entertainment what serious people dare not mention.” Court jesters entertain by mixing criticism and flattery. Humor is an allowed way to transgress cultural rules, saying what would otherwise be impermissible.
A quote I gave said it all:
transformers r best unique action movies ever period
Wow. This is by far the most insightful commentary I’ve read yet about this film. I, too, tire of critics each time out holding Bay’s movies up against their answer document for what constitutes a “good” film. And they just keep on regurgitating the same commentary about each TF film, as much a one-note symphony as they accuse Bay of being in making his films.
The biggest laugh in all of this is that Bay, as you said, doesn’t care about the critics. He does it how he wants. And if any of these Trans-fan geeks (of which I am one) tried to make these films, they would get so bogged down in lore, minutiae, and second guessing every decision based on what they “think” the fans want to see that the movie would turn out possibly more accurate but unwatchable for the general viewing public. The fans, anyway, will NEVER be happy.
Because that’s why he makes films: to be watched and enjoyed by the greatest number of people. And so far, he’s doing just fine at that.
I agree. Locke Peterseim writes great reviews, unusually insightful. We’re running one per week, on Sundays.
guys don’t u get it or u r dumb, movie earned billion which is rare only few movies best movies can do that ??
only movie like Transformer can earn huge $$ not other movies it was best picture in year 2014 & people watch it …!!
I want Scorsese to do the next transformers movie. Octimus Prime voice overs discussing his racked by guilt and indecision psyche which shows he is in a constant state of denial about taking responsibiliy for his own bad choices n life…
This movie is very. i watch this movie eight time at theater and home. i am big fan of transformer series. and this big number are accepted by this movie