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 Fucking Bay—the perpetual bad-boy idiot bro-savant—didn’t become Michael Fucking 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.