The Transformers movies are the after-effects of the 1990s disguised as nostalgia for the 1980s.
I have finally solved the mystery of the Transformers movies. In retrospect, it’s so obvious that I’m embarrassed I didn’t catch on sooner.
First, let me set the scene so that future generations may recount the story like Alexander Fleming and penicillin: I’ve really needed to be working today, but instead have been stricken with a non-stop, straight-out-of-Greek-mythology headache. It’s hit me so hard that I can’t even concentrate on a game about zombies. It’s left me staggering across the internet like a wounded bear, where the smallest offense sends me into a berserker fury, hoping only that rage can cure what Advil can’t.
So instead of trying to work, I decided to read the least challenging and most non-confrontational thing I could imagine: a review of the third Transformers movie on the Comics Alliance blog. “Unchallenging” isn’t intended as an insult; it’s a blog about a subject I’m only barely invested in, with an article that I likely agree with completely.
Anybody who’s seen the internet in the past four years can immediately see the flaw in my logic: you can’t write anything — anything, anywhere — about the Transformers movies without starting an argument. That Comics Alliance post currently has 263 comments, after all. I’ve seen it, too; people who are happy to ignore me otherwise will respond every single time I say anything negative about the movies. This blog averages less than 100 views on a good day, but writing about a Transformers movie will get comments.
And it’s always, always the same response: “It’s an action movie, it’s not supposed to be high art.” “Bay knows what his audience wants.” And, unavoidably: “Just turn off your brain and enjoy it.”
Which is infuriating, of course, to those of us who actually like movies, because “turn your brain off” is not a defense of a movie. It’s like if you told someone his sister was ugly, and he responded by saying, “Shut up, you’re wrong. She’s just really stupid.” It’s presented as if it were an unbreakable finishing move in the discussion but it doesn’t make any sense and oh no the headache’s coming back.
It’s doubly frustrating because it’s got this built-in accusation of being insufferably pretentious and elitist, which is something I just can’t respond to, when I list Big Trouble in Little China as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s just denial that there’s a wide range of possibility between Terrence Malick and Michael Bay, and that movies have a long history of making enjoyable, accessible entertainment that doesn’t leave you feeling like your brain has been raped.
In fact, based on the box office, thousands of people walked right past a perfectly entertaining, fun, exciting, and completely comprehensible action movie that wasn’t unforgivably stupid — Super 8 — and instead willingly and with malice of forethought paid for a ticket to Transformers 3. There are tons of movies that are not only more intelligent than the Transformers movies, but also have much better action sequences. You don’t have to sacrifice the basics of competent storytelling for explosions and robots; there are lots of movies that have both!
It wasn’t until I passed over a dozen constructive things I could have been doing, in favor of reading an article on a blog about comic books, that I realized what I’ve been missing all this time: the “appeal” isn’t just “this movie’s really stupid.” Non-confrontational entertainment is nothing new or unique to Transformers. (See: Futurama’s episode about the “Single Female Lawyer” series).
No, the appeal of the Transformers series is, “this movie is stupid and I’m completely aware of how stupid it is.”
They’re ostensibly based on toys (although I can’t imagine the bulk of the target audience is old enough to have played with the toys or watched the cartoon), so it seems like it’s a simple case of nostalgia. But that’s just a front — it’s a franchise in disguise if you see what I did there — it’s really nostalgia for the 1990s, the decade that bred the mindset of ironic pop culture appreciation. (I’m really hoping it’s the last death rattle of the 90s, but that’s probably just me being optimistic).
What this means is that Bay has actually accomplished something kind of profound: he’s made hipsterism mass-market and mainstream. It’s no great achievement to make a movie that anybody can understand. But it is somewhat remarkable to make a movie that anybody can understand is bad.
That’s not me being elitist, either: I generally consider myself to have pretty good taste, but I watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and got exactly what I’d wanted to get out of it. There are always some people who will find a way to enjoy what you’ve made if you give them even the slightest opening.
Usually, ironic detachment is a pretty hit-or-miss proposition: too much camp is just painfully deplorable, but too much effort just ends up being kind of sad. Bay’s movies satisfy some minimum ratio of moving image to synaptic firing rate that a majority of people can watch them without being bored, and they have enough of a “we’re not taking any of this seriously” vibe so that the most kind-hearted portion of the audience can make fun of them without feeling like they’re picking on the defenseless.
Most importantly, they’re movies that just about anyone can watch and come away feeling like they’re better than what they’re watching. These are, after all, movies that cast actors like John Turturro, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich, and yet it’s Shia LeBeouf who believes that he’s slumming.
As much as I hate to admit it, I suppose that there’s often some primal need to feel superior, or at least to feel completely in control of what’s going on. It’s the same phenomenon that causes the baffling popularity of reality programming: people don’t watch The Bachelorette just because it’s easy to watch, but so that they can feel superior to any of the characters on the show and dismiss the whole thing as a guilty pleasure. And it’s more or less the same reason I tend to leave a movie thinking less about the movie itself and more about what I can write about it. To be able to take it apart and put it back together, to say that I’ve “beaten” it.
But that’s not “turning your brain off.”