Autobots! Roll (your eyes) out!

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.”

7 thoughts on “Autobots! Roll (your eyes) out!”

  1. «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)»

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Transformers has always been (and was started to be) one of those perennial brands of toys (like HotWheels) with “new” toys every year. I believe there has been a near-continuous supply of the toys since the franchise started, even years without a cartoon (and the toys have always lead what appears in the cartoons). Even then, there have been very few years without a cartoon for the brand: the Beast “saga” lasted nearly a decade, for instance, and Cartoon Network was airing new episodes (in what the fans call the “Unicron trilogy”) as recently as 2006.

    If there’s nothing but childhood nostalgia at play here, it’s a deep multi-generational vein.

  2. Heh, interesting. It’s true that Transformers does a good job relaying that it is stupid, which is something a lot of people miss. It’s especially true here in the Arab world, where concepts like “cheesy” and “irony” don’t exist. I was fairly surprised, for example, at the number of people who didn’t get that Drag Me to Hell was meant to be funny, as the idea of a funny horror movie isn’t a prevalent one here. Transformers escapes that trap by being woefully stupid and flaunting it. (I’m not saying that Drag Me to Hell is stupid; just that it didn’t advertise that it wasn’t a strict horror movie per se, or so I hear – I haven’t seen it.)

    I don’t quite agree with the idea that Transformers being “turn your brain off” movie means it can get away with murder. I can turn off my brain at Face/Off or something similar – a mindless thing that doesn’t involve running from the Egyptian pyramids to Petra in 10 minutes. (It would take me 3 hours to drive to Petra, and I’m in Jordan.) I get that not every movie is Paths of Glory. But just like there are good war movies, there are bad war movies. Transformers being in a certain category doesn’t mean it isn’t total shit.

  3. Isn’t this logic a bit odd?

    I have a splitting headache…
    …you know what would make it better?

    Thinking a lot about a Michael Bay movie.

  4. So it’s kind of the lowest form of high art, or high art for the masses? Ah yes, let them eat cake!

  5. I’m reluctant to use the word “art” in relation to the Transformers movies in any way. If my theory is correct, then I prefer to think of it as Western Pop Culture slowly getting rid of the need to feel superior to whatever it is they’re reading, watching, or playing. Kind of like a prolonged bowel movement. With blurry, gray, indistinguishable robots.

  6. I think John Turturro should win an Oscar for, “greatest performance by a Male performer with putrid dialogue”. Watch how the other actors struggle through the nonsense, while he somehow manages to pull it off. I think the great winner out of this is Fox. You still managed to go and see it & it still managed to make 1 billion dollars, even though you knew it was going to be a stupid movie.

  7. Actually, no, I didn’t go see it. I more than learned my lesson after the first one.

    This post is just an attempt to figure out why people would willingly pay money to see something this lousy and lazy, when there are so many better options with movies that are better in every conceivable way.

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