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by Eric Kohn
June 26, 2014 3:07 PM
19 Comments
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Here's the Problem with the 'Transformers' Franchise

Optimus Prime in "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

This fall, the Argentine director Lisandro Alsono will spend six weeks in New York City as the recipient of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Filmmaker in Residence program, taking time to consider his next creative endeavor and networking with local heavyweights. In the process, the New York Film Festival will come and go, providing the director with the opportunity to experience some of the best new movies from around the world. He can take long walks around the city. Maybe he'll see a Broadway show. At the end of the endeavor, he might make something brilliant, but that doesn't mean everyone will see it.

If you're troubled by the struggle of great cinema to gain the attention it deserves, ask yourself this: How many people missed the news about Alonso's residency but are acutely aware of a new "Transformers" movie opening this weekend?

Alonso's name may not strike a chord with every moviegoer, especially audiences only aware of new releases through the prism of marketing campaigns. But this patient, thoughtful director has made a number of acclaimed experimental narratives in recent years, including the visually arresting and nearly wordless 2008 travelogue "Liverpool," in which a seaman travels across Argentina to visit his aging mother. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Alonso unveiled his grandest feat to date, the impressionistic fantasy "Jauja," starring Viggo Mortensen. Shot in the square 4:3 "Academy ratio" with a stylish frame around its edges throughout, this delicate, colorful tale features a Danish man and his daughter in 19th century Argentina in search of a utopia they never quite find. When the daughter suddenly vanishes halfway through the picture, her dad spends much of the running time wandering the barren landscape, eventually arriving in a place of complete abstraction that explores the deterioration of innocence in strange and exciting ways.

Viggo Mortensen in "Jauja."

"Jauja" has yet to finalize a U.S. distribution deal, but even if it lands one, nobody can seriously make the case that the movie will receive even a small fraction of the eyeballs committed to "Transformers: Age of Extinction" as it lumbers into theaters around the world this weekend. But with the announcement of Alonso's residency arriving just days ahead of Michael Bay's latest spectacle, the contrast between these two visually striking fantasy films couldn't be more extreme. Both contain moments of extraordinary beauty specific to the moving image, but whereas "Jauja" gives them a poetic context, the multimillion-dollar effects work in Michael Bay's latest flashy endeavor is unsurprisingly hollow.

The Studio Scheme

Of course, countless ticket-paying audiences have been convinced — through expertly-designed trailers, hulking billboards and an endless stream of toy tie-ins — that the pricey simplicity of "Transformers" contains exactly what they want out of a big summer movie.

Certainly the new installment delivers on those expectations. Its spectacular opening minutes feature a menacing spaceship barreling down on Earth in the midst of the dinosaur age, effectively destroying the species and planting the seeds of a new automated menace that comes to life in the prolonged closing act.

Yes, the dinosaurs are extraordinary technological feats that make "Jurassic Park" look like like stop motion animation. You're unlikely to witness a more condensed celebration of the IMAX 3-D experience this year.

But nothing in the nearly three-hour running time of "Transformers: Age of Extinction" can match that opening: Swapping Mark Wahlberg for Shia Labeouf, Bay stuffs in a slight narrative involving the efforts of a straight-faced inventor in rural Texas who comes across a damaged Optimus Prime and manages to resurrect the autobots' leader during a challenging time, since the CIA (headed by a bland Kelsey Grammar) has decided that all Transformers are evil aliens and launches a full-out assault against them.

Picking up its pace where most movies tend to wind down, "Age of Extinction" reveals a scheme by another inventor (Stanley Tucci) to use the wreckage of a Transformers battle from the previous installment to build their own. This provides an excuse for someone to actually say, "We can change anything into anything." 

The storytelling burrows just that deep. Despite its hefty running time, not much happens in "Age of Extinction." The autobots engage in some nicely rendered battles with the mutant robot known as Galvatron, eventually heading to Beijing and resurrecting some transformers from the past to help out. As usual, Bay constructs a barrage of showdowns remarkable for their ridiculous propensity to feature explosions and slo-mo, gravity-defying feats. They're all unmemorable but equally loud and visceral. The popularity of "Transformers" suggests that's everything viewers want from them.

Something Empty For Everyone


Collectively, these movies represent an assault on the senses that's actively fighting against the prospects of a more varied film culture. Whereas the proactive moviegoer aims to see as many new movies as possible, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" argues that you only need to see one.

In what seems like a blatant attempt to replicate a Bollywood production, the "Transformers" movies stuff together any number of disjointed ingredients in the hopes of providing a mainstream entertainment that delivers thrills for as many people as possible, irrespective of the jumbled bigger picture. The only missing ingredient is a musical number — but don't rule it out of future installments.

Though it might seem counterintuitive to ask for quality from a product designed to deliver a cheap escape, some modicum of the franchise's success stems from the purer satisfaction of the first installment, which featured a self-awareness that bordered on camp. (Optimus Prime confessing that he relied on eBay to figure out a key plot point is a better form of movie magic than the CGI itself.)

The Choice Is Yours

Since then, with the promise of the spectacle established worldwide, Bay has kept things remarkably simple and irony-free; "Age of Extinction" feels unapologetically commercial in every way possible, from the cartoonish sex appeal of Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg's underdeveloped daughter character to the climax in China that's ostensibly set there for economic reasons. (Kevin Lee's brilliant video essay "Transformers: The Premake" does a terrific job of sketching out the movie's global identity.) Among the movie's "human cast," termed as much in the movie's press notes, nobody tries to elevate the material aside from Stanley Tucci, who spends one amazing scene cracking up in an elevator as he attempts to sketch out the plot. But that's a brief moment of meta in this otherwise empty beast.

Even viewers who might not care for a new Lisandro Alonso movie could still ignore "Transformers" this weekend for a better action product with Bong Joon-ho's energizing post-apocalyptic narrative "Snowpiercer," also opening on Friday, which marks the best case of counter-programming this year. But if you're one of those viewers curious about "Snowpiercer" and choosing to see "Age of Extinction" this weekend instead, believe me, I get it: Those robots look really cool. Just remember, as the autobots careen towards another triumph in the closing moments, that no matter which side of the battle wins in this installment, there's a bigger fight taking place well beyond the multiplex.




19 Comments

  • Plat | July 3, 2014 5:18 AMReply

    As often with Brody he nails every issue right on the spot in his answer on The New-yorker 's website (can't link, find it).
    "The most audacious low-budget American independent film-making is threatened much more significantly by misplaced critical praise for art-house mediocrities than by Hollywood."

    Between this and the other mediocre articles, the sponsored pseudo op-ed and even sponsored reviews: cue for me to leave Indiewire.

  • roberta | June 30, 2014 5:27 PMReply

    Thank you for your article. I am a mother of 4 teenagers who went from the Transformers to more quality films, in spite of the heavy promotion, and have benefited from messages of ethical values from other movies of the Sci-fi genre.

  • remcy | June 30, 2014 11:53 AMReply

    To call the transformers current incarnation Sci-fi is to cheapen the the genre (Compare with Starwars or any of Asimov's books). What it is is content free escapism. Even the technical content of special effects is without imagination. It is clear that Transformers is a marketing success. Senjin's comment is an instance proof. But what it ha negative intellectual content. Kohn's piece is right on.

  • senjin black | June 27, 2014 8:16 PMReply

    "The choice is yours"... I love it. The author spends the entire article lambasting Transformers and by extension the people who like this type of movie, then gives the readers this "choice". Priceless. Well, I'll say this the choice IS mine, so I can watch an art film or a sci-fi movie, a thoughful drama or a slapstick comedy, or whatever else strikes my fancy. Talking down to people is never a good motivator in my opinion. It would seem thatif the authourreally wanted readers to pay attention to a certian movie or director then they shoud write about why that movie or director is good, not how something else is bad. You know the point of a rollercoaster is to have fun, it goes up and it goes down, not overly complex and not obnoxious in its own perceived importance, it's just fun. Now whats so bad about that?

  • Petros Tsanalredes | June 27, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    Great article! So many crap movies. So much money. I don't believe it is free market forces that load the cinemas with dull franchise movies. I believe it is the opposite -- the big-six have a monopoly, well an oligarchy really. They may not own the theaters anymore but they sure do control them. Hollywood doesn't want new ideas unless they can buy them cheap enough to keep the talent that created the idea from competing with them and then only if they can predict their success based on direct analogy (which means the ideas can't be very new) which was probably why it was so hard for Disney to figure out why the Lone Ranger sucked so bad. Gee - Whiz, same studio, same producers, same director, same writers, same actor as Pirates -- It's just Pirates in the dessert -- Who would hire any of those guys again, when apparently they have nothing really to do with the success of a film? Oh well they get away with it most of the time. Hollywood uses money to buy their audiences rather than talent and if it were the other way around the big studios would be replaced with brilliant fresh new film makers every 20 years -- you know, the way it used to be when Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy came out and rocked the boat. Even Hollywood was founded on rebels that didn't want to pay royalties to Kodak and Edison in New York, if my recollection of film history serves, but they have it all locked up and nobody else will get in once they close up the internet and squeeze the independents out by slowing their downloads and searches.

  • Doris | June 27, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    Way to go! It takes guts to tell it like it is.
    Thanks

  • Joe Blow | June 27, 2014 9:50 AMReply

    It's simple supply & demand. Give "Snowpiercer" the same marketing budget and screens as Transformers and I guarantee the end result will be nowhere near close. We will all be calling Snowpiercer a flop.

  • Gadfly | June 27, 2014 7:36 AMReply

    A thoughtful presentation on the state of current movie culture. I'm proud this critic has the guts to actually be critical. What the "I love mainstream" commenters forget is that "pop culture" is driving out "art house" and niche culture, making them financially unsustainable in a way that we've never seen before. Yes, this damages culture, which thrives on diversity. It also damages diversity in Hollywood, which continues to make less movies every year.

    We may not be able to change this onslaught of stupidity (driven by the hegemony of international box office), but it doesn't mean we have to like it. This article actually feels like it deserves the "Indie" in "Indiewire." Stay critical. To hell with the codswallops; maybe paramount can quote them in their next marketing campaign.

  • Niner | June 27, 2014 6:33 AMReply

    Hey Eric,

    You're correct - the choice is mine. But it's not, and it's never been, an either/or one. It's a both/and one. Having Coke in the fridge doesn't automatically negate the space to also enjoy a Calvados cider, a Founder's breakfast stout or a snifter of Glenlivet single malt. Film culture continues to be varied, with as much to enjoy around the periphery as what's offered from the centre. Making a 'see-this-instead-of-this' argument does little to move the dialectic on, and minimises the responsibility of the viewer to own their choices. Yes, the signal-to-noise ratio is and always will be a factor, but isn't that, after all, why we visit Indiewire?

  • Gadfly | June 27, 2014 7:46 AM

    Thought experiment:

    Cigarettes are to Lung cancer as coca cola is to obesity as Michael Bay is to _________

  • HUH | June 26, 2014 9:56 PMReply

    Gee, Eric Kohn doesn't like Transformers? TELL ME MORE.

  • sondra | June 26, 2014 8:41 PMReply

    This article shows that the studios are minimizing the responsibility to contribute to the education of the public. The argument that their popularity is driven by "free market forces" is sealy.The propaganda machine has manufactured their popularity. so the rest of quality films get buried in the noise...

  • Theo | June 26, 2014 5:51 PMReply

    In other words, the problem with big, dumb, and fun (?) movies like Transformers is that they swamp the box office and dominate global cineplexes to the point that that's virtually all 95% of the human population ever sees. It's pure free market economics and that's not fair to filmmakers who actually give a damn about their target audiences, have artistic talent, and want to make an artistic statement instead being interested solely in cold, hard, cash profits. It's also unfair to those of us who actually understand and appreciate filmmaking talent to the point where we don't just act like dumb cats hypnotized by moving images on television when we watch film. I don't think this is healthy for social development for popular culture arts to always play to the lowest common denominator.

    I really wish that art lead commerce in the motion picture world rather than the other way around. I wish that movie distribution were governed by "fair trade" polices rather than what we have now, which is just whatever sells the most tickets or has the best marketing scheme becomes the most widely shown.

    If you think that's socialist or snobbish then I don't really care --- those of us who appreciate the ART of cinema (and yes, it should be considered an art, not a product) have been forced to garble down this pop culture garbage and be bombarded by constant advertisements for crappy films for years. We "elitists" (as in actually possessing a brain) can and should complain as loud as we can. It will never drown out the yearly buffet of pig slop that is the vast majority of mainstream movie-going culture that the dimwitted masses consume year after year. You people get what you want, we don't. We have every right to complain. You don't. As Tony Soprano would say, "End of story!"

  • j | June 27, 2014 11:20 AM

    It's that kind of thinking is the reason why indie films don't get there attention .You sound like a young idealist .If you truly believe film to be art (which it's not ) than why piss and moan about whether it gets snuffed by studio films ? Whether small or big budget it's about the dollars you have and investor too invest in your films .You need to make that money back plus some .In order to generate more money for the film you need to be able to expand your audience if you appeal to 2 people and want to appeal to more you have to broaden your subject so that everyone gets it .Personally i'm glad that the little guys are getting snuffed they are a bunch of snobbs who would rather throws stones than make a contribution .If your not part of the solution your part of the problem .All this talk about character driven peices going to t.v wont last for ever .In the end the big guys will always win you are just a fad and trend you think that because .People don't like your kinds of film/show that they are idiots

  • parsyeb | June 26, 2014 4:11 PMReply

    For real, I don't care about or like this franchise, but trying to claim that this film means itself to be the only kind of film is an unsupportable, dumb claim. And for what it's worth, Alonso's kind of filmmaking still requires top dollar and thus robs attention from avant-garde artists working with far lower budgets. And now I'm more "authentic" than you for aligning myself with the less mainstream vehicle. See how that works?

  • Khronnos | June 26, 2014 4:05 PMReply

    These films are so loud, marketing wise, people can't help but pay attention. And they churn out big hype/low substance so often, you can't hear anything else. After awhile that's all there is in your world.

    As indie filmmakers, maybe we can't be as loud, but we can definitely be smarter: Splinter Cells. Give Hollywood what it wants, fall in line like a good little filmmie. And when you're in nice and snugg and they love you, stab them in the effin back by making films that people will actually remember 3 days later.

    Sincerely,
    Advocate for Hollywood Mutiny

  • j | June 27, 2014 11:04 AM

    i agree heres the thing though most indie film makers are too proud to do that .They have enormously inflated egos .Which they can't seem to get over ,this is the only way indie film makers are going to move forward to a broader audience.I think they are all hypocrites they haarp on the hollywood studio system,yet if given the oppurtunity would jump at making films for them .No one cares about indie films thats the bottom line they don't appeal to a mass audience .They are very self involved projects that appeal to certain tastes not broader ones

  • Sumner | June 26, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    It's a crying shame that for 75% of all good films, one has to go to specialty theaters because rubbish like Transformers is dominanting the multiplex. This isn't exactly a new problem but I will go out of my way to purchase a ticket for an indie film (even one that isn't particularly interesting) just to give some semblence of support to good films.

  • James M. | June 26, 2014 3:30 PMReply

    Codswallop (because I'm suddenly feeling British). A movie like "Transformers" is designed for people who feel like seeing a movie like "Transformers," and likewise for "Snowpiercer." With very few exceptions a person who generally ONLY sees movies like "Transformers" (i.e. the causal moviegoer) isn't likely to seek out "Snowpiercer." I get so tired of hearing pretentious movie snobs harp about how difficult it is to see "good, quality cinema." It's been hard for DECADES now. I'm fortunate to be someone who loves everything from Bergman and Malle, to "Transformers," to the worst-of-the-worst grade-B horror sleaze. I love all movies, and I don't feel like I have to make apologies for my preferences.