Sunday, July 8, 2007

Transformers and the iPhone

Michael Bay has been called a lot of things, but I’m going to try a new word on him: auteur.

If an auteur is a filmmaker with a signature style and worldview that shows up in each of his films, then Bay certainly qualifies, even if said style is synonymous with shit, and said worldview involves a black-and-white, good vs. evil moral compass that isn’t afraid of excesses in the sexual portrayal of women and unintentional hilarity in the ridiculousness of the physics-defying action scenes. But unlike the typical filmmakers that come to mind when the word “auteur” appears (Hitchcock, for instance, was one of the first directors to be tacked with this title), Bay doesn’t examine or criticize any element of the social, cultural or political conditions he is representing in his films—he is instead merely part-and-parcel of American culture.

The nature of Michael Bay’s films is emblematic of the reasons why Islamic fascists want to destroy our country: they’re excessive, loud, arrogant, bloated products that divide the world strictly into easily-comprehendible segments of good and evil with the sole intent of using its content to capitalize on the filmgoing market at the expense of cinema being an art in any shape or form. Indeed, this approach can be an art all its own.

Cinema has always been an economic machine with the intent to sell. Yet financial gain and artistic merit have never been mutually exclusive terms. But, when a film, a product in itself, becomes the catalyst for launching other products (not-so-subliminal advertising), the art loses its value. Yet films with this intent can still retain entertainment value. As evidenced by Casino Royale, audiences are only temporarily distracted by product placement in films.

In the mid-80s, Hasbro invented a line of toys that turn from typical mechanical devices (cars, helicopters, guns) into badass robots. But they needed a TV show to give a storyline and background for the toys and, most importantly, as a device to sell more toys. Thus, Transformers was born. It became a cultural phenomenon in the television, toy and even film market (Transformers: The Movie (1986)) and, along the way, became an inseparable part of the childhood of millions of males born between the late 70s and early 80s. (As I was born in 1985, I wasn’t a part of it. However, another 1980s Saturday morning cartoon series pretty much defined my childhood: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) Transformers, TMNT, GI Joe, He-Man, Thundercats and the like were all TV shows that basically existed as thirty-minute commercials for toys. But, along the way, they have had an underestimated emotional influence on the lives of the children who adored them. This sometimes had its consequences: Transformers: The Movie killed off many of the series’ characters (including Optimus Prime) solely to sell a new line of characters as toys, disregarding how this may have been shocking to its single-digit viewers.

Now, riding the wave of 1980s cultural nostalgia, is Michael Bay’s magnum opus, Transformers (2007). The film has made quite an impact at the box-office, no doubt partly a result of once-admirers, now in their twenties and early-30s, aiming to rekindle a new, nostalgic relationship with the subject. Like the original series and movie, a new line of toys will be released in hope of creating a new generation of fans (not unlike the CG Turtles movie released earlier this year, which I refused to see). And Bay's film is not without its share of product placement (look for the Mountain Dew vending machine that becomes a transformer during the film’s climax). However, things have changed in the American market in the last twenty years, and it seems we as a society have adopted transformers of our own.

Apple’s iPhone was released almost immediately before Transformers entered theaters. And, just as Optimus Prime is hardly just a truck, the iPhone is hardly just a phone. With its easy access to the internet, music, pictures, videos, maps, and probably a dozen other things I forgot, the iPhone contains an extraordinary number of practical uses within a single device. The fact that it’s advertised as a phone can be deceptive. The iPhone, and many other multifunctional products like it, are quickly becoming an inseparable part of American culture, and can very much take on a life all its own.

As Michael Bay’s films certainly do not comment on cultural trends, and are instead a part of them, it is interesting that our society has adopted its own personal transformers at the time of the series’ revival, and that these machines continue to become a larger part of our lives. America certainly didn’t operate to this degree when the original series debuted over twenty years ago, but the ideas it presented may have fed into the very American need for convenience and multitasking through technology.

Michael Bay’s Transformers, being live-action and not animated, requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that the original series did not need. Needless to say, because of Bay’s total lack of skill at creating relationships on screen (human or not), the transformers’ relationship with the humans, and their entire presence in a human landscape, is hardly believable. However, what’s interesting is how easily the human characters accept the fact that the technological devices can embody personality and free will of their own, that something created by humans can itself be like a human. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix (and before and since), the sci-fi genre has obsessed itself with a cosmic battle between humanity and technology. It is possible, as technology has become such an irrevocable part of the American lifestyle, that the battle is no longer between man and machine, but between good machine and bad machine, while man is merely a spectator. Transformers follows the very real American need to trust technology, and let it move forward with bringing on a life of its own, influencing us as an essential part of our cultural makeup.

If you don’t think we as a society are eager to trust technology on a human level, consider this: our military has developed a robot that is designed to rescue injured troops during battle. The robot has the face of a teddy bear to give the likely panicked soldier a feeling of safety and peace.

An emotional connection with a machine during a time of crisis—this is the direction we are heading. And it seems to be a good thing for most people.

There is a scene of the film in which the process of “transforming” is shown. A government military scientist puts a normal Nokia cell phone into a container and puts energy into it from The Cube (even if you see the movie, whatever the hell The Cube is still won’t make sense). The phone then suddenly becomes a mini-transformer, creating—out of nothing—legs, a head, a voice and even a little machine gun.

I couldn’t help but think of the iPhone.

(On another note entirely, Optimus Prime seemed to be a character of strange moral ambiguity for a film like this. He vowed, Terminator 3-style, not to kill any humans in their fight against Megatron. Yet he lets Bumblebee get sacrificed without rescue for fear of human casualties, self-righteously justifying his stubbornness by saying Bumblebee—who literally can not speak for himself—would have wanted it that way. And while Prime doesn’t kill any humans, he does manage to saw another Transformer’s head off medieval-style. He also has an odd, outspoken desire toward the film’s end to sacrifice himself to martyrdom, begging Shia LaBeouf to kill him with The Cube, though Shia doesn’t comply. Optimus Prime by far Michael Bay’s most complex character to date.)


Will Clifton said...

Well, as i read this blog on my iPhone in the car on the way home from Transformers, the irony hit home hard. i can't help but make some comments.

That Mountain Dew thing sounds cool. Now if only the Sony phones in Casino Royale kicked ass with both call quality and laser power.

this has been the best review of iphone that i have read. i especially liked the part about its reflection of our changing society as personified by michael bay and how he is redefining crap. nice, i didn't get that on cnet.

finally, i didn't really see transformers, but it made for a better introduction. instead, i saw ratatouille and it was awesome. i found myself stopping to remind myself that these are cartoon characters, and that rats don't really cook gourmet food.

i loved how they had a trailer for the next pixar movie that basically said: at a single meeting, we came up with toy story, a bugs life, monsters inc, finding nemo.... and this movie. you are going to watch it. period.

and if optimus prime had been directed by brad bird (ratatouille, incredibles), maybe we would have given a shit. but instead, we'll let michael bay just keep on shoveling us shit and calling it sugar.

what would casper say about this...

Myles said...

i liked how stephen king called the film "cheese fries for your brain", in all the best ways. very insightful commentary; muey impressed. while i think you're correct that Bay is a product--and probably uncritically so--of the American culture, the bringing to life of cartoons unnerved me a bit:

as a kid, i remember thinking how great it would be if cars could actually turn into robots. then, while watching a realistic portrayal of the mayhem that incurrs when this happens--populations decimated, building destroyed, etc.--i was a little less ready for my Camry to start talking. so, in a way, the realism of Bay's Transformers plays against the cartoonish tendency to desensitize us to violence. These Transformers kick serious ass and we'd better recognize. And not wish this kind of mayhem on ourselves or anyone else. It would appear, thus, on one level that Bay has, by imbibing the American ethos of power, undone it by taking a mythical narrative (Transformers) and letting it run wild in realism.

Tony said...

Least we forget a core notion of Americanism that Michael Bay, the Preacher of Pop, testifies too: Entity rules over substance.

Watch the movie with an eager crowd and you will see a very curious thing. The audience cheers and geeks over the opening credits (including a giant title card for HASBRO), yet remains unreactive during the majority of the robot battles. We do not cheer as we did when Mr. Incredible (Ironically a pure embodyment of American, paternal-ordered, might-over-mind heroism.) wills himself to defeat syndrom's robots. Why?

Bay shows us the Robots in their existence only, and not their tactics. They shoot guns, they transform, they look sleek, they pick up hot chicks, they fly and kill deceptocon's with plenty of 'tude. Yet not once do we the strategy attached to these results.

The humans are just as robotic. Bay wastes around what feels to be around 40 minutes of his 144 minute film to show unknown military people doing military things in slow motion: getting out of helicoptors, yelling jargon, cracking secret codes. All of which serve little purpose to the human content, or the ultimate defeat of the deceptocons.

We are left simply with the idea that the Transformers, US automotives, and ESPECIALLY the US Army, reign as Gods for their sheer existence, devoid of any justification.

There's a reason why Nostalgia is a greek word. The gramatic structure (Nostros) implies impossibility.

You can never go home.

My two cents.

Tony said...

....Since most everything in the film was an advertisement (GM, Chevy, HP, Apple, Oakly, Xbox, Mountain Dew, UFC, HBO, Tivo, Playstation, THE FRIGGIN MILITARY) I was devasted when I discovered Megan Fox was not for sale.


Damn you Bay.

PowerPants said...

Hey Landon, good to hear from you! Hope you guys out in LA are doing well - I've been perusing your blog and really like the stuff you've written!

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy discussing the subtleties, symbolism, and commentaries on the human condition that are found in the deepest and most obscure of indie and foreign film just as much as the next student of the art of moving pictures, but man-oh-man what I would have given to have to distract my parents from the gigantic robots hiding under the back porch when I was 12 (or even now, for that matter)!

Call me shallow if you want, but the reason I've always loved movies (and art in general) is because they make me feel good - and although its overall importance in the grand scheme of things is admittedly quite low - this one delivered exactly what I expected of it, and in that sense, I think that it was great.

Besides, no matter how you slice it, an 18-wheeler that turns into a gigantic robot from space with a huge sword is awesome.

I was going going to make some sort of "more than meets the eye" joke here, but I'll spare you and everyone else who reads these comments.

Jack said...

If Transformers taught me anything, it's that maybe global warming isn't such a bad thing. I know the sequel addresses this further in "Transformers vs. Green Peace."

Also, you can really tell that Orci and Kurtzmann have tapped into the essence of what drives the hearts and minds of the common American soldier better than anyone working in Hollywood.

Lord have mercy, those troops sure do love their babies...

Johnny said...

a very inciteful article, landon.
i agree with everything you had to say.
nevertheless, it made me feel really guilty about considering the transformers "kick ass."
i left the movie feeling indifferent.
i was impressed with the graphics.
but that was about it.
on my ride home, i told my friend that there wasn't really a story.
and you're right... everyone went along with it like nothing.
i also thought the dialogue was PAINFULLY corny.
"oh ya... i'd like you to meet my friend.... Optimus Prime" (dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuun).
so corny.
i agree with you though...
nostalgia + action-packed movies does = box-office records.

loveOliver said...

Niiice, Landon.

I'd like to mention that over in Japan, the iPhone is not up to par, save for the Mac OS and browser. Japanese phones look as cool, sometimes cooler, and offer amazing data transfer rates, HD TV and movies, and great sound quality.

I'd also like to mention that Michael Bay is my film hero, right next to you, Lando.


Anonymous said...

Politically speaking, this movie, just like the original series and original film, reeks of by-a-car-bust-your-guns-save-the-world-from complete-and-utter destruction traditional American patriarchy. This is typical though coming from someone as typical as Bay. Trust me, I went to school with him. Unfortunately, it's also what most of America wants--unquestionable displays of American technological and military might, come they in the form of the noble white futuremarine and his black comic support/relief, or Camaro and Freightliner autobots, or F22 decepticons. It's a "for the top by the top" mentality. Nothing more than a beautification of hegemony. No one wants to feel insecure about who we've got in charge, and I'm glad to say that this movie did not make me feel that way. So despite my left-wing moral indignation, it was f*ckin entertaining and full of enough waistlines and gadgetry to keep my short term attention. Just don't expect me to give a damn when they stop writing suck screenplays like this with suck actors like Turturro, Fox, and Tyrese.

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