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.)