Dialogues: Talking Robots; or Michael Bay's "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

Adam Cook & Daniel Kasman investigate the latest unwieldy behemoth of a blockbuster from the notorious Michael Bay.
Adam Cook, Daniel Kasman

Last year Notebook failed to cover what ended up being one of our favorite films of 2013, Michael Bay's Pain & Gain. Upon the release of his latest movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, we henceforth resume our perhaps morbid fascination with the American director. Previous Notebook writings on Bay include Ryland Walker Knight on the second Transformers movie, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Daniel Kasmanand Fernando F. Croce each on the franchise's third film, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), three critics' three takes on Bad Boys II (2003), and Uncas Blythe's monstrous overview of the cinema of Michael Bay.

The following conversation between Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman took place over email.

ADAM COOK: How do we watch Transformers

We know what we're getting into with a Michael Bay film, and in particular the fourth installment of this blockbuster series. We're familiar with the pitfalls, the vapidity, the ideological murkiness, the horrific dialogue, the racist/sexist undertones, the arbitrarily deployed low angle shots, and crudely frequent explosions—and we're also familiar with what you and I (I presume?) find fascinating about Bay, the meticulousness of the craft, the abstract sensory pleasure of the film's action sequences, of metallic figures converging, colliding, contorting, shimmering colours, beautiful destruction, sheer visceral overload. Personally, I think being so over-prepared for the film benefited me immensely (I won't bury the lede: I very much enjoyed the film, for whatever that's worth). Knowing what to count on allowed me to filter out the bullshit and to hone in on the film's innumerable qualities and pleasures. 

Considering all the context that we bring in and the world around us provides: How then, do we approach this specific film... How do we watch it, and talk about it, how do we feel about it? The world audience (critics included) has made up its hypocritical hive-mind: A) Bay is trash and we refuse to take it seriously; and B) we will go the cinema in droves to see it.

DANIEL KASMAN: How do we watch Transformers? With our eyes, mostly—the sound mix, at least at the theatre in which I watched it (in 35mm, believe it or not!), was distracting when it shouldn't have been and not distracting enough when it should have. But we also watch the film with our brains. I find excuses like "just entrainment" or "popcorn movie" doubly condescending, both to the movies and to audiences. If a movie excites you, if it amuses you, if it offends, or if it even goes so far (or so short) to change your sense of time—"pass the time"—it has had an effect, an impact on your mind, body and spirit, and there are ways to describe what it was that made you or me or someone else feel that way. We may not fully understand it—and to be frank, I think that's one of the great mysteries of all art but of such a multi-valenced art as cinema in specific, that there is only so far one can go describing how it functions—but you can put words to it, however inadequate.

So, in that spirit, tell me about the film's innumerable qualities and pleasures. How did you view the film, in IMAX and 3D as the director so hilariously suggested? Did you find in this extravaganza that which you liked so much about Pain & Gain. I know that you, like myself, admire Michael Bay's previous (and "low budget") film tremendously.

COOK: For those reasons you hint at, a film like Transformers: Age of Extinction is more necessary to digest and unpack than most of what plays at the cinema. Rather than using the franchise as a punching bag, we should question it more deeply, and parse what makes it attractive. Whether we like it or not, Michael Bay is an artist—let us put aside questions of "'good" or "bad" as they seem increasingly irrelevant to me, I'd rather articulate the "interesting"—and paying respect to that can lead to something much more productive than simply brushing him aside.

I enjoyed the film on several levels. I liked having to reassess its muddled (and questionable) politics from scene-to-scene. Coherently or not, this is a very politically dense movie that leaps from American individualist patriotics to an anti surveillance Snowden-allegory, to a critique of the White House's uselessness, with pro-corporatization-with-a-conscience message (it's very fitting that the film's third act takes place in China). I can't think of a gesture so abrasive in recent memory (seen in a multiplex, that is) than Wahlberg re-purposing a drone to send the CIA a message. People rush to call the film 'dumb', but the truth is, for better or for worse, it's tremendously complicated. 

I was also intrigued by the film's cinephilic content. One of the first scenes takes place in an abandoned moviehouse. After coming upon a dusty poster of Howard Hawks' El Dorado, a character remarks that he "loves that one". This nostalgic scene was endearingly clumsy and cheesy and I found myself moved by it. It opens up a mini-thread of the film elaborated on in a scene that takes place in Monument Valley, where the good robot Autobots hop around on the sandstone buttes we inevitably associate with John Ford's mise en scène. Wahlberg and the transformers project footage onto the side of one of the landforms, a private screening. This almost criminal butchering of a sacred cinema landmark doubles for me as offensive and beautiful, a strange thing to articulate, but something that characterizes all of Bay's work. He links the dated technology of celluloid and that abandoned cinema to the traditional values of the American middle class, both of which he sees as threatened by rapid advancement of tech and its irresponsible harnessing by the powers that be. The film seeks to reconcile these values with technology, a harmony of man and machine that has defined the franchise. Could Age of Extinction be Bay's Hugo?

As for Pain & Gain, which I prefer as a movie, but not as an "experience," the pleasures are distinct. That film effectively articulates (satirically and synonymously) a vapid pursuit of the American dream, an auto-critique of sorts of that which Bay's own cinema embraces. I find that film, which is probably Bay's best, to function coherently and with less mystery—unlike the unwieldy chaos of Age of Extinction.

KASMAN: Certainly the difficulty and the need to "digest and unpack" the film is great, because, as you hint at in your opening question, the film is so complexly constructed as to make a dialog about it quite difficult. The complexity is engendered by how beholden this CGI behemoth must be to so many overlapping, contradictory and conflicting interests: the Hasbro corporate toy company, Hollywood tentpole filmmaking, Michael Bay's artistry (as you put it), the now-dominant tuning of an American production for overseas audiences, young American audiences, Chinese audiences, licensing deals, product placement (including, I believe, Chinese product placement), etc. et al.

The film is a true cinematic thicket, overdense with images and ideology, pushing and pulling energies stretching it out like cyber-taffy—no wonder this ostensible B-movie is 165 minutes long!

Okay but let me dig in a bit, as you have. Bay loves to surround his central protagonists with as many shrill, caricatures representative of power or adult oversight as he can, and he skewers them mercilessly in film after film. (You say we should pay respect to Bay but here's a question: what does he, as an artist, respect in his films? The list would be very short but would be worth enumerating.) This lends especially his Transformers movies the vague air, as you suggest of Pain & Gain, of auto-critique, or at the very least a hyper-cynical self-awareness, building escape routes for different viewers to see the same movie in different ways. (Earlier this year the inspired animated film The Lego Movie similarly both satirized and embraced its corporate sponsor.)

In this iteration, as you indicate, the central government has moved to an ineffective off-screen space (brilliantly embodied only as Thomas Lennon's anxious and piping White House Chief of Staff) to be replaced by a combination of slowly festering CIA supremacy of military activity and strategy (a cleverly cast but woefully underused Kelsey Grammer) and civilian entrepreneurial consumer capitalism (the film's only real coup: Stanley Tucci as a Steve Jobs parody CEO whose company is studying fallen alien Transformers so as to produce them to replace American soldiers with robots).

On a very prime surface level the film broadcasts a profound fear of robotics (including the drones you mention), of technology, and of the co-opting of technology both by uncontrollable arms of a supposedly democratic government and by out-of-control consumer capitalism. And yet, of course, the primary appeal of the film is Michael Bay's maximalist, gargantuan spectacle integrating giant robots into our world, the awe of watching their puppeteered animation, their overwhelming scale, the devastation we want to watch them wreck, and the "compassionate" discovery, in Transformers after Transformers, that such machines of destruction—not ones of death, as these are PG-13 movies—have things we call "souls," can "feel" for humanity, and can act for their well-being and survival.

So here is but one of seemingly an endless series of the film's contradictions: that it posits a future where our iPhones remain looking for the most part like iPhones—these giant transforming trucks and dinosaurs are hardly courting the Uncanny Valley or any resemblance to, say, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? cyborg-human ethics of appearance and behavior—but evince qualities of human compassion, and the real heroes are the humans who intuitively believe in and fight for this robotic "life" in the face of overwhelming evidence that technology is a curse upon our modern times.

COOK: It is this most profound contradiction at the film's core that most clearly reveals its hypocritical, bullshit hand—and yet, it is also fascinating how purposefully readable (the film's ideas are made obvious) and unreadable (the film's ideas collapse when added up) this movie is, how overtly "political" it is, and how overtly full of shit it is. Of course, America itself is such an ideological swamp that it makes sense its flagship movies would import its own murkiness, and there are tons of films out there that play both sides out of commercial interest, but there's something so determined behind this one (more so than other Bay's films). Age of Extinction feels impassioned to me, and intense. I recall almost dozing off to the other Transformers films because I felt there was nothing to hold onto, no anchor to keep me invested in them. Here, the energy doesn't wain, and the film's primary figures, in particular Wahlberg's Texan family man, really work for me as "heroes."

To continue along your train of thought, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a washed up inventor, whose garage/lab contains a bunch of useless, barely functional robotic thingamajigs—he's a well meaning American with some talent, who can't quite put it together. That is, until Autobot leader Optimus Prime comes into his life, a robotic invention supplanting Cade's crackpot projects and giving his life meaning. It's a disconcerting notion, no? This middle class man requires this externally produced toy/weapon to find his way. So, what then of Cade's resistance to the CIA? He's still subservient to a different threat, one that comes and goes seemingly without consequence, even as buildings, ablaze, remain in the background. 

So, how do we watch Transformers? Do we turn off our brains and soak up the spectacle? Do we academically treat it as some sort of source of cultural insight? Are these angles reconcilable? Perhaps what makes Transformers exciting to me is reading it every way at once. It's a truly wild experience: going from the orgasmic kineticism of an action sequence to having to actively knock away the constant bombardment of product placement and ideological brainwashing, to sincerely finding a picturesque shot of a Texas family home beautiful, simultaneously kitsch and gorgeous. It's like a crazy cinephile test. Can you survive Transformers? And can you find something in it worthwhile while retaining a critical distance?

One scene, where a spaceship magnetically pulls up everything metallic from the streets of Hong Kong, is one of the most extraordinary I've seen/felt in a cinema. I'll never forget the purely aesthetic sensation of the flinging 3D objects, the way they moved just so, and the accompanying bass that shook the auditorium. Another sequence amidst the several climactic set pieces contained something like a dozen shots in a row where different objects and characters were flung this way and that, moving diagonally or laterally across frame. Each shot was nothing special on its own, but in montage, the precise rapidity creating a pleasure of sheer movement. 

I would be remiss to ignore that the problematic cinematic universe of Michael Bay is one that I enjoy visiting, its questionable morals, ideological inconsistencies, exploitation of bodies, and pornographic destruction of cities all working for and against it at once. How could I dismiss it as useless escapism when the way it challenges me to feel/understand the world it creates/destroys creates tension and meaning only in relation to the real one?

KASMAN: I'd be curious to hear more about how Mark Wahlberg's single father works for you as a hero. For me, it was just another in a series of Michael Bay's particular brand of vacant pseudo-patriotism embodied by nearly milquetoast hunks. At least he's somewhat left behind the horny adolescent figure that drove the last three Transformers into a heightened state of over/under-sexed anxiety that made little distinction between frustrated desire to get laid, to save the planet, to convince people of robotic soulfulness, and to avoid parental embarrassment. But Wahlberg's “Texan” “family man”—all put in quotes because Bay relies, all these years later, on televisual advertisement short hand to imply and define his filmworld's characteristics without giving them an inch of depth beyond pictorial pastiche, like the American flags crammed in every frame—is a far cry from what made Pain & Gain so wonderful and moving: Bay's earnest respect and hyper-dedicated exuberance for truly repulsive, flawed embodiments of America. But I suppose he is allowed to do that on a $25 million budget; at Transformers 4's $165 million “Cade Yeager” needs to be flattened out to have no qualities whatsoever except Wahlberg's lovable embodiment of placating, yearning eagerness. (Speaking of the flattening effect, strange, isn't it, that the film has nearly eliminated the “sex appeal” of the previous films, which used Megan Fox as a dewy bimbo prize for Shia LaBeouf's hero; in Age of Extinction, the new bimbo is Nicola Peltz, who plays Cade Yeager's teenaged daughter. While the movie throws in an Irish racecar driver as her boyfriend, her sex appeal is partially negated in the production because the story makes such a strong case for her youth and because of the father-daughter “relationship” which drives Wahlberg's lovable embodiment of of placating, yearning eagerness.)

I see a lot of rhetorical questions in your previous message and it makes me wonder: are you very uncertain or uncomfortable about your response to Transformers, or films like it? How does it make you conflicted as a viewer or a critic?

I completely agree with you about the “magnet” sequence in the film. I've written before about how one of the best qualities of the Transformers films is their sense of epic scale, but how Bay's always-maximalist style renders everything epic and therefore flattens the effect: it's hard to be impressed by the size of anything when everything is massive. There have always been a few not unjust comparisons between Michael Bay and archetypal (and perhaps unbeatable) Hollywood spectacle showman Cecil B. DeMille, but certainly DeMille knew when to reveal crowds, when to stun the audience. Bay's cinema is always in stun mode, stunning us into passive absorbency. I can't think of a better example of this than these Tranformers action sequences, which, as I've said before, are dense with elaborate and wonderfully scaled animation but are directed in such a way to leave undetermined the “rules” of the world, what these giant robots can and can't do, what their weaknesses and strengths are, and therefore give no sense, in a muscular action movie, of physical action. A final “stand-off” in Hong Kong, of the Autobots defending our few human heroes against an onslaught of evil robots, is emblematic: you don't know if the Autobots are struggling and if so why (or why not), combat isn't presented as difficult, just as arduously exhausting, all that tumbling and recoiling and flinging and being flung. Consequences seem arbitrary, determined by how long an action sequence should last in the film's runtime rather than through through drama, ability, endurance, strategic (spatial) goals or moral resilience.

Thus most of these “wondrous” special effects seem ungrounded, the space between the humans and buildings recorded by the cameras and the CGI robots seem very clear, very much living in different realms—and Bay's preference for real explosions, which merely look like fireworks shot straight up in the air, underscores how disconnected the recorded world is from the animated one. A shockingly long excursion into an enemy robot ship finally takes the film into a realm that has been threatened all along: totally virtual, the movie finally becoming truly an animated film rather than a human/computer hybrid. For a moment the humans unknowingly see their future, that their real bodies are the anomaly in an unreal world virtually animated to contain them.

COOK: The Spielbergian dynamic of Labeouf in awe of the Transformers in the previous films never really clicked, never really felt genuine to me. Bay can't pull off innocence. Indeed, Wahlberg is what you say, but he's the most successful version of it! This is the closest to how M. Night Shyamalan directed Wahlberg, mining his impossibly endearing naiveté to ample effect—but here, he's a weapon rather than an ironic figure. Not a character so much as a symbol, and the shorthand that accompanies/defines him, is more sophisticated maybe than what you let on, woven into the rest of this tapestry seamlessly. No, we don't have the idiosyncratic formal wizardry that brought the characters and their worldview (tragically, comically, terrifyingly) alive in Pain & Gain, but we do have something similar in spirit, I think. To answer your question, I don't feel uncertainty, but I do feel uncomfortable, as one should when art verges on the propagandistic, but that's all part of the at-odds pleasure/challenge of Michael Bay!

To me, there are nuances within Bay's perpetual stun mode, a different set of rules, a visceral coherency. Some describe this as numbing, as you partially hint, but I didn't, I felt engaged, like I was invited to participate in the action sequences, in following them, in a way most actioners (the mostly dull Marvel flicks, for example) never do. The narrative consequences are arbitrary, but the conviction of their execution is beyond most of Bay's contemporaries... Their goal may be nothing more than to exist, but I'm glad they do, even if the immorality that underlies them can never be shaken.

Unstoppable is playing on my TV right now so I can't help but link Tony Scott, an obvious, interesting point of comparison (and fellow darling of "vulgar auteurism"). Unlike Scott, Bay is not an action painter using abstractions to formulate a whole. His shorthand isn't as sincere, as concerned with lives, living, force—so what is he concerned with? Blowing shit up? Maybe he's a nihilist, but like the Transformers themselves, his movies shift, fight, move, not according to logic, but to what their sparks (souls?) drive them to—but something dark and at odds within that spark charges Age of Extinction with sheer fascination. We've talked at length, and I'm still not quite sure how to watch Transformers. But I can't look away just the same.

KASMAN: I have to disagree with your characterization of Bay's films as having the kind of agility—scene by scene, movie by movie—one might ascribe to inspired, freeform filmmakers ranging from William A. Wellman to Takashi Miike. I find Bay's approach scattershot, which means some of his shots certainly hit the mark, but the supposed philosophy of his tacitly unthoughtful approach, especially combined with the often repugnant tone of both his drama and his comedy, do little that suggest a soulfulness to me beyond giddy cynicism and opportunism.

But still, there are the moments that have real weight, the visions that have power enough to escape the flat effect. Your aforementioned magnet sequence is powerful precisely because finally we understand some rules of what's on display, it's not just some video game-like guesswork of how long will this unexplained creature withstand an unexplained firefight: objects of varying sizes are picked up and dropped, simple as that. And this simplicity, in comparison to the rest of the effects' complications—compounding by distractingly confusing lore—is truly visionary, awesome and terrifying. A known quality upended, true surrealness. And nothing in the entire film can best the animated image of an evil robot's head impossibly transforming into a gun, literally a giant cannon forming logically with an impossible physical precision, out of his blinking, speaking, anthropomorphic face. A human face turned into that of a robot, turned into a visionless Schwerer Gustav. It is in Bay's catch as catch can movies, too lumbering and full of inertia to consider the previous moment or plot for the next one, that such preposterous, unexpected image ambition can so awesomely take over the big screen.

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