$100 million domestic in less than three days. China’s highest grossing movie of all time. A multi-billion dollar franchise. A new trilogy in the works. So why does it seem like nobody is talking about Transformers?
As someone who has seen the first three Transformers films, the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction (which I still haven’t seen) earlier this month inspired me to take another look at this franchise and its massive success. After seven years and four films, the most remarkable thing about the entire series is that it hasn’t really made a footprint on our pop cultural consciousness – not even a single overused Internet meme. Even when the Transformers films are being discussed, the focus is on the movies themselves rather than what’s within those movies. It’s the difference between talking about Star Wars and talking about Han Solo or a lightsaber or an X-Wing. You can say your thoughts on a movie, but it’s the connection formed between the viewer and its individual elements that makes a film special. Transformers lacks that relationship.
Take the latest film – a 2 hour 45 minute mega-blockbusters that had the biggest opening weekend of the year (so far). Admittedly, it’s possible that I’m talking to the wrong people or visiting the wrong internet sites, but I haven’t heard much of anything about it other than its box office numbers. By this point in the run of similar tentpole features, I would know plot details- e.g. deaths in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and resurrections in X-Men Days of Futures Past – even if I was actively avoiding them. At the very least, I’d have some sense of whether or not to see the film, and why I should or should not (e.g. the positivity surrounding Godzilla and the praise given to the effort they put into capturing the sheer mass of the lizard). Yet I’ve found the internet to be all quiet on the Transformers front except for generic “Michael Bay sucks” comments.
But this issue goes well beyond Age of Extinction. For all of its victories, Transformers lacks a legacy – beyond the ever-annoying “death of cinema” dirge. I’m hard-pressed to remember moments, scenes, lines, etc. from any of the movies. Those that I can recall are of a negligible, “What were they thinking?” variety (e.g. “I am standing directly beneath the enemy’s scrotum,” from Revenge of the Fallen), and even these are few and far between. Despite all of the considerable effort put into the sound design of creating a cacophony of explosions and junkyards crashing into one another, the majority of these goliaths become white noise. Human and robot characters alike strike zero chords, and I have to wonder if I’d even recall the names “Optimus Prime” or “Megatron” if they weren’t drilled into my head since childhood. When an entire cast can be kicked to the curb (as Bay did with this most recent installment) without a single raised eyebrow, that’s not a positive thing.
Most other franchises have left some mark that can be referenced years down the line, even if it’s been decades since their last appearance on the screen. The look of the Alien in Alien and the sounds of Predator in Predator are defining moments in sci-fi cinema. Freddy Krueger’s glove. Jason’s hockey mask. How soon after the release of the first Harry Potter book (1997) did the word “Hogwarts” infiltrate our collective cultural mind? I knew it before reading any of the books (which I still haven’t done) or seeing any of the films (which I have). Jack Sparrow seemed to instantly become a household name. I even knew by the end of the first weekend of its release that Fast and the Furious 6‘s climax had something to do with an exceptionally long runway. Nearly a month after the release of Transformers 4, I don’t know anything specific about any of its sequences.
Even decades-old properties have benefited from their reincarnation as film franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has caused an increased awareness of ideas from the comics such as the cosmic cube, Mjolnir, and S.H.I.E.L.D. Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. But who are Shia LeBeouf, Josh Duhamel, and Mark Wahlberg? Sure many Marvel characters have been around since the 1960’s, but Transformers has a history dating back to the 1980s, and I’m not seeing Energon, Cyberton, or the All Spark worming their way back into our lexicon.
This level of ignorance goes beyond these movies simply being bad or any of the many hyperbolic aspersions levied against them by “haters.” Bad movies can be worthy of discussion. Mystery Science Theater 3000 continues to be used as a reference point because mocking bad movies is genuinely fun. More than a decade since Revenge of the Sith, and it’s still fascinating analyzing why and how the Star Wars prequels failed. (And I’d even argue that the Dreaded Prequels are better than the Transformers movies…but that’s an article for another time.)
The problem is that Transformers commits a greater sin than being bad. They’re unmemorable. It’s strange when Tommy Wiseau’s 99-minute The Room produces more sequences that stick with you than four movies running between 2 hours, 23 minutes and 2 hours, 45 minutes apiece. At least the Star Wars prequels tried to be deep by having the decency to talk about the crappiness of sand. The relationship between Anakin and Padme was a mess, but their courtship was more involved than Shia and Megan Fox’s characters in the first two Transformers film. Everyone hates Jar Jar Binks, but at least his name is inscribed in the annals of movie history – for better or worse.
So why is it that something that has produced nothing of note cinematically continues to trample everything in its path? I’m not going to blame Michael Bay. He’s a passable director – a horrible filmmaker but a passable director – whose biggest failing is that he knows what he wants – a jumbled, hedonistic, explosion-fueled, nonsensical testosterone fantasy, and he goes into it all guns a-blazing. The end result might be a mess, but he achieves his vision and I have to give him credit for that. When others try to replicate his style, we get Battleship, which did considerably worse financially than any of the Transformers films.
It’s easy to condemn audiences who gave an A- Cinemascore to yet another overlong movie about indistinguishable robots, a pointless human-centered first half, and a mind-numbing third act where everything blows up, but it doesn’t provide the whole picture. Without any explanation of their attendance, even something as weak as “guilty pleasure,” I’m left without any insights into the question of why are these movies so big? (And a 2 hour, 45 minute movie is not a way to kill time – it’s a genuine investment of a day, especially when there’s better, shorter movies out there, such as Edge of Tomorrow.)
Yet the continued flocking to these films makes me genuinely curious whether there is something about them that connects with people. Just because I don’t find anything about them notable doesn’t mean that others don’t hold them in the same (dis)regard. Maybe years from now, they will be recalled fondly by the next generation of film fans. Maybe there’s a subculture based around Sam Witwicky. Maybe the movie’s dialogue is quotable, just not by people whom I’m aware of.
Or maybe it’s the lack of moments that make them special. With so many movies trying to be clever or poignant or forcing that next iconic moment or t-shirt-able line or requiring us to keep track of countless backstories, something that doesn’t “care” might actually be comforting. A lack of concern for posterity might be the greatest thing Transformers can offer audiences. But I still think it would be nice to get a definitive sequence or line or image or sound at some point during its still ongoing tale because for all its faults, it’s a movie franchise that deserves to produce something historic.