Michael Bay is the personification of a piñata: a bright, garish, candy-filled monstrosity which people take too much pleasure batting after. Critics might talk about how bad his success is for filmmaking, but they’re pleased as punch when his latest sensory overload hits the big screen so they can take another swing. Yet, with the fourth “Transformers,” he’s slyly delivered something deep and meaningful under the guise of a summer blockbuster.
Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yaeger is a down-on-his-luck, would-be inventor who is trying to avoid being foreclosed on while finding a way to put his ridiculously hot daughter through college. Apparently, in spite of being dead broke, she can’t get financial aid. While on a salvage trip, he finds a busted-up tractor-trailer rig and brings it back to his lab. It turns out there’s more than meets the eye to the vehicle; he discovers it’s the head of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. Things aren’t as rosy as they used to be for our favorite alien shape-shifting robots. After they leveled Chicago in the third movie, the Transformers are now on the Most Wanted list. The American government has gotten particularly agro about their presence, so they implement a secret agency to hunt them. In essence, they make their own government-sanctioned copy-cat Autobots and Decepticons.
I think Michael Bay is referencing the war on terror and the increasing escalation of arms that fueled the Cold War. In fact, it all seems to be a well-constructed metaphor for America’s fading presence in the world’s cultural landscape. The Autobots are cars and trucks which represent our auto industry; like our heroes, it has seen better days. They’re being replaced by better, more efficient models. The Decepticons always transform into planes, war machines and weapons; they represent the military industrial complex that has been a great beneficiary of our wars.
Shia LaBeouf’s directionless slacker, which represents shiftless millennials, has been replaced with a well-intentioned Yaeger, a Texan who thinks one big idea will eventually make him a fortune. His attitude is atypically American. Even though he’s deeply in debt (a symptom many Americans face) and a single parent (another American malady), he still doesn’t seek out regular employment and believes he can will himself out of his current predicament. He spends the first act of the film looking for anything of value in an old movie theater, which seemingly represents the dreams of our society. The movie theater is where we go to escape our troubles and believe in a world beyond the mediocrity of our day-to-day lives. Inside he finds a remnant of that dream in the form of an old truck—Optimus Prime, the one thing he needs to solve his woes.
Writer Ehren Kruger has carefully crafted the role of Yaeger’s daughter, who’s on the precipice of adulthood. She struggles with the temptations of youth while pining for a more exciting life in college. She wants to be smart and challenge conventions, but it’s easier for her to wear high heels and shorts that leave little to the imagination. She’s the product of a single-parent home, not by choice but by tragedy. Her eventual transformation from eye candy to hero presents us with a strong heroine who can hold her own in a male-dominated society.
Kelsey Grammer’s Harold Attinger character represents both the fear and the vigilism America has faced since the second plane hit the World Trade Center in 2001. Signage dots the landscape, and tells citizens to report Transformer activity and not to forget the terrible tragedy of Chicago. The paper-thin metaphor presents the easiest entry point for a deeper level of intelligence in a movie that hides its intentions with sensory overload action. Grammer does a great job of playing the heel, still believing that every evil action is justified because of some greater good that doesn’t exist. It’s an ideology most conservatives cling to in order to sleep soundly. Innocents can die, freedoms can be subverted, and deals can be made with enemies in order to ensure victory. No act is too reprehensible if it means protecting the status quo.
It’s no surprise Attinger and his Cemetery Wind Black Ops group teams up with a transformer who morphs into a gun. It’s the second most obvious metaphor in the movie. The Transformer Lockdown is a walking, talking representation of the Second Amendment. Our right to bear arms has an action figure! He wants to punish Optimus Prime for his beliefs. It’s no surprise that in the final battle of the movie, Optimus abandons his gun for a sword while fighting Lockdown, giving us a literal battle for the soul of America. Optimus Prime has always been a walking, talking, transforming representation of American pride. The selfless hero will do whatever it takes to defeat evil; he’s a relic from a bygone era. Like the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy, Optimus Prime understands the value of sacrifice.
The Optimus Prime featured in “Age of Extinction” is different. He’s bruised, beaten, and mirrors our own current sense of diminishing American pride. He’s a rusted-out tin-man that has been left for scrap. By the end, he realizes his era is over. The John Wayne routine is tired, and every effort he’s made to save the people of his adopted world ends in conflict. Our country is now at the mercy of an unchecked government, obsessed with violating civil liberties and creating a military that will churn out efficient killing machines to keep anyone who interferes with our interests in check. The purity of the American Dream has been corrupted beyond recognition.
There’s so many other little jokes at play here. Stanley Tucci’s technology guru CEO feels like the bastard love child of Howard Hughes and Steve Jobs—the ultimate culmination of big business and big ideas. There are the Dino-bots that have to be recruited and tamed in order to help save the day. Do they represent our pent-up rage of American citizens watching their country being taken away? Or old values of America’s founding fathers? There’s so much subtext to dissect.
There’s an added level of humor when realizing the Transformers movies have been staples of July 4th celebrations. Michael Bay delivers a movie about the death of America the week before celebrating its birth. Under the guise of a very long, very action packed movie, his subversive messages make “Transformers: Age of Extinction” the most surprising and intelligent movie of the year.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Nicole Peltz
Directed by Michael Bay • Rated PG-13