transformers age extinction film as commerce

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a relentless assault on the senses that somehow still managed to bore me to tears. It’s a 2 hour and 40 minute film that features giant robots riding enormous robot dinosaurs killing bad giant robots, yet is devoid of any meaningful thrills or excitement. Filled with explosions, flying glass, a laughably incoherent plot, and paper-thin characters who behave completely nonsensically, this movie dares you to try and look away from its mess, then punches you in the throat with its runtime as your body urges you to head for the exit.

But maybe that’s okay. Because Transformers: Age of Extinction is still going to make a billion dollars worldwide. It’s the most Michael Bay film that Michael Bay ever Bay’ed. This film is the logical culmination of film as commerce. Let’s explore why.

The product placement is more egregious than ever - Shots of characters in distress take great pains to linger on logos of sponsoring brands, such as Cadillac. Stanley Tucci, while demonstrating the discovery of the new metallic element Transformium, uses it to form a pill-shaped Beats personal speaker, with the logo RIGHT in the audience’s face. An action scene culminates with a ton of Bud Light being spilled on the ground, which Mark Wahlberg takes a swig of for no reason whatsoever. This movie laughs at your previous attempts at product placement. It is the ne plus ultra of product placement. Age of Extinction doesn’t just practice product integration; it practices product visual assault. It takes no risks that you won’t see every brand that paid cash money to appear in this film, and it does so unapologetically and repeatedly.

Parts of it are set in China for some reason - With China becoming an ever-larger market for films, it’s important for any film these days to do things that cater to the Chinese market. And what better way to do this than by having the film be partially set in China, and also partially financed by the China Movie Channel?

Look, I’m all for more Asian characters/actors/settings in films. But it’s doesn’t really serve the story if the primary Asian characters in the film have absolutely no discernible characteristics whatsoever, other than that they happen to know martial arts. Or if your characters show up in a Chinese apartment complex only to completely lay waste to it. (According to the film’s producer, the Chinese setting was integral to the film from conception).

So please, keep putting more Asian culture in movies, America. But, to quote Switch, “Not like this. Not like this.”

Its damsel-in-distress is a 17-year old girl - Movies have always been able to make bank by objectifying females, and Bay has always loved including random, scantily-clad attractive women in films to cater to the young male demographic. But getting boys to lust after Megan Fox (or someone of her age) was no longer sufficient. This time, Bay needed someone younger, someone who might feel more forbidden and dangerous. So he cast now-19-year-old Nicola Petz, who in the film plays Shane Dyson’s 17-year old girlfriend Tessa. No worries, though. Their love is protected by Romeo and Juliet laws, which the movie takes great pains to explain. So I guess that makes it okay for you to be attracted to her?

Its characters exist primarily to be action figures – The heavily advertised climactic scene in which Optimus Prime & Co. ride Dinobots to victory doesn’t happen until nearly 2.5 hours into the film, after the audience has already been emotionally pummeled into submission. Their motivations are never explained. They show up for a few minutes, do some damage, and then leave to roam about China, I guess. They simply exist to look badass and sell action figures. 

The Transformers films have made nearly $3 billion worldwide, but their merchandising has made over $7 billion. As with all the properties that came before Age of Extinction, this movie exists to sell toys. Having several of the key “characters” occupy over 80% of the marketing but less than 20% of the movie is a great way to demonstrate that fact unequivocally.

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In his now-legendary speech on the state of cinema, Steven Soderbergh once lamented the gulf between “movies” and “cinema.” Discussing the economics that accentuate this distinction, Soderbergh remarked:

[T]his is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.

If there is such a thing as cinema as Soderbergh describes it, then Age of Extinction is a perfect distillation of anti-cinema. It posits that films no longer need a coherent plot, character development, or action scenes that have tension and stakes in order to be successful. That economic considerations no longer need to be hidden or subtle — they can be brazen and attention-grabbing. That excess in every respect (runtime, municipal destruction, manchild behavior) is not a vice, but a virtue.

Age of Extinction marks the most recent step in our journey to film-as-commerce. It will take in over a billion dollars at the box office, and many billions more in Dinobot action figure sales. And all we will be able to do is sit there and smile.

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