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Why I Can’t Get Outraged Over Transformers

In the e-mailbag this week, a veritable taunt:

In reading your list of science fiction movies you’re looking forward to in 2011, I can’t help notice that you left out Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, Scalzi! Go on and admit you love the Transformers. You’ll feel better about yourself. Promise.

No, really — I won’t. I’ll go see the next Transformers film primarily because, hey, I have a gig as a science-fiction-film columnist, so I do try to see every major science-fiction film I can, even the ones I reasonably expect will be as painful as thrusting my head into a bag of wet, angry cats. Given my opinion of the cinematic track record of the Transformers movies and director Michael Bay in general — recall that I called the last Transformers film the “drunken frat boy of science-fiction flicks” — there’s a better than even chance that, indeed, Dark of the Moon will be more painful to me than the patented Burlap Sack of Moistened Feline Fury. I want you all to appreciate the sacrifices I make in the line of duty.

For all that, I find it difficult to be morally outraged that (a) there will soon be a third Transformers film out there, (b) Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks threw a couple hundred million down into a hole to make it, and (c) it will likely make close to a billion dollars worldwide in movie theaters, if the other two films in the series are anything to go by. I try to muster some outrage about it, and yet I just
can’t seem to.

Why? To start, the films weren’t ever
meant for me. First, I was too old for Transformers when they came out
— I was in high school — so I don’t have any hazy childhood
memories of either the plastic toys or the truly abysmal eighties animated
film. Second, by the time the first movie came out, I was in my late thirties, which meant that Transformers‘ tuned-for-boys-below-25 charms were largely lost on me (including those of Megan Fox, who at this stage inspires in me not lust but rather the
desire to offer her a muffin and a year of college tuition). Third,
while I can appreciate that Michael Bay actually has a coherent film
grammar — no, seriously — it’s not one that appeals much to me because, among other things, I like to actually see what’s happening in an action sequence.

And, you know, all of this is fine. Transformers isn’t made for me, but then neither is, say, the latest Tyler Perry movie or any installment of Saw or
whatever dreary lump of cinema Lars von Trier is making this year. Lots
of films aren’t explicitly tailored to my cinematic predilections. If
they happen to work for me despite that, then great. I’m open to trying
things I don’t think I’ll like because it’s nice to be surprised. But
if they don’t work for me, I can’t find it in my heart to get worked
up about it. To be honest, I’m more irritated with Bay for screwing up The Island — which could have been right up my alley if it hadn’t been terrible — than for anything he’s done in the Transformers movies.

Beyond this, I don’t labor under the delusion that the series is taking money from something more worthy. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which got my vote as one of the worst science-fiction films of the last decade, cost something in the area of $200 million to produce. That’s
roughly 40 to 50 times as much as Moon, the lovely movie by Duncan Jones that I think was one of the best films of 2009. But this does not mean that 40 Moons would have been produced had Fallen never
been made; Hollywood doesn’t work that way. If a crew of tasteful
science-fiction fans went back in time to 2007 and stopped Transformers from
ever being made, all that would likely mean is that Paramount and
DreamWorks would find something else expensive and possibly dumb to
make into a tentpole production — i.e., something to bring in gobs
of money to a studio over the course of three or four films.

Not every tentpole production is dumb — see the current iteration of Batman,
the Harry Potter films, and even (so far, at least) the Iron Man movies
as examples — but it’s fair to say that as far as tentpole films are
concerned, brains are not the highest consideration. Which is a
shame, yes, but it is what it is. We can argue whether this sort of
business model is correct or smart or fiscally responsible, but at the
end of the day studios want big, fat tentpole movies for the summer and holidays. A movie like Moon, alas, isn’t going to cut it
for that. But an explode-rrific movie based on toys beloved by boys?
Just back up the armored truck and shovel in the cash.

So no: I’m not going to admit to looking forward to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Really, really, really not. But if you’re looking forward to it, knock yourself out, kids.

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