My first great attraction into the world of cinema was watching the first Transformers in theaters 10 years ago. Perhaps it had to do with the capacity to appreciate film when you’re only ten, but it’s been engrained in my memory ever since. I had never seen any of the original cartoons, let alone own a transformer, but I had embarked on a journey of Transformer fanboyism into the next 4 films of the franchise. And yet, as I walked out of the cinema after each new entry, I couldn’t help but feel an even greater sense of bitterness than the last. When I sat through the 2 ½ hour session of CGI pornography and sex joke fest that was Transformers: The Last Knight, it made me question my fanboyism. Have I been watching crap all this time?
I found out that I was not alone in this disappointment, critics and audiences alike have extensively criticized the franchise’s flaws as each entry got worse. On Rotten Tomatoes, critics scores progressively dropped from 57% in the first film to 15% in the last and, similarly, audience scores dropped from of 85% to 48%. Yet, with each new film, the franchise found new box office success, with 2 of the later entries grossing $1 billion each. How could a franchise’s deterioration benefit it so greatly financially? Whitten at CNBC credited the proliferating success due to foreign audience appeal, especially in booming markets such as China. While this may provide explanation on why Transformers is a financial goliath, it says little on why the quality deteriorated. With such amazing returns, distributor Paramount Pictures wouldn’t want to jeopardize its success by not paying attention to critical feedback. Even if they did, with the hundreds of millions of dollars and months of work to produce such blockbusters, one would have to intentionally avoid any quality control at all for the franchise to arrive at such a low point. It begged investigation.
Packed with the original Iron Man screenwriters and a tremendously celebrated source material, I realized that the core problem was not due to the Transformers themselves, nor due to the heightening skepticism of studio interference in big budget films. It was director Michael Bay’s purposefully crafted filmmaking to make a statement that he could make the trashiest film of all time, and millions of people would still watch it. While a director does not have control over every aspect of a film, they direct the cameras on where the audience should focus. From that selective focus, an audience interprets the film through that lense only, ignoring all other facts not featured in the frame. Focusing on everything from puking dinosaur robots to Victoria Secret Models with no acting credentials to even robots with giant testicles, Bay has set a vendetta against the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Even out of spite, Bay has pushed his films to be considered for the Oscar’s Best Picture awards. Despite being known for soulless filmmaking, Bay has made respectable films not so long ago. When he wasn’t making the next Transformers, he made Pain & Gain and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, films with their fair share of action shoot outs but with narrative substance and socio-political commentary. Whether Bay has done this to stroke his own ego or to provide some sort of ingenious social commentary is still undecided, but what is known is that the poor quality isn’t reckless, it’s intentional.
Kohn classified the Transformers franchise in an IndieWire article as “an assault on the senses that’s actively fighting against the prospects of a more varied film culture.” Kohn calls on audiences to watch other non-traditional movies for ‘the fight taking place beyond the multiplex’. While exaggerating the urgency of the issue, it highlights an interesting opportunity cost. By going to see these blockbusters, we forego the cost of seeing a different movie. Few people would probably make a return trip to the cinema to see that other movie, especially when piracy and streaming has never been so convenient. Thus the allocation of our money in Transformer’s pocket versus your local indie studio’s matters. Hollywood can’t make crap films if not enough people watch them. Question is- do we want to live to see another movie where robot testicles are shoved in our faces?