‘Transformers’: A Splendidly Patriotic Film, If You Happen To Be Chinese (Opinion)

Transformers Age of Extinction

Bay, Spielberg and Paramount kowtow for cash

Occasionally for better but often for worse, Michael Bay has been a trailblazer for this generation of studio filmmakers, whose films bear the mark of his dizzying editing and grandiose compositions.

Bay’s films generally feast at the box office but are poison to critics and fans of Hollywood classics. With “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” Bay may have crossed the line into self-parody — if there can be such a thing for a director who seems to take nothing seriously — but once again showed a sure sense of what sells tickets. Sure, one scene seems assembled from scenes shot anytime from noon to sunset, Nicola Pelz’s pants keep changing shade and Pelz herself ends up the same orange as every other “Transformers” heroine. And yes, the story makes no sense. Whatever. Discipline has never been Bay’s thing anyway.

But behind the incoherence and the bombast, Bay once again is showing the way forward for the American film industry, and this time, the path he has revealed is a dark one, and not just from the point of view of film critics and cineastes. My first reaction to “Age of Extinction” was that it was an astonishingly unpatriotic film. But I was wrong.  “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” is a very patriotic film. It’s just Chinese patriotism on the screen, not American.

The “Transformers” films may be seen by their studio and filmmakers as disposable, mere summer amusements. But my colleague Justin Chang has attempted to parse the politics of “Age of Extinction,” and observed that Bay’s films are hardly apolitical, even if his worldview seems about as sophisticated as a 30-second burger spot. Everything happens in a context. The context for “Age of Extinction” is that sometime soon, China will pass the United States to become the world’s largest movie market, making the pursuit of the Chinese market a strategic imperative for the Hollywood majors. Moreover, the U.S. economy still has not fully recovered from the Great Recession, so the billions accrued by China’s elites and corporations are a tempting source of financing.  So there’s a considerable incentive to court goodwill from Chinese authorities.

Other cultures have long complained about American cultural imperialism and resented some of values advanced by American popular entertainment: individualism, autonomy, the right to be different, and the sense of permissiveness that comes along with them. The American government has long understood that America’s pop-culture dominance gives the U.S. a the soft-power advantage in world affairs, but in recent years has been too distracted by partisan infighting to nurture that advantage. China, however, covets that advantage and aims to supplant the U.S. as the world’s Dream Factory, though it hasn’t yet found a way to do so.

“Age of Extinction” is, on the surface, a typical Bay-sian paean to those American values, with a little mooning of the Feds for fun. Its hero is a gun-loving, self-employed Texas inventor, albeit with a New England accent and curiously massive biceps. The White House is represented onscreen by a sniveling fool, but where the last “Transformers” took a gratuitous swipe at Barack Obama, this time it’s the military-industrial complex that gets gashed. The bad guys are the CIA, who are killing the noble Autobots for the benefit of a corporation that wants to melt them down and turn them into commercial products, and the film’s major villain is a Dick Cheney-esque spymaster played by Kelsey Grammer, who is using the government to advance a secret corporate project that will earn him a fortune, cloaking his murderous agenda in appeals to national security.

It’s an echo of the kind of iconoclastic films that thrived in the aftermath of Vietnam and the anti-war movement: “MASH,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Little Big Man” and “The Parallax View.” And as America’s slow withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan comes ever more to resemble the disastrous end of the Vietnam conflict, it’s no wonder similar attitudes are bubbling to the surface.

But Bay isn’t in the same class as Robert Altman, Arthur Penn or even Brian Hutton, who were explicitly rejecting the naïve jingoism of Hollywood westerns and war pictures. Bay has been a master peddler of such jingoism, with his fetishization of the U.S. military, its hardware and its troops in “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” and “Pearl Harbor,” as well as the first three “Transformers” pictures.

There’s nothing wrong with filmmakers either lionizing or lampooning U.S. institutions. That’s what freedom of speech is all about. In “Age of Extinction,” though, satire ends at the water’s edge. As soon as the action shifts to Hong Kong, the outbreak of alien-engendered chaos is met by a sea captain ordering a call to “the central government” for help, and later China’s defense minister does a walk-and-talk, sternly and seriously vowing to defend Hong Kong.  America’s government is portrayed either ridiculous or diabolical, but China’s is assured and effective.

Not coincidentally, “Age of Extinction” is considered an “officially assisted production,” made with help from Jiaflix Enterprises and official state broadcaster CCTV’s China Movie Channel, who ponied up for part of the budget and get a piece of the box office. No such deal gets struck in China without the consent and approval of the Beijing government and the Chinese Communist Party, and in this case, Paramount is in business with the Beijing regime directly, through CCTV.

The Chinese Communist Party and the Beijing government may have embraced capitalism, but they are unabashedly authoritarian. They want their values advanced onscreen, and “Age of Extinction” obliges, showing global audiences Chinese people turning to the central government in a crisis and the authorities responding with firm benevolence. In contrast,  craven American authorities hold a gun to the hero’s daughter’s head to make him reveal information.  This may be America getting a taste of its own cultural-imperialist medicine, but it’s galling to swallow it from an American studio and filmmakers.

Bay’s unwillingness to tweak the Chinese government the same way he has done the U.S. government in the “Transformers” films reframes his earlier career. Now his previous lionization of the American military looks less like admiration and more like sucking up to a benefactor  — much like the wet kiss he just gave Beijing  — while his tweaking of Washington looks less like subversiveness and more like simple snottiness.

Honestly, if Michael Bay has any deep political thoughts, I doubt he’s put them in “Age of Extinction.” He’s more interested in glorious images, even if they sometimes seem random. (I’m giving screenwriter Ehren Kruger a pass because Bay has control of the “Transformers” film franchise.) But Steven Spielberg’s name is on the film as executive producer. Where is the man who made “Lincoln” and “Saving Private Ryan”? Or has he too succumbed to the combination of financial and political pressure from Beijing?

We called Paramount Pictures and the publicists for Spielberg and Bay to ask if they had any response to this. A Paramount spokesperson said: “To suggest Michael Bay has made an un-American film is ludicrous. This movie artfully portrays a cross section of people, from different cultures and different nationalities, in diverse and thoughtful ways. The movie’s international resonance only reinforces the fact that this story is truly meant for a global audience and not driven by any country.” Spielberg himself and Bay’s publicist were traveling and not immediately reachable.

More context: In Hong Kong, a recent pro-democracy (read “anti-Beijing”) march drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. Those protesters faced the risk of real consequences. That took courage. 511 of them were arrested. It’s sickening to see Spielberg and Bay, who routinely show up on Hollywood “power lists,” show less courage in the face of the CCP than Hong Kong grocers and waitresses.

Meanwhile “Age of Extinction” traffics in the hoariest cliches about Chinese people: The women are sexy and cold, and everybody seems to know martial arts. I guess that’s what “diverse and thoughtful” looks like to Paramount. Well, at least nobody put on fake buck teeth like Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

This business and creative model is working, too:  “Age of Extinction” is a big hit in the U.S. but bigger still in China. More companies and filmmakers are sure follow this path. So here’s a thought for Bay, Spielberg and everyone in Hollywood who will be doing business with China going forward:

In America, you can lampoon the government and portray the all manner of death and mayhem, as long as you flatter the audience. In China, you can lampoon the audience and portray all manner of death and mayhem, as long as you flatter the government.

And that is why you shouldn’t.

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  1. Lauren Denhartog says:

    Thank you so much for commenting on the film’s portrayal of women, which I also found very disturbing (and not just Chinese women). We probably can’t expect much more from Bay but I’m glad it was mentioned. You sum it up well here: “Meanwhile “Age of Extinction” traffics in the hoariest cliches about Chinese people: The women are sexy and cold, and everybody seems to know martial arts. I guess that’s what “diverse and thoughtful” looks like to Paramount.”

  2. Isn’t it all rather mild? Ideas and political opinions are certainly being expressed in Michael Bay’s films. They are in most movies. It’s just that they’re not very cogent or intelligent or powerful ones because it’s a movie about a kid who’s toys come alive AND who gets the beautiful blonde girlfriend. It’s a fun and resolutely infantile fantasy. The time to be worried about the political message is when, on objecting, you find CIA freelancers have sold your identity to the Chinese Secret Service and they come to your bleak hotel room to offer you a chinese takeaway and a PARALLAX VIEW deal…

  3. darkrage6 says:

    This article is really terrible and I don’t see how the film’s portrayal of China is “sickening” at all.

    • sbones says:

      The quote was: “It’s sickening to see Spielberg and Bay, who routinely show up on Hollywood “power lists,” show less courage in the face of the CCP than Hong Kong grocers and waitresses.”

      He was referring to a scene where Honk Kong officials asks the CCP central government for help. They then say “we will always defend Hong Kong.” Which is funny since they had the battle in Hong Kong because the PRC will not allow a Chinese city in the main land to be destroyed in a any type of film. But Hong Kong, you can smash it to the ground…

  4. Jason says:

    Wow… IT’S A MOVIE! Really people?! Watch the damn thing: laugh, cry, gasp and wince. When it’s over go home and rub your new found cinematic knowledge of futuristic robots into the faces of friends and neighbors who haven’t seen it yet.

    BUT FOR GOD’S SAKE… LEAVE THE POLITICS TO THOSE ELECTED OFFICIALS YOU VOTED FOR. AND SHUT YOUR SIDE-SEAT-POLITICKING ASSES UP!

    IT IS A MOVIE!

    (Jason silently prepares for the barrage of feeble minded responses that are sure to follow…)

    • sbones says:

      Feeble here,

      Yeah, it’s a movie alright, if you can call it that. You know before we had movies there were books, music, plays, and just a bunch of people sitting around talking to each other. And you know sometimes, things get transferred from one person to another in these gatherings, those are called “ideas.” Within those ideas are a person’s “SIDE-SEAT-POLITICKING ASSES” otherwise known as “opinions.” Don’t let the shiny bright lights and short skirts of Bay’s movies fool you, there are “opinions” being thrown at you and if you’re not totally also by the end you just might remember a few and share them with your best friends on the internet.

  5. Calibre says:

    It’s funny how people think the West has morals and ethics. You don’t! Hollywood and America has always softened history to the West’s favor. Just looks at your allies around the world. The US has allies that are dictators that do the most horrific crimes. Look at the Sultan of Brunei right now getting heat just because he owns the Beverly Hills Hotel. He’s always been an immoral dictator and only until now you think he’s a bad guy because of sharia law where he treats women and gays badly? Only until it affects you is when you see your allies as bad? How selfish! And that’s why you hypocrites don’t care about wrongs in another country unless they don’t serve your interests.

  6. ericshirey says:

    You know what I think? You’re taking a summer popcorn flick waaaayyy to seriously and reading into it a “message” that’s not really there.

    I also like how you state there’s no comprehensible plot, but then go on to explain the non-existent plot to prove some made-up theory accusing Bay and Spielberg of being both rascist AND anti-American.

    You want to know why Bay went to the Chinese for funding of his movie? He needed more money to blow more crap up and move the film’s action to another country. That’s it. No hidden agenda. He just wanted more money.

    • Lee Russell says:

      “You’re taking a summer popcorn flick waaaayyy to seriously and reading into it a “message” that’s not really there.”
      You are a mindless audience who doesn’t understand the manipulative semiotics behind the development, production and marketing of a movie. You need to do some reading starting with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and at least Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meanings in the Cinema. In fact your comment shows that you have been correctly brainwashed. You need to get serious about your viewing. Why not read Barthes and Althusser? What’s wrong with that, especially if you like watching Paramount films – the home of Jerry Lewis.

    • sbones says:

      Going to the Chinese to get more money to blow things up in the movie was the point of this article. The part that went over your head was what Bay had to do to get it.

  7. Optimums Predator says:

    And there’s a helpful assist on how to get past statuary rape laws in Texas. Its a delightful little film.

  8. Jammer says:

    Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter made vampires responsible for slavery not white racists. Hollywood has always “rebooted” history to make crimes by the West less than they are. Westerners are blinded by Hollywood’s revisionism because people in the developing world only know Americans through movies and those are to the least exaggerations of the truth. Maybe we shouldn’t take movies like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter seriously? Funny how Hollywood elitists are hypocritically taking Transformers 4 seriously. If you don’t like China, you can always take your ball and go home. But we know you’re not going to do that because true Western values demands getting rich off the backs of others. To which is why we see Hollywood whining about unfairness in China. What unfairness? Hollywood movies account for half of the Chinese box office. Can any other foreign film industry claim half of the US box office? What’s unfair is you don’t see Chinese movies being seen nor making money from the US. Yet Hollywood seem to think the Chinese market is their property hence why they see some crime against them. What we have hear are true Western values rearing its ugly head. And Hollywood is laundering its imperialism to look like a movie business.

  9. american.audience says:

    While I agree that the film’s treatment of the Chinese government is problematic and should not be commended, I would argue that the film functions in its own, anti-subtle, Bayhem-infused manner, as semi-subversive anti-propaganda for the Chinese government. My main argument comes from two points in the film. First, after the elevator fight scene with Li Bingbing and Zou Shiming (Olympic gold-medal winning boxer in a cameo role as Elevator Boxer), Li’s character promises to bring help for Stanley Tucci’s character. The help never arrives and Tucci’s character has to rely on Wahlberg’s Texas family (and the robots) for protection. Second, though the Chinese defense minister promises fighter jets and the fighter jets do come, they appear as background elements in a shot of the Autobots heroically posing on a bridge. In fact, the appearance of the fighter jets is easy enough to miss that multiple reviews made mention of the plane’s lack of appearance (for instance, Clarence Tsui of the Hollywood Reporter). The actual victory is delivered by Optimus Prime, a giant robot the color of the American flag who says lines like “we’re giving you freedom,” helped along by the aforementioned Texas clan of the multiple accents. Bay’s film is not a fan of the American government, but it consistently portrays Americans as the people you turn to when you need a fight won because the Chinese sure can’t provide help in time.

    Additionally, while all of the film’s native English speakers have names given in dialogue, none of the Chinese characters are named (Li Bingbing is credited as Su Yueming, but the character is never referred to as such). The company the film focuses on, KSI, uses China for low-cost manufacturing, while all the design happens in America, playing up general images of America as the world’s brain trust and China as the source of cheap, replaceable labor.

    My source for this argument is seeing the film three times and spending far more time than I should thinking about the politics of the film’s co-production (read into that what you will).

  10. Mr.D says:

    Americans should boycott the film, let the studios know domestic box office should not be taken for granted.

    • Larry says:

      You have to read this book: “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies”

    • LO says:

      I think Bay respected the Japanese more since he put a Japanese robot in the film which has more screen time and more kick ass than a Chinese human character.

      • sbones says:

        @Ed Griffiths I don’t disagree that this movie is infantile and bad on all the levels that you said. I think the author agrees with that too. It doesn’t justify however, the pandering Bay does with the Chinese Government or why he did it for this film. Hollywood may have, and still does use propaganda in their films and there may be more overt examples of it including the Transformers’ first two films which are a nothing more than a collection of car commercials and army recruitment films, but you must see the dangerous precedent that is being set here. Hollywood is salivating on how to get into the Chinese box office and the PRC will continue to force movie studios to continually bend and morph their depictions of their China for their own purposes.

      • Ed Griffiths says:

        I’d just like to say this development is hardly surprising. You go where the money is, you don’t badmouth your investors and those creative compromises have been in cinema from the beginning such as in the government imposed Hays Code of the 1930s. Hollywood has always self-regulated and that inevitably means hypocrisy sometimes. Look at the celebrations of prostitution epitomised by such films as ‘Pretty Woman’. China is a ruthless and murderous totalitarian communist dictatorship with no rule of law or justice for the so-called proletariat and big studios may be taking investment from their corporate surrogates but I don’t see any Chinese marching regiments waving the red flag and singing their national anthem in Michael Bay’s movies. Most Hollywood productions thankfully aren’t propaganda but entertainment. If you’ve never seen a bad propaganda film try some Russian ‘easterns’ of the 1950s and ’60s or films of the Stalinist era that weren’t made by Sergei Eisenstein. Whom Michael Bay references in his films a lot in a fun way! In the end it’s just infantile storytelling and it’s enjoyable toy franchise-based trash. If you want some real intelligence and compassion and empathy try the remarkably smart and subtle recent LEGO movie…

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