‘Transformers 4’ vs. ‘Snowpiercer’: What Michael Bay and Bong Joon-ho Have in Common

Transformers vs Snowpiercer

REARVIEW: These two politically loaded, commercially calculated action-thrillers share more than just a U.S. release date.

Two action movies opened in U.S. theaters this past weekend. One of them — which you may not have heard of, thanks to the Weinstein Co.’s criminally nonexistent marketing campaign — is “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho’s marvelously imaginative dystopian railway thriller. The other one — which you have undoubtedly heard of and perhaps already seen — is “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” Michael Bay’s brain-dead celebration of stunted male adolescence.

FILM REVIEW: “Transformers: Age of Extinction”

These movies are, to put it mildly, rather different. If “Snowpiercer” offers a master class in tension and pacing, then “Transformers 4” plays like a remedial course in bloat and overkill. Bong’s movie unfolds on a train doomed to forever circle the globe; Bay’s movie trots the globe and feels like it lasts forever. “Snowpiercer” is a resourceful independent production that will, with any luck, translate strong reviews and word of mouth into respectable arthouse success Stateside. “Transformers 4” — which cost more than four times as much to make (let alone market) as “Snowpiercer” — is a critic-proof commercial juggernaut, with box office legs likely even longer than those of its 19-year-old female star, Nicola Peltz. (Mark Wahlberg, who plays the girl’s dad, keeps telling her to put on something over her short shorts. Bay makes sure she never does.)

FILM REVIEW: “Snowpiercer”

But there are crucial similarities between these two movies, as well — and not just because they center around massive, fast-moving mechanical vehicles that reveal themselves to be, ahem, more than meets the eye.

1. Each film represents an ambitious foray into cross-cultural entertainment, aimed at conquering Eastern and Western audiences alike. “Snowpiercer” is the first English-language effort from the Korean auteur behind such brilliant genre hits as “Mother” and “The Host,” and its comparatively large budget and scale, extensive f/x work and eccentric international cast (which includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho) are clear evidence of its multicultural aspirations.

For its part, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” marks the Paramount franchise’s first calculated effort to not just court but also strategically infiltrate the ever more lucrative Chinese market. To that end, the film received a major infusion of mainland production coin and lensed in cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where its final hour of mind-numbing choreographed destruction (or is it two hours? I lost count) takes place. And it, too, features an eccentric international cast that includes not only Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer, but also Chinese stars Li Bingbing and Han Geng (blink and you miss him), plus the voice of Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the samurai-styled Autobot known as Drift.

2. Each film is the work of an auteur. Bong, whose films have played major festivals like Cannes and drawn much acclaim internationally, needs no defense as an auteur. Bay is a trickier case. As discussed in a 2011 Variety piece by David S. Cohen (featuring interviews with me and my colleagues Scott Foundas and Peter Debruge), the intense scorn heaped on the director’s work has been matched by a willingness in some critical circles to engage seriously with it, or at least to acknowledge the distinctiveness and consistency of his fast-cutting, retina-searing, more-is-more aesthetic. No doubt about it, the attentive viewer can immediately tell the difference between a Bay movie and, say, a Tony Scott movie, to cite another maestro of mass demolition. Whether the auteur designation lends Bay’s work any actual artistic heft is more of an open question.

(Bong Joon-ho, director of “Snowpiercer”)

3. Both films faced unusual challenges behind the scenes. Operating to some extent in fish-out-of-water mode, Bong and Bay were forced to grapple with powerful and not altogether trustworthy collaborators. While “Snowpiercer” had a smooth production history and became an immediate hit when it opened last fall in South Korea (where it is currently the 10th highest-grossing domestic release), Bong found himself at loggerheads with his U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein, who, living down to his “Harvey Scissorhands” reputation, called for the film be slashed by 20 minutes from its 125-minute running time for North American audiences.

Still, at least Weinstein didn’t attack Bong with an air-conditioning unit. It was Bay who found himself on the receiving end of said electrical appliance while shooting “Transformers” in Hong Kong, where he was confronted by local thugs demanding a turf fee. As acts of extortion go, it may be a touch extreme, but it does serve as a strangely effective metaphor for the potential challenges facing any American studio filmmaker thinking of venturing into Asia, where straightforward rules and procedures don’t always apply.

That much is clear from the bizarre lawsuit filed against Paramount by Beijing Pangu Investment Co., a real-estate developer and one of the film’s key Chinese sponsors. The company was so angered by Paramount’s promotional strategy — chiefly, its decision not to hold the film’s premiere at the iconic dragon-shaped Pangu Plaza Hotel in Beijing (it premiered in Hong Kong instead) — that it demanded that all shots of the hotel be cut from the film and threatened to delay its Chinese release.

4. In the end, neither director wound up having to cut anything. Thanks to “Snowpiercer’s” proven success in Asia and Europe, as well as the fact that Weinstein’s cut reportedly tested worse than the director’s original version, Bong didn’t have to cut a frame for the film’s eventual Stateside release. An unfortunate condition of that agreement: Rather than getting its initially hoped-for wide release, the film has had to settle for a limited arthouse run (through Radius/TWC) en route to VOD. Even still, it’s heartening that Western audiences are at long last able to see this thrilling, provocative and long-delayed movie as its maker intended it to be seen, an outcome that can’t help but feel like a moral victory.

Back in December, before the situation had been resolved, the critic Tony Rayns noted in Sight & Sound that “Bong is the first East Asian director to challenge (seemingly with some chance of success) Weinstein’s right to re-edit his film.” And given how many Asian films in particular have suffered as a result of Weinstein’s snip-snip, delay-delay tendencies over the years — from Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?” (1996) to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) to Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013) — that precedent matters, and should hopefully help combat the all-too-commonly held notion that serious-minded foreign fare has to be dumbed down for mass consumption.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a mass-consumption movie that would be impossible to dumb down, also didn’t have to lose a frame, as the parties involved managed to settle their dispute. Not that removing a few shots of a dragon-shaped building would have done much to diminish the film’s gaseous 165-minute running time anyway.

Michael Bay at the Hong Kong premiere of 'Transformers: Age of Extinction'(Michael Bay at the Hong Kong premiere of “Transformers: Age of Extinction”)

5. Both films are fascinating political and cultural texts. In the classic Hollywood tradition, “Snowpiercer” serves up a rich sociopolitical allegory wrapped in a feverishly entertaining spectacle. The film may be set in a (hopefully) distant future, but its despairing vision of systemic class oppression and global-warming anxiety is very much rooted in present-day liberal concerns. This is hardly the first time that Bong has confronted such issues while working under the rubric of genre, whether in his satirical 2000 debut, “Barking Dogs Don’t Bite,” or in “The Host,” a monster movie that plays out against a backdrop of man-made pollution, government corruption/incompetence, and general societal collapse. But in its portrait of the last remnants of human civilization huddled under one rickety roof, “Snowpiercer” may be the director’s most trenchant and moving piece of speculative fiction yet, and it confirms Bong as that great rarity among genre filmmakers: a splatter artist with a genuine moral vision.

The exact opposite might be said of Bay, whose characters don’t bleed, and whose aesthetics and worldview are generally in line with those of a Carl’s Jr. commercial. Still, one could scarcely call his stuff apolitical. The “Transformers” movies in particular, full of aggressive militarism and flag-waving patriotic bluster, represent one of the more conservative-skewing blockbuster franchises in recent memory — a trend that reached a sort of apotheosis in 2009’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which featured a subplot dismissing President Obama as a gutless diplomat who would sooner collaborate with the enemy than go to war. (Agree or disagree with his politics, Bay didn’t do his political critique any favors by including two jive-talking robots named Skids and Mudflap, cracking jokes about their own illiteracy.)

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” is, to be fair, a somewhat more complicated beast. Because its plot centers around a U.S.-based Autobot extermination program led by a sinister, warmongering Dick Cheney type (Grammer), the movie doesn’t play like quite the glorified military recruitment video that its predecessors did. And the fact that much of it was produced and shot in Asia undoubtedly lends the film its own unique chow-mein-and-napalm flavor.

It’s clear from the character played by Li Bingbing — she’s basically a collection of martial-arts moves and flat, phonetic line readings — that Bay hasn’t a clue how to engage with Eastern culture, assuming engagement means more than blowing it up and mining it for product placements and stereotypes. None of which is, at this point in Bay’s career, particularly offensive or surprising. Far more revealing, though, is one seemingly throwaway scene in which Chinese officials, hearing about the attack on Hong Kong, vow to send their troops to the rescue — a mainland-pandering scene that the movie dares to put across with a straight face. Bay, who has no compunction about mocking the smugness and inhumanity of the American left, displays no such swagger when it comes to critiquing the government of a foreign superpower. Far be it from this filmmaker to bite the hand that feeds him.

All of which, perhaps, serves to call point No. 2 into question. Bay may well be a consistent visual stylist, but auteurism is more than a matter of migraine-inducing aesthetics. Regardless of cultural or language barriers, a real movie artist expresses a consistent worldview, and has the guts and personal vision to subtly influence — and even subvert — his or her material. But all “Transformers: Age of Extinction” leaves us with is a sense of Michael Bay the happy, mindless conformist, truly a man lost without a teleprompter. Those Autobots may be sophisticated feats of CGI engineering, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t made by a giant tool.

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  1. Steve says:

    I absolutely loved Snowpiercer. It’s so shameful that Weinstein had the sack to try and cut it. Michael Bay represents everything that’s wrong with the American film industry, and in many ways America it’s self. My fellow Americans, please, stop supporting that idiot with your your money, we’re better than that. Support Snowpiercer, and tell the world a film doesn’t have to be stupid to be entertaining.

  2. Jimmi Shrode says:

    Snowpiercer was just engrossing. It was really great. Saw it with a sold out audience. It was mindblowing. I am shocked the Weisteins haven’t tried to take this movie into wider release. It is a rel contender. Chris evans is amazing as a Thinking-Feeling Action Actor.

  3. johnxkane says:

    I saw Snow Piercer in Bangkok and wooow! It shouldn’t be missed and really does have meaning regarding the way the world is changing. The train is a great metaphor for the world we are all traveling on through space. With the huge income inequality the USA is suffering from, the train can be / should be a rallying point for change.

  4. Josh says:

    Does no one here get that Transformers is just an action movie that was not meant to have a great plot and story line. Everyone could predict what the outcome would be before the movie even ended. Whoever goes to see it with the expectations of it being an in-depth movie is trying to hard to be a critic. T 4 was a great movie for what it was. Also, can’t wait to see Snowpiercer

  5. I very much liked Transformers 4 and enjoyed it very much. And I’ve seen posters of Snowpeicer and I’ve not seen a trailer for it. You didn’t really give much of a reason why I should see it. Felt like you rather wrote the article on why you thought Transformers 4 was bad then give a good review on why I should see Snowpiercer.

  6. Marc Reichardt says:

    IT’s not Bong’s vision. It’s the vision of Jean-Marc Rochette, who presented it in the comic Le Transperceneige. In that respect, you missed another similarity between the two, as they’re both based on comics.

  7. Michael Song says:

    I have seen the Snowpiercer and it is one of the best thrilling movies that you could have asked for. Highly recommended.

  8. Matt says:

    What a waste of an article. Tenuous similarities at best. Did you even see the movie? Not ONCE did Mark Wahlberg tell Peltz to put something on over her short shorts – ONCE he makes a comment that her cut-offs are getting shorter by the minute.
    Have some pride, don’t get on the “let’s slam Michael Bay” bandwagon, because you think more people will side with you.

    • Mr.Torture says:

      Indeed, the shorts reference is absolutely irrelevant and minor contribution to this movie’s overall dumbness. I’m sure, there will be (and there already are) many reviews exposing all weaknesses of this movie, so I’m not going to write an essay on what is (or maybe more precisely what is not) wrong with this movie. And yeah, I know it’s a movie about giant robots smashing each other and everything around them, bla bla, therefore not the one to be taken extra seriously. But even with bar lowered that low, this is still one mess of a movie, with no head or tail. From tons of literally dumb dialogues (not even pathetic as they used to be before, but plain dumb this time), to absolutely illogical, irrational and irrelevant actions during the whole movie, from all main characters (robots and humans), just for the sake of plot serving. Or should we speak about almost three hours running time, packing substance insufficient for a regular hour-and-half movie. Or speaking about so much famed Bay-esque trademark action, it’s gone beyond stupid. Starting with barn scene, where the helicopter is following Optimus in its still crippled state, and missing every shot from 20 meters distance like Stevie Wonder is piloting it, and following almost every scene after that. And how about all kinds of super advanced robot weapons, having a mortality efficiency of new year firecrackers. Blasting boms and what-not, all around humans, are serving like a smoke and fire decorations, more that lethal weapons, making all action looks as relevant as power rangers action.
      And one more thing, before you call someone a “hater” or something, get some more facts supporting your opinion. I wasn’t entering the cinema with any prejudice towards Bay at all, and I expected, if nothing, a little bit better movie than earlier parts were. What I get, is two and half hours of a total mess.
      PS: Comparing this movie to Snowpiercer, in any regards aside kabooom-tras-bam-bang, is insult to human intelligence.

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