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

Bay, Spielberg and Paramount kowtow for cash

Transformers Age of Extinction

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.