One of the strange and wonderful film surprises of late 2018 was the success of Bumblebee. The spinoff/prequel to the five main entries in the Transformers franchise did fairly well in the box office this past December and accrued surprising critical support for a series that has traditionally been the laughingstock of the critical press. The success is coming in the aftermath of rumors that the sixth plan sequel to the franchise has been indefinitely shelved and that Paramount might be doing a sequel to Bumblebee. Maybe that success isn’t surprising. Director Travis Knight broke out in 2016 with the cult stop-motion animated film Kubo and the Two Strings and his success with these two films has him slated as the rumored replacement option to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
While I’ve been happy for everyone involved that the franchise has turned its reputation, I’ll be honest and say that I historically haven’t been on the same side as most. As embarrassing as it can be to admit it, I actually have fond memories of watching the first three Transformers movies back in high school and fondly enjoying them. I was sixteen when Transformers: Dark of the Moon was released in theaters. At that point, I had already watched the first two movies on DVD multiple times on lazy weekends. Maybe it was a side effect of being exactly the right age to get swept off my feet by movies specifically designed to appeal to teenage boys but I look back on the films quite fondly as a result.
I should clarify that I don’t believe the films have at all held up to recent viewing. Transformers is the only one of the series up until recently that maintained any semblance of narrative functionality. The sequels have managed to become progressively longer and more tedious as they’ve gone along. I recall seeing Transformers: The Last Knight and interpreting it vaguely as white noise beyond critical appraisal. Critics more reputable and less nostalgic than myself have said that The Last Knight is the most abysmal one in the series however I have no meaningful gauge of that. Though, it was certainly the least appealing to me by the standards that made the series fun in the first place as a high schooler.
There has been a great deal of retroactive film criticism in recent years by prominent online film critics like Lindsey Ellis and Patrick H. Willems about what the Transformers series means and why it was popular. The results are all over the place but there is a combined desire to reanalyze Michael Bay’s filmography and try to understand why his films have become so financially successful in spite of their overall creative failures. While I have no desire to relitigate the relative strengths and failures of the films as I agree that they’re not good I wanted to at least throw my insight into the ring in terms of what I think these films represent and have represented to me.
People tend to instantly dismiss the Transforms franchise for their obvious failures and I understand why. They’re clearly meant to appeal to the sensibilities of teenage boys but few people actually ask what that means. I can attest that my fascination with the movies had little to do with my fascination with fast cars and pretty women. I wasn’t interested in cars growing up and I wasn’t terribly interested in the female characters in these movies. Like most popular art, the thing that makes these films interesting in the subtext and how it uses its set pieces and characters to express emotions and ideas. While these films are clearly exploitative, I think the early films in this franchise actually do communicate a consistent theme that appealed to me as a teenager.
The appeal can be summarized in the excellent opening scene to the first movie when a Decepticon destroys a US base in the middle east. It’s a tense, hopeless scene of destruction wherein the most powerful army in the world is flattened and left for dead. It effectively sets up the central tension of the film. The Cybertronians have come to Earth and humans can barely stop them. My adolescent mind attracted to this central tension. This is a tension young people live with. When you’re young, you constantly live in the shadows of adults and people more powerful than you. You’re starting to earn responsibilities and yet you have no authority in your life. You are, for all intents and purposes, powerless.
The Transformers in the early movies are presented as larger than life forces of nature. Each one is powerful enough on its own to take on dozens, if not hundreds of humans without taking a scratch. As the movies continue, the characters in them slowly learn how to fight these forces of nature and slowly gain the ability to keep up with them in battle. We see this epitomized in Sam Witwicki’s role in the film. He’s a nervous, awkward teenager that finds himself in over his head when his car comes to life and protects him. By the end of the film, he’s managed to find the power to save the Earth in his hand and his actions end up defeating Megatron. I think the central appeal of the movies in this franchise is the tension of being a human in a world of God-like entities far more powerful than you and believing you can make a difference in that world. It’s the tension of being a young person.
Transformers isn’t the first fiction ever to capture this feeling and it’s far from the best story to do so. The tension of being a mortal caught between Gods battling is a tension we see in the Godzilla franchise. In that series, it served as a very political metaphor for Japan’s geopolitical role in the world as the USA and Russia dueled like all powerful Gods at the behest of smaller countries beneath them with no control of their ultimate destiny. We also see that tension In the extremely popular anime Attack on Titan, where the last elements of humanity are constantly in a state of warfare with monstrous towering beings that only exist to eat them. It’s a powerful metaphor for the feeling of being a young person trapped against unwinnable circumstances on all sides. It’s not even a new story for this century. The earliest stories of men and Gods in the Greek pantheon had this tension.
The ancient Greeks told stories of their Gods being personified power itself and yet they believed their will and whims were far above man’s. They didn’t believe Zeus would answer their prayers. They prayed Zeus wouldn’t arbitrarily crush them on a whim. While these stories are certainly more interesting and relevant than what are largely considered disposable blockbuster films, it’s worth considering that their popularity is a fascinating sign. These stories were told at times in human history when people felt like they were uniquely at a loss for control in their lives.
Powerlessness is a powerful emotion, especially when we’re young. There are a lot of people in the film industry that have looked at the bizarre ubiquity of the Transformers franchise and not been able to put into words why they’re successful. Some people just write them off as mindless middlebrow nonsense. Some dismiss them as racist, sexist nonsense means to exploit sex appeal and offensive stereotypes for audience entertainment. Truthfully I think these films are successful for a reason and it’s the reason I’ve discussed. These movies speak to people who don’t feel like their in control of their lives. Maybe that says something about the world we live in. As society grows less willing to grapple with faith, one of the most popular movie franchises is a movie merely about being able to stand up to the forces that are astronomically more powerful than yourself and prove that you’re not powerless against them. Maybe that’s a more desperate kind of story than we realize.
According to Pew Research, Millennials are 26% religiously unaffiliated, twice that of baby boomers at the time when they were the same age comparatively. 18% of people under the age of thirty say they were raised religious and have not sought out a new religion. This has coincided with this franchise becoming one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. While it’s possible that many young people may return to their faith as they grow older as other generations have before, the millennial generation is largely living in a state of uncertainty and fear about their place in the world. They see themselves as the inheritors of arbitrary meaningless circumstances that exist to chew them up and spit them out.
There is a desperate call for grace that can be found in the popularity of these movies. As faith gradually falls out of these people’s lives it contributes to the chaos they perceive in the world. They want the catharsis of feeling like they can be on par with the cruel and arbitrary forces that rule the universe. As Christians, we know that the swirling difficulty of the universe isn’t chaotic and that we’re in God’s hands. There is a need in society for faith and as Christians, we need to be prepared to help people find it.
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