‘Transformers’ And The Necessity Of Judging Books By Their Covers

…Or, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck About Trans5mers

The general perception of people who write about movies is that trying to see every movie is part of our jobs — how else to develop the most informed opinions about movies? While I acknowledge the general soundness of that logic, I think it’s also true that repeated forced viewings of every terrible movie that comes out is harmful to the brain, and we must take certain steps to protect ourselves. We weren’t built for constant hate watching, to constantly force-view movies we had no interest in. There are a number of older critics whose deterioration speaks to the truth of this. There are times when seeing certain movies not only doesn’t help with the forming of valuable opinions, it’s an active hindrance.

Yes, I’m speaking here of Transformers: The Last Knight, though it’s certainly not the only example (the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Man’s Corpse or whatever, also comes to mind). And no, I don’t need to see the latest Transformers movie. I think not seeing it is the proper response. Seeing the latest Transformers movie wouldn’t help me be a better film critic any more than tasting the longest-rotating, most crinkly-skinned gas station hot dog would make me a better food critic. All it would do is trash my palate. That’s not to paint myself as overly delicate, it’s just impossible not to experience these things on a continuum of recent experience. (Would you enjoy All Eyez On Me as much as I did? Probably only if you’d just seen Book of Henry and The Mummy.)

Maybe if this was a brand new gas station I’d never had a hot dog from before, and I hadn’t already donated six-plus hours of my life to their dull, pointlessly complex, incomprehensibly shot hot dogs, than yeah, maybe I’d sample another. But at this point I’d just be knowingly poisoning myself. No thanks, man. You don’t always know, but sometimes you know.

I know, it sounds offensive, to judge an artist’s work sight unseen, but we’re not talking about art here. And nothing against the Transformers franchise, I’ve certainly seen worse. Its job is to sell toys, and that’s fine. Kids need toys. (What else are we going to do, play with them?) But at a certain point the movie industry shifted the bulk of its resources towards intellectual property maintenance, and treating that the way we treat art or storytelling or hell even schlock (I love schlock), only legitimizes the idea that they’re the same.

Assuming the audience’s desire is to see something new, our goals are actively at odds with the studios’, who invariably make the biggest deal and spend the most money trying to maintain their big-name properties (Transformers, Pirates Of The Caribbean) — which are usually based on pre-existing non-movie things to begin with — or on trying to resurrect things they already own. Or maybe even trying to jump start “new” #content universes based on old properties (The Mummy). It’s almost unheard of to see a big promotional push for something that could even generously be considered “new.”

That may make some (timid) business sense, trying to squeeze money out of a properties you already own (can’t have this mummy just sitting down here collecting dust!) and basing future earnings potential on past performance (which ignores the law of diminishing returns, but that’s another story), but what does the audience get out of that?

Nothing. We get nothing. Or more accurately, we get recycled content, and we get some of our best and brightest filmmakers, actors, visual effects artists, etc. diverted from passion projects to expend their finite artistic energy on helping maintain a multi-national’s ancillary revenue stream. It’s somewhat inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we have to participate (let alone cheer it on). There isn’t any difference, artistically, between the fifth direct-to-DVD American Pie sequel and the new Transformers, and I resent the implication that we have to treat the latter as a “happening.” If you’re an investor, it’s a big deal. If you’re a moviegoer, it’s just not. It’s a sad echo of a sad echo.

It’s not surprising that they’d attempt such a thing; it’s surprising how uncannily successful they’ve been at it. If you don’t write about movies for a living, I pray that it’s kept you insulated from the Marvel/DC wars. See, in order to get people interested in their products sight unseen (which is essentially what a big franchise requires, to get people as invested in a brand as in an individual movie), the studio system as a whole has pulled this strange trick of creating not just movie fans, but thousands of fantasy studio execs.

People don’t just want to see and discuss a movie, they want to advocate for their favorite #brand. If you’re a DC fan, that means arguing your interpretation of Batman V Superman‘s box office totals, blaming RottenTomatoes for negative reviews, or advancing the theory that Disney has been paying critics to give Marvel movies better reviews. DC fans might be the most egregious, but every franchise/brand/content universe has its unhinged superfans. Have you ever seen the video of a fan confronting David O. Russell to demand he cast Nathan Fillion in an Uncharted movie? That’s a classic Fantasy Studio Exec move. There really are people out there who treat #brands like their neighbor Dave, just because someone was smart enough to make that brand’s logo a human face.

Point being, if you just want to see, you know, a good movie and you don’t get any vicarious satisfaction from successfully maintained intellectually property, there’s no reason to treat Transformers or Pirates Of The Caribbean as “events.” Those are things for an investor to get excited about, not an audience. The more we talk about them like they’re a thing, the more it legitimizes the idea that they are a thing.

They’re baby food. Yes, kids will eat it and many will seem satisfied afterwards — heck, adults might too, if they get stoned enough — but that doesn’t mean we have to stand around pretending to have intelligent conversations about baby food. In fact, it’s probably making us dumber. In this media environment, judging a book by its cover isn’t a sin, it’s a necessity.