The advertorial origins of Transformers come full circle with the arrival of Transformers: Age of Extinction to create the definitive infomercial blockbuster. Somewhere a bunch of marketing people in suits are high-fiving each other.
After seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction I was flabbergasted to define what I had just seen. I felt like Dorothy waking up at the end of The Wizard of Oz, seeing the familiar elements of what I know to be a film, but unable to properly place them within the context of standard movie making. Big movie star Mark Wahlberg, you were there. Luscious Industrial Light and Magic special effects magic, you were there. And Michael Bay’s bronzed beefcake slice of slightly racist and sexist Americana, you were there too. All of the ingredients were there but Transformers: Age of Extinction cannot be defined as a film. I had seen people blatantly plug sodas (World War Z and Pepsi) and the obligatory cut-to-mobile phone screen promotion (almost every film in the modern era) but this was something else.
The origins of the Transformers cartoon is no secret to anyone. It was a (not so) thinly veiled commercial for toys that plugged into the powerful entity of ‘pester power’ within a household. Each episode would feature the good Autobots fighting the evil Decepticons and it would usually end with the Decpticons making a ‘tactical retreat’. Once the episode was finished children would rush to their parents to demand their own Optimus Prime. Multiply this across a majority of 1980s cartoons and you’ve got big business for the Transformer parent company Hasbro. The weird part is that a whole generation developed an emotional attachment to these cartoons that has since evolved into nostalgia and a four film mega bucks franchise for Paramount Pictures; get them while they’re young.
Product placement is not new in big studio films as best showcased in the Morgan Spurlock documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Just last year Man of Steel attracted over 100 ‘promotional global partners’ to generate over $160 million before a single ticket was sold. Superman was crashing through ads and at one point he throws a truck covered in commercials at a foe during the climactic battle sequence. Truth, justice and the American way used to be the mantra of Superman but now it’s Walmart, Gillette and the Carl’s Jr way. This is amateur hour compared to what Bay spruiks in Age of Extinction.
Bay treats the screen like a billboard in Age of Extinction and the story is viewed as a nuisance. Action sequences and story beats are placeholders for advertising. It baffles the mind to imagine screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, sitting down and write scenes with specific instructions to incorporate brands. This isn’t just an assistant director tapping Bay on the shoulder during the shoot and saying “in this scene it would be great if the character could be holding an iPhone to keep Apple happy”. There is a scene in Age of Extinction where Wahlberg’s character crashes a spaceship into a Bud Light truck. The camera lingers on frosty beers strewn about the wreckage. A man approaches Wahlberg to confront him about the damage to his car and Wahlberg tells him to relax, picks up a Bud Light and breaks it open for a sip. In this moment the argument that the Transformer movies shouldn’t be taken too seriously because they’re just based on toy commercials gets incinerated because there is something quite sinister about a beer commercial buried in a film targeted at kids. Sure, they’re probably going after the dads and the dude-bros but a line has definitely been crossed and it blurs the line between where the film ends and the commercials begin. Even a scene where a My Little Pony figurine turns into a machine gun (an unintentional piece of satire that works) seems highly irregular, but Hasbro and Paramount seem quite happy to promote pink ponies and the harbingers of death in the same heartbeat.
More advertising malarkey comes from Stanley Tucci’s billionaire scientist character who carries Transformer technology that turns into a set of Beats speakers. Tucci thrusts the product into the camera; he might as well just be giving the audience the middle finger. Tucci is a superb actor but it’s disheartening watching him continually push products. His absolute worst offense happens in a scene where he seeks refuge from explosions on a rooftop and pulls out a clearly labelled juice box of nutrient water for consumption in a scene that runs for almost 30 seconds.
During my screening of Age of Extinction a young man behind me was constantly in awe of the shiny cars and I felt bad that his mind was lost in a car commercial rather than a genuine piece of entertainment. During the big action there is always a billboard promoting something in the foreground and in one explosive slow-motion sequence a group of Transformers dive through a heavily labelled Victoria’s Secret bus. When did Victoria’s Secret get a freaking bra bus that regularly does laps around the streets of Hong Kong?!?
Speaking of Hong Kong, Age of Extinction takes a bloated detour through China as if to service the needs of that gigantic market and the associated investors. As Hollywood studios haemorrhage cash on $200 million flops that the American box office, they are increasingly chasing the international dollar and China is holding the biggest carrot. Only recently, Marvel Studios and Disney partnered with Chinese investors on Iron Man 3 that paved the way for a completely different cut of the film with a subplot designed to appease the overseas funding overlords. As the Chinese economy looms as a funding powerhouse, we may be seeing multiple blockbusters taking a similar route with special investor fan service. There is nothing wrong with an international plot device working within the bounds of a great story (see Pacific Rim and Looper), but if it’s just following the gold, no thanks.
With Age of Extinction you get what has been paid for which doesn’t feel like entertainment. It’s manipulation of the highest order, something that advertising, marketing and promotional gurus will celebrate because they’ve been able to sell products behind explosions and ridiculously good looking people frowning at scenery. They all think we’re a bunch of dumb dumbs. Age of Extinction fulfils on the promise established in those cartoons from the 1980s in establishing the ABCs of sales: always be closing. Bay is closing the deal in every single scene of Age of Extinction and I heartily call bullshit on behalf of the intellect of the audience that’s perceived to be so easily undermined.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW