China in Your (Giant Metal) Hand

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Michael Bay movie Transformers: Age of Extinction. If you haven’t watched it yet… don’t bother.

“Why is the huge space magnet picking up every metal thing in Hong Kong, except the one car that it’s actually tracking?”

I’ve always been a bit of a film nerd. I don’t watch as many films as I used to, because I find most of them formulaic, predictable and thoroughly underwhelming. Plus I usually annoy people by saying, ten minutes in “well that guy’s on the way to pick up his kids, who think he’s a loser, from his ex-wife” or “she kidnapped herself,” or “she’s an ex-Nazi war criminal who can’t read, isn’t she?”

This evening, I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction. It hasn’t renewed my faith in movies.

I’m puzzled that Edward D. Wood Jnr. holds the legendary distinction of ‘worst film director ever’, mainly because there’s a film director called Michael Bay. His filmography includes such notable arse as Armageddon, The Rock and the Transformers movies. I have nothing personally against Michael Bay. It’s just that once I was watching a double bill of Bad Boys and Bad Boys II and the electricity cut out about ten minutes from the end of the sequel and I realized, swearing in the dark and wondering if I had a torch, that it wasn’t actually humanly possible for me to give less of a shit how a movie ended.

I still don’t know or care. Maybe something explodes for some reason.

When one critic asked Michael Bay the question on everyone’s lips (basically, and I’m paraphrasing here, “why are your films so shit”) Michael Bay pointed out (and I’m paraphrasing again) that he actually made them for fifteen-year-old boys and that it wasn’t actually a crime. In my opinion, making propaganda movies about Pearl Harbour in the wake of 9/11 xenophobia and aiming it at fifteen-year-olds should be a crime, but maybe that’s just me?

From what I know of film history, Michael Bay started (like the much better filmmaker David Fincher) as an intern for George Lucas. I know I’m in a minority, but I don’t consider George Lucas a particularly great filmmaker, either. At the risk of giving people a little too much credit, Lucas and his mate Steven Speilberg (along with some other filmmakers of the late seventies) essentially created the ‘blockbuster’ era of filmmaking. To me, it’s synonymous with the dumbing down of mainstream Hollywood movies, ushering in decades of big-budget films that are good, but only ‘McDonalds’ good; The reason you crave them is because they’re salty and sugary and addictive, with the same amount of nourishment and nutritional value as a trestle table.

To me, the trouble is that most of these films are for fifteen-year-old boys, but they’re being watched and taken seriously by grown ups. If you’ve ever read the brilliant novel Jaws by Peter Benchley and compared it to the film version, the movie is undeniably great. But it contains none of the subtleties of the novel, and all of the ‘grown-up’ stuff such as Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife and Quint’s foul mouthed tirades are completely excised. A similar fate befell First Blood, which unleashed the Reaganite all-American serial killer John Rambo upon the world.

Spielberg once said that he felt he had to make Schindler’s List as an apology for turning the Nazis into comic book villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark (coincidentally, the first film that Michael Bay interned on). Stanley Kubrick, who gave up on his own epic Holocaust project The Aryan Papers after Spielberg began his, once bemoaned that the problem with Shindler’s List was that it’s about ‘success’, when the Holocaust was, in reality, all about failure.

So I’ve got nothing personally against these filmmakers, other than their often irresponsible filmmaking (I previously used Saving Private Ryan as an example of American whitewashing of history*). Neither have I got anything personally against Transformers. I grew up on the cartoon show as a kid (Beast Wars anyone? Anyone?), and rediscovered it on DVD a few years back. I even applied for a job writing transmedia content for the franchise,** a job I no doubt would have enjoyed. Looking back, I find the original programme a little too violent for my sensibilities and, no matter how naive and un-cynical you are, it can’t be seen as much more than an advert for Hasbro’s line of action figures. Did anyone else wonder why so many characters ended up dying, only to have shiny new characters appear out of nowhere with the wisecracking guest vocals of Eric Idle?

I have several beefs with the Age of Extinction movie, which I know you are all very concerned about, so read on:

Firstly, like most of Michael Bay’s films, there’s a lot of product placement (not just for action figures, but for other more subtle things that fifteen-year-old boys might want their parents to buy them). For those unfamiliar with the questionable practice of ‘product placement’, it’s the filmmaking equivalent of giving lucifer a big hand job, where advertisers offer money or revenue streams to film studios in return for James Bond using a Remington razor or Captain Kirk ordering a Budweiser. For example, I found it unlikely, as well as morally reprehensible, that the clones in Michael Bay’s The Island,*** who live in a near-future underground colony cut off from human civilization, play the XBox.

Secondly, in case you were wondering what the hell this blog post has to do with China, the film commits another cardinal sin that always makes my shit-list. It’s a worrying trend in Hollywood movies of late.

The Chinese government only licenses ten or eleven foreign movies to be screened yearly, which is why there is no Chinese word for ‘Michael Cerra’. Every single one of these movies has to adhere to strict censorship laws and none of them are allowed to portray China in anything other than a flattering light. A lot of films try to adhere to these rules just to be in with a chance of reaching the Chinese market (which is why patient zero in World War Z, a Chinese person in the novel, became a Taiwanese person in the Brad Pitt movie).

About a third of Age of Extinction is set in Beijing and Hong Kong. Lukfook jewelry and Ice Dew spring water (owned by Coca Cola) both get screen time amid the carnage of giant robots kicking the crap out of other giant robots with assistance from the Chinese Air Force. It’s also made explicitly clear that one of the reasons that Stanley Tucci’s balding fatass is constantly fawning over Li BingBing’s character is that she trained with the Chinese police before studying for her MA (which, in Michael Bay Land, counts as character development). It even earns her the affectionately patronizing nickname ‘princess’.

Ah, which brings us to our next point…

There are three female characters in the movie. One is Chinese (Tick!) One is a nineteen-year-old blonde who has two handsome men arguing over who has the right to ‘protect’ her. The third, Sophia Miles, has about ten minutes of screen time and, I assume, only turned up because she wanted a trip to China.

Also, for a film that’s constantly on about patriotism and how great the U.S. Of A is, Bay doesn’t seem to spot the irony behind an intergalactic menace, a highly-trained black ops guy and Kelsey Grammer’s government douchebag all being brought down in Hong Kong by a stubbly young Irish bloke, Chinese jet pilots, and a bunch of giant alien robots (one of which, as if Hollywood is hedging its Asian bets, wears a Samurai hat, speaks in haikus and sounds suspiciously like character actor Ken Watanabe).

Finally, can we talk about the casting of Mark Wahlberg as an inventor and roboticist? Yes, you heard correctly: that’s Marky Mark, late of the Funky Bunch (a man once interviewed wearing a wrist splint because he fell over playing the Nintendo Wii), portraying a bespectacled creator of automaton. Call me crazy, but I personally found him slightly more appropriately cast in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, playing a meathead bodybuilder who’s audacious kidnapping plan was brought down by the fact that he had the IQ of a cheese sandwich.

Michael Bay’s next film, 13 Hours, about an American security team defending a diplomatic compound in Benghazi from Islamic extremists, will be released in July 2016.

It hasn’t received a license to be screened in China.

*(see previous blog:

**(see previous blog:

***(an easy contender for the accolade of ‘shittest film ever’)