15 years ago, Michael Bay made the most overrated sci-fi movie of the century
Robots (and quality) in disguise!
I wasn’t exactly proud of the fact that I’d never seen a single Transformers movie until Rolling Stone called The Last Knight 2017’s “most toxic movie.” By then, I was just relieved to have opted out. For the most part, I merely accepted their existence like I did many film series of the era. I'd given the first few Saw and Step Up movies a watch, and even the first Fast and Furious. But I never bothered with Michael Bay’s most profitable venture. 15 years later, I can’t decide if I should regret or celebrate that decision.
It's not that I'm opposed to a good — or dumb — action movie. I watched pretty much all of the MCU from the beginning; Blade and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from the ‘90s were on constant rewatch during my childhood. I just instinctively knew the Transformers movies were not for me. Finally watching the 2007 movie in 2022 feels like cringe-filled whiplash.
The plot is straightforward enough: Alien robots wage an intergalactic war and wind up on Earth for plot device reasons to duke it out in a spectacular CGI extravaganza. In the middle is a whole lot of humans, but mainly the teenage Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his love interest Mikaela Banes, played by Megan Fox in her breakout role. This movie and the franchise it spawned were always meant to be big dumb fun, but it's rare for such lowbrow ambitions to clock in at about 150 minutes in nearly every outing.
Whatever, I've been more inefficient with my time.
It's hard to even imagine it, but there was a time when Shia LaBeouf gave us more reasons to like him than to abhor him. Audiences had no problem with him as a relatable, goofy surrogate. 2007 it was a mere four years after his time as a child star in the popular Disney Channel series Even Stevens, and LaBeouf had only begun showing his potential for a long career. He worked alongside bankable actors like Will Smith in I, Robot and Keanu Reeves in Constantine. But Transformers was the first time he took the lead in a big-budget blockbuster. (It helps that he had a lot of help in the form of some very recognizable genre actors, namely John Turturro, Jon Voight, Anthony Anderson, and Tyrese Gibson to name a few.)
Shia has of course long since been banished from the franchise, relegated to goofy cameos suggesting Sam Witwicky’s untimely death in later films.
Megan Fox would later experience her own difficulties, although much of them could be traced to the vicious misogyny of the 2000s. You could argue that her introduction to audiences — as an objectified sex symbol that panders to the male gaze with little agency of her own — didn't do her any favors. Fox would spend much of her subsequent career in a mostly uphill battle crawling her way out of that small box Transformers put her in.
As love interest Mikaela Banes, she is an embodiment of the Cool Girl long before it became a bonafide thing. The way the camera lingers lasciviously over Fox's body when she's under the hood of a car effortlessly demonstrating her ... mechanical prowess ... is likely why Shia didn't have much in the way of distinguishing characteristics, either. As the relatable everyman, he doesn’t need to. Like his robot friends, Sam transforms into something else: a blank slate on which every dude in the world can project their fantasies.
And those fantasies involve bullets, girls, and cars — lots of cars, some of them capable of speaking.
Sam loves these cars so much that he bonds with them far more than he does the humans around him, including Mikaela. It’s the male version of the Cinderella fantasy. Saving the world and getting the hot girl doesn’t require skills or talent. In this case, Sam inherits the right to become a savior, which is to say he doesn’t need to lift a finger to earn it. Sam himself is of little importance as an everyday average guy. He’s just descended from the brave human explorer who first encountered the alien robots many years ago. Sam just happens to find the pair of glasses that can lead the alien cars to the MacGuffin.
To view this movie in 2022 is to experience a visual time capsule that’s more bizarre than usual considering how stuffed to the brim it is with straight cis white male entitlement. Sam’s defining problem at the outset is getting first, and the first conflict is with his father for refusing to buy him a Porsche. His world is firmly upper-middle-class and white, populated by women who look like supermodels and run around screaming in heels. There’s even a throwaway line confirming that Sam’s dad is head of the Neighborhood Watch. This is a place and time so terrifyingly heteronormative that less than 10 minutes in, a hot blonde wife reassures her brave soldier husband with a smile that their infant daughter laughed instead of farted. “She’s a lady,” after all.
There may be a surprising number of women and people of color, but it’s the kind of half-assed diversity where stereotypes run rampant. How many men today look back on this movie with wistful nostalgia, longing for a vanished America that never existed? In many ways, it’s a blueprint for what a man should be able to achieve despite earning none of it.
Despite all this, I'm not one to scapegoat pop culture, because this franchise would be one hell of a convenient target. I love a good “bad movie” that’s a product of its era, but this is a rare case where watching it has increased my disdain rather than reduce it. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes the effort to evolve characters, storylines, and protagonists to roll with the times.
Transformers, however, seems determined to avoid evolution and cultural progress at large. Sequels and prequels alike abandoned Shia for his increasingly erratic and downright sinister behavior, with multiple women accusing him of abuse. And with a few exceptions, many Transformers movies wind up feeling aggressively regressive (or so I am told).
There’s no shortage of desire for dumb, regressive escapism. With multiple movies slated for the next few years, Transformers won’t slow down anytime soon — even if it should.