Politics & Policy

Static Odysseys: Transformers 4 and Snowpiercer

One is Bay and Spielberg; the other is arty action: Both go nowhere fast.

The abandoned-movie-theater scene in Transformers: Age of Extinction is too loaded to ignore. The franchise’s new characters — inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and best friend Lucas (T. J. Miller) — find junked material to repair and restore in a dilapidated cinema full of broken seats, rusty 35mm reels — and mortar shells left over from warfare with the Decepticon robots that “changed life as we know it.”

It’s unmistakable that movies as we used to know them have changed; the cinema owner tells Yeager that movies are “Junk. Sequels and remakes; that kind of crap,” And the Transformers movies can never been accused of irony.

Director Michael Bay suffers no illusion about being a junk dealer, He’s without “art” pretenses and for that reason can freely create images of astounding size, grandeur, speed, and audacity. This fourth Transformers film has enough explosions, mechanical metamorphoses, and crumbling architecture to make more sequels unnecessary. Cade’s tinkering with a disused truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime, the lead Autobot now wrecked, rusted, and shellshocked, puts Yeager and Tessa into a new war offensive, moving across the globe against the Decepticons (portrayed as stock action-movie figures), the duplicitous government, and a scheming digital-age Steve Jobs/Tony Stark–style industrialist.

The plot, barely comprehensible, hardly matters. When a CIA official (Kelsey Grammer) commands “Release the mini-drones!” and we see some futuristic gizmos buzzing into the air, the reference, though vague, is one of the blatantly political memes fluttering amid the non-stop spectacular chaos. Like the action sequences, the political overload is just noise. Producer Steven Spielberg joins with Hasbro, original manufacturer of the Transformer toys, to make a post-9/11 E.T. offshoot in which Yeager, a grown-up American kid still obsessed with his daughter‘s adolescent urges, loves toys and aliens, which loom enormous — a projection of his will and his desperate imagination. In a genuinely shocking moment, one character is immobilized like Lot’s wife, a pillar of burning, smoking metal — an astonishing emblem of post-9/11 sadness worthy of Spielberg’s great War of the Worlds.

But aside from a father-daughter separation scene (also reminiscent of War of the Worlds and almost as powerful as D. W. Griffith’s primal family severing), Age of Extinction stays consistently affectless. It’s overstuffed with kid stuff. Yeager gets hold of a Decepticon weapon and exclaims, “This alien gun kicks ass!” Bay’s commercials background and pitchman’s instinct are in high gear — exhaustingly so. Yet Bay’s intuitive childlike projection of awe, fear, potency and cornball hope justifies the film’s political echoes as part of a 21st-century gestalt. (This also explains the success of last year’s Pain & Gain, the one time Bay worked with a first-rate screenplay.) Snob alert: Age of Extinction’s action is no less excessive than Grand Budapest Hotel.

In Bay’s climactic shot, Yeager and others stare open-mouthed when pandemonium surrounds them. We don’t see what they see — which critic Gregory Solman has previously pointed out as a fault in Bay’s montage. Too much of Age of Extinction flashes by without clarity. The journey from explosion to explosion, battle to battle, is a frantic but strangely static Odyssey.

***

The infantilization of movie culture continues with Snowpiercer, another futuristic dystopic scam geared to those raised on comic-book fantasy and Quentin Tarantino’s jokey sadism. The joke and fantasy extend to politics in the film’s hyperbolized depiction of oppression and revolt.

It all takes place on a train — a metaphor for headlong social deterioration. This speeding microcosm of yet another post-apocalyptic world separates the proletariat and ruling classes by linked cars (slaves in back, rulers up front near the engine). After a global-warming experiment fails, the pell-mell trip pierces snowy, presumably uninhabitable vastness — so the international zoo of motley passengers are told. They are controlled by a cartoonish buck-toothed bureaucrat androgyne: Mr. Mason (Tilda Swinton showing off a sibilant Margaret Thatcher spoof). But heroic, disbelieving malcontent Curtis (Chris Evans, a depressed Captain America) resists. Tired of eating manufactured protein and fed up with enduring show trials wherein Mr. Mason and thugs humiliate and thin out the rabble, Curtis itches for revolution.

Despite the half-digested Solzhenitsyn hardships and Orwell platitudes run amok, the historical and literary political parallels don’t work. Korean director Bong Joon Ho (who did the overrated monster flick The Host) belongs to that Tarantino–Alfonso Cuaron school of fantasists who reference a jumble of historical terrors (a famous icon of the Vietnam War occurs) but ignores all ideological meaning. Snowpiercer’s mindless fantasy requires a gullible audience pre-sold on “cleverness” so that Curtis and mob’s march forward from car to car (fighting with batons against axes and guns) gives the illusion of progress while simply following obvious, static-Odyssey plot conventions.

As politically jejune as Inglourious Basterds and Children of Men, Snowpiercer demonstrates ideological inertia. Each train compartment’s jury-rigged social structure (from prison conditions to police state to deluxe creature-comfort privilege) merely offers assorted combat scenarios — including a cliché night-vision massacre. There’s no development of political ideas, just an art-movie hoax: Curtis switches white man’s burden with Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), a drug-addicted Korean martial artist and magician. Bong Joon Ho’s standby hero (and surrogate?) doesn’t improve the eventual simple-minded speeches about fascism vs. democracy or the contradictory patronizing depiction of non-white characters. All this is just a distraction from the film’s stupidly commercial formula. Snowpiercer’s movie-theater passengers get sidetracked with a childish fantasy that reduces revolution to a violent relay race.

— Film critic Armond White is author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.

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