The Indefinable Ugliness of Transformers Movies

I don’t like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. I have made no secret of this. I have been trying to rewatch the second movie for almost two years, just so I can rag about what an absolute disaster it is. It’s so bad that I literally have trouble paying attention.

But his movies also have the distinction of being bad movies that I don’t enjoy riffing on. I actually enjoy quite a few bad movies – Van Helsing, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Battlefield Earth, Battleship, Hellboy 2019 – specifically because I enjoy riffing on them and mocking how lousy they are, or occasionally because I want to turn my brain off and watch splosions. Even Twilight has some small amount of enjoyment for me, in that I love pointing at it and yelling, “See? See? This is garbage!”

But I don’t derive any enjoyment from the Transformers movies, and I’m not sure why. They are undeniably bad – almost every aspect of them is at best deeply flawed, and I could write a book on everything wrong with them. There’s plenty wrong. But I had to think about why they are somehow worse than, say, the highly derivative Battleship, which has a similar level of ineptitude, but somehow doesn’t feel quite as bad.

And honestly, it’s kind of hard to put a finger on, but I think it’s just that they feel… ugly. Not visually ugly, although personally I do find them unpleasant visually (why is everyone in the first movie so sweaty?). No, there’s an ugliness in the soul of these movies. An ugliness in the heart. It’s a universe where it feels like nobody is actually good or admirable – we have antagonists who are motivelessly evil, and we have heroes who… don’t feel like good people.

Do you remember the climax of the movie The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee made a stirring speech about how there was good in the world, that it was worth fighting for, and that things would get better eventually? It felt like an extension of the worldview in those films, that there was light and goodness in the world, and that there were noble people who would defend it….

… and the Transformers movies kind of have the opposite effect. There is nothing stirring about these movies, because every character feels like the product of a mean-spirited mind. This is seen in most of the characters – so many of them are either presented in a mean-spirited light (most African-Americans) or they are jerks themselves.

But it’s most displayed in the way that Optimus Prime is depicted. Across the Transformers Optimus is an inherently heroic character – he’s noble, protective, and cares about all life. But the Optimus of the movies is brutal, once ripping a Decepticon’s face right off without a single qualm. He threatened a Dinobot with death if it didn’t serve him and let him ride around on its back. And of course, he gets brainwashed into doing evil stuff, because who wants to see him being heroic?

I’m not saying that Optimus has to be perfect, nor am I saying that there is no room to explore darker themes with heroic characters. But Bay’s handling of Optimus feels like… he’s scoffing at the idea that someone can be good, noble and heroic. Which is probably the case, because in my experience, people who are loathsome tend to really despise people who are good, and believe it’s all fake and those particular people are really corrupt underneath. And, well, Michael Bay is pretty awful as a human being.

So anyway, those are my thoughts about how mean-spirited the Michael Bay Transformers movies feel, and how they differ from other terrible movies.

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