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I rarely write posts about popular culture, but I felt impacted enough by seeing this movie to comment on it.
[Spoilers ahead, so don't read further if you want to see the movie first.]
As anyone who watches Michael Bay movies knows, his main characters are actually the American flag and explosions. He has an old-timey perception of America, but also mixes it in with how modern culture is. And this makes his settings and characters (well, in this case, human characters) seem misplaced, like people from somewhere between the 50s and 80s get superimposed on the present day. This movie is the same. The acting isn't terrible, but we keep getting fed this wholesome American setting and getting the flag thrown in our faces constantly. So the human characters don't seem like real, modern day people. Mark Wahlberg is a sort of wacky widower dad, struggling to take care of his 17 year old daughter. He is depicted as bumbling and bad at being a father, but the daughter is never horribly misandrist to her father. They have arguments, especially over her secret boyfriend, an alpha male race car driver. He's 20 and she is 17. Walberg's character points this out, but the boyfriend mentions a "Romeo and Juliet" law that makes it permissible legally. I thought this was unrealistic because in real life America, these things would probably not be accepted anymore, Texas (where this movie takes place...partially) or where ever else in the U.S.
The main villain in the movie is the CIA. They are depicted as sociopathic killers, thugs that will do anything without regards to the rule of law and due process to get things done. The best parts of the movie are about the CIA thugs going after the main character and his family. (Walberg's character discovers Optimus Prime and this is analogous to "harboring a terrorist" - the movie isn't exactly subtle about these themes. So Michael Bay is not totally ignorant of what the U.S. has become, or perhaps he is. Perhaps he views the system as fundamentally just, but there is corruption that must be dealt with. Although presenting the CIA as corrupt doesn't exactly seem to suggest that. So I don't know exactly on this point.
There is a scene where the CIA thugs assault Walhberg's home in their search for Optimus Prime. The scene startled me because I wasn't prepared for it. I didn't think a movie about a childhood favorites from the 80s would delve into this kind of thing. The CIA agents assault and beat up Walhberg and his family, even threatening to shoot the daughter. This is something completely plausible for the U.S. government to do, but I did not expect to see something like this in a Transformers movie. (I saw the first movie, but not the second two, so I didn't have many expectations at all. But I certainly did NOT expect this.) My heart was beating a lot harder than normal during this scene. That's how surprised I was that this kind of scene would be in a movie like this.
Exploring this reality of how the U.S. has become a country of jackbooted thugs doesn't last past the first act, of course. It quickly gives way to space robots fighting and explosions. It was just enough to get some people, perhaps, to think and question things, but not enough to severely disturb anyone. (Because: yay, space robots fighting!)
There is another character, the owner of a robotics mega-corporation, named KSI. He seems just as sociopathic as the CIA thugs, initially. Eventually, we see that he does have a conscience and helps the protagonists get a bomb away from a city. No one in the CIA thugs group is ever redeemed and remain evil throughout. So the mega-corporation is not really evil, but the U.S. government is. I'm not certain if that was the intended message or not. (And I think the CEO character was meant as an expy of Steve Jobs, but I don't know much about Jobs, so I may have misread that.)
Lastly...Optimus Prime. This is probably going to sound a bit strange, but this was my impression. He is frustrated with humans and how he and the Autobots are having to save them while the humans keep screwing things up. (Humans turned on their former allies in the war against the Decepticons; The CEO of KSI gets greedy and revives Megatron unwittingly.) So in this he is like one of us: he sees humanity as worthless, a liability at best. He refers to honor and fights to save earth because of a handful of human friends (Walhberg, et. al.) And that is how he differs from us. He wants to save humanity even though it has severely screwed him over several times and even resulted in his companions being slaughtered. (The CIA hunted down Autobots, while KSI greedily took the corpses and used them for research.) This makes Optimus Prime ultimately a shallow character. He's been fucked over by the human race but will continually fight to save them. There's no real motivation for his actions. He can fly into space, leaving earth at any time. Why care about humans at all? He has no real personal, meaningful stake in earth's fate. Humans screwed up repeatedly and even betrayed their alien friends. They deserve to be left to perish. This is so stereotypically Hollywood, and I hate seeing this kind of thing in a hero character.
There could have at least been a struggle with Optimus Prime making a choice to save them or not. Instead, one human man repairs him and he decides to fight for all of humanity. That and the movie drifting away from the meaningful part - exploring what America has devolved into - is what ultimately ends up making the movie shallow. Humanity will no doubt fuck up again and Optimus Prime and the Autobots will just return again and save them, no questions asked. Que ubiquitous American flags and explosions.
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