Less Than Meets the Eye

Recently a friend mentioned that she loved the Transformers movie, and I said I disagreed. When she pressed me for an explanation I demurred, for a couple of reasons: I wanted to marshal my thoughts with more clarity, and I didn’t want to sully an otherwise delightful group lunch with what could easily become a semi-coherent rant.

But yes, I hated the Transformers movie. It goes beyond my dislike for director Michael Bay, who is only Uwe Boll with a megabudget. It’s more than my dislike for the charmless, gormless Shia LeBeouf. As pretentious and snotty as this may sound, I hate the Transformers on moral grounds.

Here’s why. The original Transformers were Japanese toys first.

Then the animated U.S. show was created around them. That made the program essentially a commercial aimed at the members of our society most vulnerable to advertising, children. And, since it debuted in the ultra-materialistic Eighties, it was a huge success, paving the way for many Japanese shows designed strictly to sell tie-in products (Pokemon, Digimon, Cardcaptors, etc.).

Consider why this is wrong. There has always been tie-in merchandise connected to popular art, going back, I believe, to Dickens, who called it the “Whoosh.” But the merchandise always came after. Something hit the public consciousness and then was exploited, often far beyond the line of tacky. Just look at the things Lucas has licensed for Star Wars over the last thirty years. Yet Star Wars came first, then the toys and bedsheets. Transformers cynically reversed that, and then took aim at kids far too young to know their chains were being yanked. In the process, it altered the whole concept of childrens’ programming, which up until then at least had to pay lip service to the concept of educating its viewers.

Creating what is essentially a half-hour toy commercial, then disguising it as a “tv show” aimed at the least discriminating audience demographic, is a form of societal child abuse. Parents aren’t blameless in this–after all, they paid for the toys. But it inculcated a whole generation with the idea that nothing of value exists if it isn’t accompanied by a parade of merchandise. The experience of enjoying something on its own has been subsumed in the desire, culturally across the board, to acquire things inspired by it.

So now we have Transformers, the live action movie, which actually starts with the credit “Paramount Pictures and Hasbro present…” It stars this week’s Sexiest Woman Alive (Megan Fox), features state-of-the-art effects and, as most movies aimed at children do nowadays, pushes the sex and violence as far as its PG-13 rating allows. It cost $151 million to make, and grossed over $700 so far.

Think about those numbers, and think about the state of the world today. Think what the initial investment could’ve done for, say, victims of Hurricane Katrina. Think what a difference the box-office returns would make if they were given to, say, famine relief. Now think about that money poured instead into a toy commercial.

Yes, movies are made to turn a profit. Yes, the same complaints could be made for all big-budget fantasy epics, from Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Dark Knight. But goddamn, people: it’s not a cultural icon like Superman or a beloved franchise like Indiana Jones, it’s the goddamned Transformers, created for no other reason than to sell toys. Yes, there’s more than meets the eye here, and it’s the utter blank core of the typical American satisfied to become part of this obscene, in the truest sense of the word, revenue stream.

And that is why I hate the Transformers.

And it appears I’m not alone.

One Comment on “Less Than Meets the Eye”

  1. Hey Alex,

    Transformers…tsk, don’t get me started on Barbie! Great looking blog by the way!

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