The controversialist face of Transformers 3...but is it deserved?
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Does - under that harsh, metallic exterior - Transformers 3 actually succumb to a number of racial and derogatory stereotypes?...
The second instalment of Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), was met by a storm of controversy upon its release. Many critics attacked the film for its plotting, characterisations and direction, while some also condemned the film as racist and misogynistic. Now, the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon has been met by similar criticisms, with some also adding claims of homophobia to the mix.
So, with much accusation and finger-pointing, one has to ask - can the film really be that bad? My aim here is to discuss some of the more controversial allegations and give honest assessments of each.
First, I must admit, I too agree with some - some being the operative word - of the claims made about Revenge of the Fallen. The ‘twins’ were in poor taste, and many will be glad to hear of their absence from Transformers 3. The previous films have also included sexual references, either through innuendo or, in one case, a reference to masturbation. I agree that these should ideally not be present in a film based on a child’s toy, but there was a similar joke about the ‘missionary’s position’ in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), based on a theme park ride.
Many films aimed at family audiences include references to sexual subjects. The majority are rated 12A, and if parents are worried about a film’s content they should check the Parents British Board of Film Classification (PBBFC) website, as this provides details on why a film has received its given rating. Technically, anyone under the age of 12 is not permitted to see a 12A film unless they are accompanied by an adult. Many children were nonetheless taken to see The Dark Knight (2008), which had some very distressing and violent scenes, and Casino Royale (2006), with its innuendo, sex, violence and a naked torture-sequence. Transformers 3 features far fewer sexual references than Revenge of the Fallen, and those that are there are less controversial than in many other 12A films. Furthermore, one must consider the likes of Shrek and Monsters Inc - were these not littered with innuendos and double-entendres? In fact, was this not what made such films so successful over their broad age ranges? Perhaps, on consideration, Transformers has merely become the scapegoat for such accusations?
The film’s director, Michael Bay, frequently comes under fire for the way he films women. This is true for Transformers 3, which introduces Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s character, Carly, with a close-up of her bottom as she walks upstairs. However, I believe this shot is, as one respected film magazine put it, a ‘self-parodying shot’. One only has to watch Michael Bay’s appearance in a Verizon commercial to see that he clearly understands his directorial style and is not against self-parody. After this sequence, the film rarely falls back on objectifying shots. The only exception is when Patrick Dempsey’s character, Dylan, seductively describes the curves of a car while the camera cuts to Huntington-Whiteley in a figure-hugging dress. The sequence is meant as a comic moment, and heightens the paranoia Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is feeling over Dylan’s relationship with Carly.
The BBC’s film critic Mark Kermode described this sequence as evidence of Bay having a ‘porn sensibility’ to the way he directs. I believe Bay actually has an advertising sensibility, to the extent that ‘sex sells’. His career began in advertising, and as with most car commercials (or episodes of Top Gear), adverts for weight-loss, deodorants, or countless other products, glamorous people and imagery are used to sell the product. The Transformers franchise undoubtedly has an element of advertising in its genetic make-up - it is based on a toy, features numerous cars as characters, and must ultimately be sold to audiences - so it will obviously resort to common advertising trends to appeal to audiences
Furthermore, Bay’s film-making career originates in the union of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who carved out the ‘high-concept’ style of film-making (get a basic idea that you can sum-up in a sentence, turn it into a film with extra elements that you can market alongside the film) that for many typified the 1980s with films such as Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and so forth. These films are designed to draw in large audiences, and the huge success of the Transformers films and Bay’s back-catalogue shows that he does this better than most.
The way Bay films women is ultimately no different to most music videos featuring female artists and, while it is debatable as to whether this is an element of objectification in modern society, I do not believe Bay should be singled out, as he has been, as the worst offender. Many films similarly emphasise the sexual nature of their female cast members; the recent X-Men: First Class (2011) featured an unnecessary scene of Rose Byrne stripping down to lingerie, and January Jones wearing revealing outfits and simulating sex with someone; again, the film was a 12A.
The next issue I'd like to approach is towards the language featured throughout, as many have spoken of their public annoyance at the amount of swearing in the film. Many characters say ‘b***h’ or ‘s**t’, another calls someone a ‘nancy w***er,’ and I think one Autobot says ‘f**k’ as he is executed, but with the sound of the explosion it is not easy to hear. Similarly, another character says ‘this is a total cluster-’ on one occasion, but the camera cuts away so he can’t finish his sentence. This particularly upset one critic, yet he failed to refer to Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), where characters refer to a ‘complete cluster cuss’ on numerous occasions. That film, based on a children’s book, was rated PG.
Dark of the Moon has also been called racist. As mentioned, the ‘twins’ from Revenge of the Fallen do not appear, and of the robots with accents only the Scottish-accented Autobot seems to have any racial stereotyping, in that he is ‘angry’. While some could be offended by this, I do not see that it is any different from how we are introduced to Mike Myers' eponymous ogre in Shrek (2001); a physical characteristic more offensive than the robot design in Bay’s film. One critic has said that there is an Irish-accented robot who sounded drunk, but in two viewings of the film I do not recall seeing this character.
As for the human characters, one who may cause concern is the The Hangover’s (2009) Ken Jeong. The film does make an immature pun on his name, Wang, in reference to the Watergate scandal’s ‘Deepthroat’. But again, aside from this, his character is played for eccentric - rather than racial - laughs, and I believe could have been played by anyone. If his eccentricities are supposed to be taken as a racial attribute, then his characterisation is no worse than Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda (2008). Although I’d prefer it if Jeong’s character simply wasn’t there, I do not think it is enough to call the film racist.
The other racial character is Dutch (Alan Tudyk). Although played by an American actor, Dutch speaks with a ‘camp’ German accent. In reference to this, I would again invoke the film Shrek, in which the Three Little Pigs are all portrayed in the same way. I do not recall any offensive jokes at the expense of his sexuality, and he is also instrumental in saving Sam during the final battle. One questionable moment is where he is referred to as a ‘German shepherd’ by his employer, Simmons (John Turturro), but I believe this is an informal reference to their employer/employee relationship and is not meant as a racist comment.
One final point that some have called into question is whether it was acceptable to reveal the Chernobyl tragedy as being caused by Transformers technology. When attributing real life suffering to a fictional idea there is always going to be a backlash - understandably - but, as ever, I do not believe the film mocks or reflect negatively on those affected by the incident, and it may raise awareness in some viewers who had not heard of the event. One could endlessly debate changes to history in fictional films, from Magneto’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Basterds killing Hitler or Marty McFly creating rock ‘n’ roll. In the end, so long as the films do not insult those affected by the incident, I believe the twists are ultimately harmless.
I want to end this article on a slightly more personal note. Alongside many of the criticisms of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and its content, some have also attacked those who like the film. I am a Transformers fan. I grew up with the toys and cartoon thanks to my brothers, who had them during their own ‘80s childhoods. The characters hold a special place in my heart, and seeing them on the big screen holds a particular thrill for me. Although I love to see intelligent blockbusters like Inception (2010), sometimes an explosive popcorn-film provides just as much escapist entertainment.
I know the film isn’t great from a critical perspective, but all I ask is this; (a) please don’t judge the film until you’ve seen it; (b) before you label it offensive, consider whether it really is compared to many other entertainment programmes, videos, and films, including those aimed at young audiences; (c) if you personally don’t like the film, don’t lambaste those who do. For many of us there is an innocent pleasure in seeing these characters from our childhood realised in such a spectacular way. If you look beyond the film’s narrative failings and OTT characters, there is still enough surreal humour and thrilling action to make a fun film outing. Cinema is all about variety, and people’s moods and tastes are ever-changing so there should be something for all. This is, after all, just a film, and should be enjoyed by those who want to see it.
And I want to see it again.
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