by Ted Giese
If someone says the word “transformer” and the first thing that comes to mind is an electrical device in a covered box outside your house quietly transferring energy between two or more circuits, then the knowledge there’s a movie called Transformers 4 might come as a surprise. But this isn’t home repairs: these films, like the toys and cartoon series from the 1980s, are about alien robots who can disguise themselves on earth by transforming into things like cars, helicopters and trucks.
Like previous films in the series, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction is a sci-fi soap-opera with a central hero—the Autobot Optimus Prime—and a central villain—the Decepticon Megatron. At the end of the third film, Optimus Prime had defeated Megatron by pulling his robot head from his robot body. In Transformers 4, this severed robot head is discovered to be quietly manipulating greedy political bureaucrats and scientists with the goal of creating a new army of evil Decepticons and his own personal ‘rebirth’ into a new and improved robot body.
Megatron is not the only robot needing improvement; early in the film the robot hero Optimus Prime is discovered by a penniless inventor with a heart of gold, Cade Yeager, who buys what he thinks is a beat-up old semi-truck which he plans to sell for scrap metal. Yeager and his friend and business partner Lucas Flannery soon discover that the metal is alien and what they really have on their hands is a Transformer not a beat-up old semi. Soon Yeager, his daughter Tessa, and eventually Tessa’s boyfriend the Irish race car driver Shane Dyson find themselves on the run with Optimus Prime, desperately trying to avoid a C.I.A. black-ops team hunting down all the Transformers.
As the film unfolds, long-serving C.I.A. agent Harold Attinger emerges as a villain, opportunistically playing a variety of sides against each other for a seven-figure retirement nest egg. Attinger is working all the angles: he’s juggling a group of robot bounty hunters from space while trying to get his hands on something called the Seed, a kind of devastating alien bomb which converts organic material into the codeable metal of which the Transformers are made.
And that’s where the dinosaurs come in. Yes, dinosaurs! Remember, the film is called Transformers 4: Age of Extinction. Early on, the film presents a sci-fi revelation: an asteroid did not wipe out the dinosaurs as popularly supposed. Instead, the extinction was the result of a series of bombs detonated by aliens to produce the metal needed to procreate themselves.
Are there any deep, hidden theological questions to ponder in the midst of this soap-opera sci-fi explosion fest? There is a bit of an intelligent design vibe lurking around in the film, and while the movie gives the audience a pre-historic deep-time past (complete with the aforementioned dinosaurs), that past is still one in which there are intergalactic robot aliens who have a “creator” who has given each of them something they call a “spark” which Yeager, the penniless inventor with a heart of gold, equates with the human soul.
Are there any deep, hidden theological questions to ponder in the midst of this soap-opera sci-fi explosion fest?
At one point Optimus Prime—when talking about his possible demise at the hands of their enemies—suggests Yeager look into the night sky and think of one of the stars as being Optimus Prime’s spark/soul. Even though the movie seems to get into ideas like creation vs. evolution and the supernatural vs. the material, most of the philosophical ponderings viewers come across in this film can be chalked up to story filler. It’s the sort of stuff that comes from someone trying too hard to sound profound.
One positive question the film asks us is whether we should invent certain things just because we can—a philosophical question that gets at the film’s underlying theme of responsibility. Yeager takes seriously his vocational responsibility as a father to his daughter Tessa; Attinger abuses his responsibility as a C.I.A. agent for his own financial gain; the scientist Joshua Joyce repents of the mechanical monsters he blindly created while walking away from his ethical responsibilities as an inventor; and Optimus Prime struggles with the responsibility he took on to be a protector of the people of earth after they turned on him.
Buried in this film are story elements that feel reminiscent of concerns Martin Luther addressed in the Table of Duties section of the Small Catechism. For example, fathers are there admonished to “bring up [their children] in the training and instruction of the Lord.” In Transformers 4, Cade Yeager is shown repeatedly instilling in his daughter Tessa the virtue of leading a sexually pure and decent life, encouraging her to be mindful of what she says and does. As in How To Train Your Dragon 2—another recent movie—Transformers 4 provides a generally positive view of fatherhood which isn’t played for laughs and is held up as a noble calling.
Since the film is geared towards a younger audience, parents may want to ask themselves if violence and excessive destruction are as big a concern as profanity and depictions of sexuality. The film contains the latter two elements, but the former are clearly the film’s focus. Families will need to decide if the degree of violence and destruction is acceptable. There is certainly an obvious glamorization of violence within the film and much of it is designed to be strangely beautiful looking. Parents will need to ask if this content overshadows the positive aspects of its father/daughter story line.
A cut above the last two installments in the franchise, Transformers 4 Age of Extinction is the best robot-cars-riding-robot-dinosaurs-fighting-other-alien-robots-with-average-joe-scientists-and-C.I.A.-agents-caught-in-the-action movie available this summer. Director Michael Bay has stepped up his game providing a better cast of human characters, even though their development remains mostly superficial.
If the film does well this summer expect to see more brash, mildly offensive, robot explosions in the not-too-distant future. If that’s not your sort of thing, then Transformers 4 probably isn’t for you: you’ll likely find yourself wishing you were watching the benign electrical box transformer. But viewers who like robots and explosions? They will certainly get their money’s worth.