It was the best of films, it was the worst of films.
Transformers 4 opened recently to the worst critical reviews of any 2014 blockbuster… and the strongest three-day ticket sales of the year.
The reviews were gleefully negative. Entertainment Weekly bemoaned the film as a “baroque orgy of ear-shredding, eye-dazzling destruction.” The Guardian dismissed it as “destruction porn.” The New York Daily News even hated on the robots themselves, as “clattering collections of caliginous junk.”
Yet, in just three days, the movie grossed over 300 million worldwide.
What is going on?
People Don’t Trust Priests
People don’t read critics anymore because no one trusts them. Our cultural priests have lost their credibility, along with so many other priests and pastors.
In the age of the user-review, we trust the wisdom of crowds more than the wisdom of the ages. Cultural elites sometimes twist this explanation to something a little more sinister. Occasionally, they blame dumb culture on dumb audiences. People want dumb, so Michael Bay gives them dumb.
But that is too easy.
People are complex, joyful, relational beings, and they bring all that complexity with them to the movie house. I won’t argue that the movie is any good. It’s terrible. Nearly three hours of terrible. So bad that kids leaving the theater must have quoted the movie back to their parents, saying, “Dad, you can’t keep spending money on junk.”
Moviegoers didn’t trust the critics who said the movie doesn’t deliver. So they chased its empty promise. They suffered through Transformers 4 in its opening weekend. (If the movie continues to rake in the profits over the next few weeks, it may indicate our desperation to feel part of an ad hoc community that requires twenty bucks and a few hours of time.)
Two Real Problems that Transformers Can’t Solve
The film’s strong opening still begs the question: What did the movie promise to ticket buyers? What about Transformers 4 could have been worth 300 million dollars in ticket sales?
The movie promised to solve two real problems that people have.
1) People are stressed out.
If you fall into the this category, then 165 minutes of exploding robots may be just what you are looking for. Nothing soothes my personal stressbomb like a fiery action movie bomb exploding onscreen.
The only thing better at the end of a stressful day is a good zombie apocalypse.
2) People are stressed out by technology.
Transformers movies tap into a specific source of stress—technology. In the great robot war of the 21st century, we are caught in the middle of smart devices battling for our attention and their opponent’s destruction. Just ask Siri, “Do you like Google?” She’ll respond, “I’m pretty loyal to Apple, smiley face. It’s just how I’m made.”
Siri’s response invites us to trust her maker. In this way, she serves as a handheld high priestess for Apple, pointing to the reliability of her creator.
It’s no wonder that we are having trouble trusting our priests.
Greater Anxiety Requires Simpler Myths
Transformers 4 meets people at the point of their great technological anxiety and offers them a myth of robots and aliens and “transformium” and Texans who don’t sound much like Texans. The movie promises simple, easy answers. If you’ve read any mythology, you know a myth doesn’t have to make sense if we resonate with its emotional and spiritual truth.
Remember, I’m not suggesting Transformers actually delivers on its promise. It doesn’t.
But, O, how we love that promise! We want technology that will transform into a superhero. We want to think of technology as a puzzle, a toy to be figured out. We want to redeem technology when we drag its old metal hulk into a garage and oil it up.
But we also know that technology is not a pure hero. It is not the constant optimism of TED. It has a dark side that works to destroy us.
Transformers promise the redemption of technology without failing to condemn the dark side of technology. And they do it with all the nostalgia and joy of a 1980s puzzle toy.
Unfortunately, the movie ends up promising more than it can deliver. It takes more time than it should, makes more noise than it should, and offers very little substance.
Sadly, these are all the problems we encounter with our gadgets at work and home. My screens take more time than they save. They make more noise than they should. And they don’t offer as much substance as they promise.
What we really need is a good pastor or priest to remind us what true substance looks like, to invite us to trust a creator more reliable than Michael Bay or Hasbro or even Entertainment Weekly. Pastors and priests do not have a special relationship with God, but they have had a special place in our culture defending the spiritual truths we are too quick to set aside.
Perhaps I should listen to my pastor more often. I might chase fewer empty promises.