What history dictates, Hollywood redirects.
It takes a different, more extreme brand of action movie to provide catharsis. The collective numbness many felt after the attacks of Sept. 11 cried out for a release.
Enter the Autobots and Jason Bourne: heroes, strong and determined, channeling very different forms of aggression in the latest age of anxiety.
Launched in 2007, the
Each one of director Michael Bay's metallic wonders made more than the previous, and together they took in $2.7 billion worldwide. Something's up when a franchise trends in that direction. The robot war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, plus a few nominal humans for expositional and cleavage purposes, became a way for global audiences to process and further escalate America's wars on terror, "terror" being a metaphor both handily vague and inarguably evil. The "Transformers" films wage war on terrorists with enormous toys who lay waste to much of the planet. The answer to our problems, according to these pictures, is the military answer. In "Revenge of the Fallen," the primary human antagonist is a sniveling Obama administration security adviser who pushes unpopular diplomatic options while the Decepticons make hash of the opposition.
Bay's imagery consciously evokes real-life scenes from 9/11, though with less artistry, say, than
Crass? Exploitative? Even Bay would probably admit as much. But his timing has proved exquisite. Enough years had passed in the early 21st century for audiences to accept, even crave, a fantasy in which 9/11 carnage became fodder for relatively bloodless slaughter on an infinitely larger scale. The first "Transformers" came out two years after Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider said in 2005: "There's a lot of blood being spilled in the real world these days. So people don't want to see blood spilled on the screen for no good reason." No studio head has felt the need to say that sort of thing lately. The global domination of the "Transformers" films suggests we were simply waiting to see our major world cities beaten up by robot terrorists instead of human ones.
To the degree the "Transformers" trilogy is selling a reactionary message, and it's considerable, Bay's blockbusters constitute one of the great conservative victories in modern Hollywood. On the other side of the political divide, yet (like "Transformers") popular all across the voting spectrum, lies the decade's other key post-9/11 franchise, the "Bourne" trilogy.
Based loosely on
Neither franchise depends much on human speech. They're too busy running, or fighting. The "Transformers" films are tailored for the revenge-minded adolescent boys of all ages and nationalities; "Bourne" explores more complex moral terrain, where the killing actually matters and the violence, often thrilling, carries real consequence.
The second and third "Bourne" films were made by director Paul Greengrass, and in between the two he directed one of the few truly necessary 9/11 films, "United 93." In that docudrama as well as in the fictional CIA control rooms of "Bourne," the men and women in authority are trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Greengrass relishes the irony, and in action mode, the way Greengrass handles violence and action is a world away from Bay.
The great scene, I think, of the "Bourne" films arrives in the third one, when Bourne and his fellow assassin are running all around the rooftops, alleys and streets of
Every flourish and detail in the "Bourne" films is like an encoded message. Post-9/11, chaos breeds chaos; revenge breeds more bloodshed.
Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, critic Emmanuel Burdeau argues that Greengrass' "slightly hysterical imitation of documentary methods" poses an aesthetic challenge, and that "one could therefore criticize Greengrass for a level of confusion that generally points to a director who wasn't made for action. But we could also recognize the evolution of the genre and the reasons for this confusion." Little wonder why the post-9/11 narrative imagined by the "Transformers" films is so popular. Amid titanic pain and suffering, it offers kicks without a single, nagging moral doubt about why we fight.