With the Fourth of July weekend upon us, I decided the other day to partake of the great American tradition that marks this holiday.
I refer, of course, to Michael Bay movies.
I took myself off to the multiplex, slipped on my 3-D glasses, and gobbled popcorn while watching the Autobots and the Decepticons lay waste to a significant chunk of Chicago (again) and, for sales into the international market, Hong Kong. My wife, who indulged me but didn’t join me, asked why exactly I’m always rushing off to enjoy the latest action-adventure thrill ride.
I thought about it only a second, and then told her the truth: “I like to watch things blow up.”
The gore-and-splatter movies don’t attract me. If I’ve seen one serial killer, I’ve seen them all. I don’t even much care for car chases. But things that blow up -- that I enjoy. Maybe that explains why, when I watch “Independence Day,” I want to fast-forward to the destruction of the White House, and why the favorite World War II movie of my youth was “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
So I enjoyed “Transformers: Age of Extinction” -- given, let us say, the limits of my expectations. Which were low.
The critics have not been particularly kind to the film. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes pegs it at an atrocious 17 percent “fresh." Now, it’s true that Michael Bay movies are famously review-proof. Still, even for those of us who like to watch things blow up, the statutory rape subplot is -- well, repulsive.
That’s right. Statutory rape. The hero, played by Mark Wahlberg, has a 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz), and he is understandably outraged to discover that she is “dating” a 20-year-old man savvy enough to carry a copy of the Texas “Romeo and Juliet” law.
The notion is creepy, as well as unnecessary to the story, and the critics have quite properly piled on. “It’s genuinely not clear,” writes Christopher Orr in the Atlantic, “how we are supposed to feel about one of the movie’s heroes literally walking around with a statutory rape defense in his pocket." Why not, asks i09, make the daughter “a more socially acceptable 18-years-old?”
But put aside -- if you can -- the statutory rape question. The critics are entirely correct in pointing out that Michael Bay’s movies tend to have what we might call a “woman problem." I am referring to the casting, not the audience: Everything important in his films is done by men. There are other action-adventure directors of whom the same might be said. (Roland Emmerich, call your office.) But Bay arguably goes further than the rest. His female characters are famously (infamously?) objectified, and the new film is no exception.
To be sure, Bay’s characters are always rather cardboard anyway. His ambition doesn’t seem to be to direct emotion and growth. His efforts to add a bit of human interest tend to be ridiculed by critics and are not particularly popular with fans. (Think “Pearl Harbor.”) What he really enjoys is blowing things up.
Still, the woman problem persists -- not only in Bay’s films, but in the summer blockbuster genre generally. True, the entire young-adult dystopia genre, in literature as well as film, is now built around the exploits of plucky young women who buck the system. But the action-adventure oeuvre is worse for its refusal to take female characters seriously.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Once upon a time, the horror genre was male-dominated. No longer. The entire class of films was liberated by what the mythologist Carol J. Clover, in her brilliant 1992 book “Men, Women and Chain Saws,” memorably labeled the “Final Girl” syndrome. Clover's study of slasher films convinced her that the genre’s success had come to rest on the trope of a woman -- often a teenager -- being the survivor who, in the end, successfully confronted the rampaging monster. She pointed out that the slasher film is in this sense both feminist and subversive, as the audience, male and female alike, is slowly and often subtly moved away from whatever its original rooting interest might have been to cheering for the Final Girl.
The Final Girl, in Clover’s telling, is set apart from the other female characters in the film. We figure out early that she’s the heroine. “She is the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic." (In Nicola Peltz’s day job as high school queen Bradley on A&E’s “Bates Motel,” it is not she but the bookish Emma whom we can predict as early as the first episode will turn out to be the Final Girl.) As a rule, the Final Girl is “unattached and even lonely." She is “watchful to the point of paranoia,” and she notices danger signs that others miss. “Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in a pinch.”
All of these qualities are typically displayed by men in today’s action-adventure oeuvre. In “Age of Extinction,” Wahlberg fits the description perfectly. So do Dennis Quaid in “The Day After Tomorrow” and Jeff Goldblum in “Independence Day” and John Cusack in “2012” and ... well, the list goes on and on.
There are wonderful thrillers in which female characters display the same traits. Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty” comes to mind. In the big-budget summer movies -- not so much. (I defy you to remember a single one of Halle Berry’s scenes in the most recent "X-Men" film.) The loner who saves the world not from terrorist attack but from alien invasion remains a man.
There’s no reason that this has to be so. The “Aliens” franchise testifies to the enduring power of the Final Girl trope in films that lie on the border of horror and science fiction. There’s no a priori reason to think that the Final Girl can’t take her proper place in the summer blow-things-upper as well. So how about it, Hollywood? Give us a new generation of Ellen Ripleys.
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