I'm the rare kind of person who unabashedly adores Michael Bay's much-maligned treatment of Transformers. Everybody else I know hates these movies, so much so that none of them have even bothered to see the new one.
If this is purely a matter of taste, I'm totally fine being the lone Transformers fan. But one thing my many detractors have lobbed at me since I came out last week and professed my love for Age of Extinction bothered me enough that I need to rip the Band-Aid off the freshly glistening wound. People called me out for defending a movie that is "dumb and racist," as one commenter put it.
Now: I think much of the disdain for Age of Extinction stems from the residual hatred many still have for Michael Bay's last three Transformers films. The alleged racism here is no different. Bay drew some fierce criticism in 2009 when he stuffed two robots into Revenge of the Fallen who oozed retrograde black stereotypes out of every leaky gasket.
Age of Extinction doesn't have any "black" robots, as ridiculous as that is to say. But it does have "a Ken Watanabe-voiced autobot who calls Optimus Prime 'sensei,' is named 'Drift,' and speaks in Haiku," the commenter pointed out. One critic at The Daily Dot made a direct link between Drift and 2009's batch of reprehensible robots, saying: "Apparently Michael Bay and his production team learned nothing."
Do I think Drift is offensive? Yes. Do I think Drift's presence in this movie is a sign of Bay's persistent, stubborn racism? No. If anything, Watanabe's character shows just how much the director has grown as an artist, however unwittingly, over the past five years.
I know, I know: we're talking about Michael Bay again. His name doesn't sit so well next to "maturity." Hear me out.
It begins with the cast. One of the things that makes Age of Extinction one of my favorite pegs in the new series is that it finally, officially jettisons many of the subpar actors from past films. Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox...they're all out. In comes Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, and Kelsey Grammar. John Goodman and Ken Watanabe, meanwhile, fill in the voices of two of the supporting Autobots with surprising grace.
Goodman and Watanabe don't just manage to inject a genuine inkling of human emotion into the hulking, CGI-infused metallic structures in this movie—though that's an achievement in its own right. Each brings their own personality to this. Not their real personalities, but the archetypes that have been built up around them throughout their careers in film. They do this so well that I have to wonder if the people who made Age of Extinction tinkered with the design for the robots once they got the actors in place in a similar way to how Peter Jackson revamped Gollum once he realized how incredibly Andy Serkis could master that role in Lord of the Rings.
The racial tropes running through Drift's character make a lot more sense in this light. Watanabe's biography on the popular film index IMDB says that the man first made a name for himself in Japan by playing many a samurai warrior. The first major film that introduced him to American audiences was The Last Samurai.
I find that film far more irksome, racially-speaking, than anything in Age of Extinction. I mean, it's a movie about Tom Cruise traveling to 19th century Japan and mastering the country's military traditions better than the people who actually live there seem to be able to. Watching it felt like I was gazing upon a modern, orientalized version of The Last of the Mohicans, complete with its own set of noble savages, such as Watanabe, that Cruise was there to learn from and ultimately beat at their own game.
The racism lurking throughout that book was understandable in the 1820's when it was first published. I have no idea why anyone thought this was an acceptable story to tell with a straight face in 2003:
The worst part about this is that despite being a great actor, Watanabe's has been jammed into these same kind of exotic, mystical warrior roles ever since. It's hard to imagine Clint Eastwood, the star of many a spaghetti western modeled off Japanese Samurai flicks, didn't watch The Last Samurai a few dozen times before casting Watanabe as the star in Letters From Iwo Jima, for example.
And then there's his role in the new Godzilla. Man, all you Transformers haters out there: if you want to see something that really is offensively bad, go see that movie. Then we can talk. In one memorably atrocious scene, he hands a broken pocket-watch to an American military officer and tells him that it stopped working when the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Then he walks out of the room and nobody ever speaks of this again.
Just, you know, a little passing reference to one of the most horrifying moments in human history and the tension it's left lingering between the United States and Japan. And that's a scene in a new movie based on a franchise that, much like Transformers, has slowly been pulled away from its Japanese roots as American blockbusters continue to have their way with it.
Transformers doesn't get lost in the mire of this offensive bullshit because it blows it up, literally and figuratively. And here's why: If we recognize that Drift's role in this movie is sort of gross, then we also have to accept that it's little more than an exaggeration, a caricature, of other disturbing aspects of Watanabe's career in American cinema.
Age of Extinction doesn't make much of this, but it doesn't really have to. All Michael Bay needed to do to offend people was to take the original archetype and make it several stories taller. Drift is what it would look like if someone laid Silly Putty over Watanabe's character in The Last Samurai and then stretched it to a breaking point.
This is what I've always loved about his Transformers movies, even when they miss the mark. They might technically be "live action" films, but they're so drenched in the maximalist beauty and bombast of the summer blockbuster that they still feel like the cartoons from whence they came. And like any good cartoon, they tiptoe along a knife-edge between the hilarious and the profane. Writing in Harper's in 2006, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman called this a "predisposition toward insult," and the source of many a comic's power:
Cartoon language is mostly limited to deploying a handful of recognizable visual symbols and cliches. It makes use of the discredited pseudoscientific principles of physiognomy to portray character through a few physical attributes and facial expressions. It takes skill to use such cliches in way that expand or subvert this impoverished vocabulary.
I don't think Michael Bay is in the same league as Spiegelman as an artist. But he's getting closer. Drift has much more in common with the animals in Maus, Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning comic about the holocaust, than the minstrel show that was on display in Revenge of the Fallen.
These new Autobots and Decepticons might not be the ones that many fans know and love from Transformers past. But like their predecessors, they're still giant, silly, occasionally incendiary cartoons. So while Drift might only speak in haikus, I think he still manages to say something surprisingly bold.