These days, blockbusters aren’t simply big movies, but unstoppable behemoths. Hundreds of films are released every year, but it’s the $100-200 million mega-projects that make up the sun around which the rest of the movie universe orbits. We may not like it, but that is the truth. The critical community has grown to, by and large, despise Michael Bay’s Transformers films, but they are so huge and so successful that many of the films’ harshest critics will still find themselves sitting through another 150 minutes of Bay’s incoherent toy commercial explosions when Age of Extinction graces us with its presence next week. Ignoring a new Transformers movie is like ignoring a giant zit on the face of our cinematic landscape. We may not like it, but it must be dealt with.
“Transformers: The Premake,” a 25-minute “desktop documentary” uploaded this week by video essayist Kevin B. Lee, is a compelling look at the fascination surrounding such projects. I quite dislike the Transformers movies, but if I were to learn that the next installment was filming right down the street, I would spend an absurd amount of time nearby trying to get a look. Lee’s short attacks this phenomenon head on, and in the process makes something that isn’t just about Transformers, but the way modern blockbusters are conceived, made and marketed. Set photos and video from Chicago, Detroit, Hong Kong and Washington are combined with trailers, interviews and more, and it’s enthralling from start to finish. If you have some time, it’s more than worth the click.
One of the most interesting things about this short is what it reveals about just how deliberate (and huge) the Transformers operation is. It shows the types of clips Paramount allows to exist online, along with those that they are less than psyched about. What civilians are able to see both in person and on YouTube is meticulously controlled by the studio, and in many ways it’s all part of the marketing effort as a whole. And then there’s the matter of filming in China, which is something you’re seeing more and more from Hollywood. The most telling moment comes from an interview with Bay where he insists that shooting in China and Hong Kong was a purely creative decision made by him and him alone. (Bay doesn’t exactly come off as the friendliest person in this video. Also, in life.) Then, of course, Lee pulls out a bunch of footage revealing the real reasons for the location. In many ways, the Transformers films are two-and-a-half-hour commercials for themselves, and “Transformers: The Premake” does not shy away from the more cynical aspects of blockbuster filmmaking.
Of course, there are also really cool moments like you see at the end, when a group of people catch a glimpse of Mark Wahlberg playing football from the other side of the fence. That’s something that would excite just about anyone, in any situation. At its core, this is a short about the absolute power Hollywood has over all of us, and how can lead to experiences both dispiriting and exhilarating. In the case of Transformers, you’ll likely get a heavy dose of both.