Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
At this point in the history of our species, there have been four Transformers movies, and only one of them was any good. It came out in 1986 and it ran under half an hour and it featured the voice of Orson Welles as
an all-consuming extraterrestrial planetary demon-god himself. Two decades later, Michael Bay took the simple idea of robots turning into cars and produced a trilogy of films about Shia LaBeouf banging supermodels and saving America from incoherent villainy and stereotypes of people who aren’t white dudes.
Like so many filmmakers before him, Bay promised to end his series after three movies; like so many filmmakers before him, Bay has returned to the scene of the crime, delivering Transformers: Age of Extinction, which promises to finally add in the robots that turn into dinosaurs alongside the robots that turn into cars. (Aside: In a better world, Michael Bay has spent the last decade making Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.)
Will Age of Extinction be any good? Who cares? The best Transformers movie of all time arrived in stealth mode on the internet this week. Kevin B. Lee is a film essayist/analyst/critic; he thinks big thoughts about movies. And Transformers: The Premake is a fascinating look at both modern film culture and culture in general. Just watch it now: Running just over 25 minutes, Premake is a kind of found-footage thriller and kind of a making-of documentary. Lee was in Chicago when they were filming Age of Extinction, and he weaves together footage shot by hundreds of bystanders of the filmmaking.
We follow as Age of Extinction moves across the globe—to Detroit, to China—and we follow as the film hyperlinks between different ideas. Among the concepts brought up in under half an hour of Premake:
1. The way that movie studios frequently co-opt the idea of “fandom” into unpaid advertising.
2. The expanding importance of the Chinese film market, and how that affects how Hollywood makes movies and what kind of movies Hollywood makes.
3. The controversy over tax credits for movies, which has turned cities like Detroit into cheaper Hollywoods on the not-quite-proven premise that filmmaking is good for the economy.
4. The hazy new era of movie consumption, wherein even a movie as dumb as Transformers: Age of Extinction gets “experienced” for over a year in advance via video leaks.
5. How weird it is to see Mark Wahlberg playing football, like he’s just some guy and not Mark Wahlberg.
6. Like, globalization, man.
7. The basic question of whether Hollywood has become a propaganda machine—and the possibility that it was always kind of a propaganda machine, and that some of the best movies ever made were essentially malfunctions, and now the machine is fully functional and the future is Transformers.
And there’s more, and I worry I’m making Premake sound like a pointy-headed Think Piece. It’s not: Lee structures the film with playful paranoia, finding a series of moments that feel surreal but also uniquely now in a way that most Hollywood blockbusters can only gesture at. There’s the moment when a YouTube filmmaker who has been shooting footage of the set proudly states: “All my videos are monetized.” There’s the moment when a store owner in a town in China proudly states: “The propaganda Transformers gives us will greatly affect our business.” There’s Michael Bay, yelling at someone on the set in Hong Kong.
About Bay: There’s an angle on Premake where Bay almost comes off as the villain. We first see him throwing one of his famous hissy fits on the set; later, Lee shows Bay’s CES meltdown. But Premake isn’t a hatchet job: If anything, Lee’s treatment of the CES event weirdly humanizes Bay, presenting him as one more person struggling through a world in which everything that actually happens is just a few smartphone cameras away from becoming a mediated “event.”
Lee has stated that the film came about partially because he wanted to get away from the screens-within-screens workday of your average media professional; to be “among people in physical rather than virtual space.” Ironically, Lee has managed to create one of the most vivid and clear-eyed documents of our virtual-space era. Transformers: The Premake is an important movie about movies, but it’s more than a meta-exercise. When Lee’s film shifts to a downtown Detroit that has been redesigned into downtown Hong Kong—and when that meta-downtown gets destroyed, over and over again, from multiple camera angles—Premake makes a solid case that even concrete reality is trending abstract.
So watch it now and let’s spend a lifetime talking about it: