Critics hate Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, but audiences still spend billions of dollars to view these special effects-laden thrill rides. The fourth entry in the franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction, is the longest of the bunch (165 minutes) and the most critically reviled. The reviews are so predictable you can write them yourself: “sound and fury signifying nothing”; “the human actors are more robotic than the robots”; and so on. It seems the only spectacle more unimaginative than the parade of Hollywood sequels is the throng of critics desperate to come up with new ways to insult such tent-pole films.
But Age of Extinction itself beats all critics to the easy punch. Bay has one of the characters spout a line of dialogue mocking dumb sequels. Perhaps this is a signal he actually knows what he’s doing, more than the critics do? By setting this early-occurring self-referential scene in an abandoned movie theater, Bay seems to be suggesting that he is daring to craft stories that think big—on an unashamedly ambitious scale—as grand entertainment comparable to the epic cultural classics of the past.
As for the audience reaction, it runs a gamut identical to the responses to rides at an amusement park. Some are wide-eyed with childlike wonder, and unashamedly thrilled. Some advertise their adolescent-grade coolness with a histrionic display of affected boredom. Some rue their jaded age and lament the mindless kid stuff that they have outgrown. But is there more going on here than meets the eye? Can something mythical and archetypal actually be at work in these films that helps to explain their ongoing widespread appeal?
Unfashionable, traditional themes
One reason why the critics are panning Age of Extinction is surely its unsubtle message about a male need to defend one’s own family. Mark Wahlberg, a practicing Catholic and daily communicant, plays the male protagonist. In this film, Wahlberg is a heroic father teaching lessons in courage and tenacity to his daughter and her boyfriend. Willing to sacrifice his life to keep his beloved daughter safe, his uncomplicated male heroism no doubt strikes many a sophisticated reviewer as hopelessly retrograde.
After all, what could be more unfashionable? No wonder the cultural elites hate it. But if the masses are embracing it, maybe the story is somehow articulating on a mythic scale their own human quest for ultimate cosmic meaning. Interestingly, the film dramatically portrays the family as a pre-political reality threatened on all sides by warped governments and rapacious corporations paving the way to hell with their good intentions. Such villains may be action-movie clichés, but maybe audiences continue to grapple with similar forces in real life. Returning to such stories, they find space to contemplate the meaning of their daily struggles.
Unapologetically, good is shown as good and evil is shown as evil in Age of Extinction. There is thus no subversion of audience expectations, whereas a hipper movie would find a way to depict the expected villain as the real hero and the conventionally virtuous figure as secretly vicious. Instead, we see powerful alien robots function as outsized mythical doubles that mirror the best and worst of human action. Optimus Prime and the good robots have souls and personalities, and they hide out in an abandoned church. But the bad robots like Lockdown are amoral automatons that boast of being devoted to no cause other than the technological imperative and the extinction of those they consider evolutionarily less advanced—in other words, those “on the wrong side of history,” to use one of today’s more mindless cultural idioms.
Moreover, in Age of Extinction, the good people make mistakes, but they learn from them. And even the bad people are capable of conversion and going on to do the right thing. Too many critics seem to be expecting Michael Bay to have the talented Mark Wahlberg play an anti-hero delivering lengthy Shakespearean soliloquies giving insight into twisted human nature. But I think this misses the real point of these movies and how they operate on a mythic plane. What the Transformers are doing—and Optimus Prime gives voice to this in his speech at the end of this film—is pose the biggest philosophical and theological questions about life on an epic cosmological scale: Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my purpose in life?
Animals, humans, robots, angels
What I find interesting about the mythic stature of the film is its invitation to us to contemplate the differences between animals and robots, humans and angels, in relation to the history of the universe. The Transformers themselves are an interesting mythical blend of the animal (they have souls), the human (they are capable of dramatic moral choice), the robotic (they are advanced technological marvels), and the angelic (they are powerful extraterrestrial intelligences). As mythical composites, the Transformers thus allow us to contemplate all four types.
Consider the angelic type, in relation to the human type. Fascination with higher intelligences shows up in popular entertainment for a good reason. The average person rightly senses that we humans are not alone in the universe, and through stories we are able to explore—thanks to vivid pictures and dramatizations—the plausible reality of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences. In some of our greatest human speculations, our most talented thinkers have contemplated the most powerful form possible of these spiritual intelligences, making use of the biblical name of “angels.”
The extraordinarily learned Dominican scholar, Benedict Ashley, O.P., who died just last year, reflected profoundly in his last decades on the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the angels (Summa Theologiae I, qq. 50-64, 106-114; Summa contra Gentiles II, cc. 46-55, 91-101; De Spiritualibus Creaturis; and De Substantiis Separatis; cf. Dn 10:10-11:1; 1 Cor 4:9; Col 1:16; 1 Pt 1:12). After I watched Age of Extinction, I recalled Ashley’s unique speculative work as I considered how to put the grand mythic efforts of the film into perspective.
In his Edith Stein Lecture for 2004, “The Existence of Created Pure Spirits” (at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, later published in Redeeming Reason [Sapientia Press, 2006], p. 57), Ashley argued, “it is not possible to assign an adequate cause for evolution except that some intelligence or intelligences have all the information necessary for such complex constructions.” Of course, God “has such information, but we human beings did not produce evolution, although by studying the natural processes of evolution we may someday be able to produce life and guide its evolution.” Age of Extinction dramatizes this idea with the “programmable matter” of Transformium that Stanley Tucci’s character (and his Kinetic Solutions Incorporated) is working with. Further, it suggests that ever since the age of the dinosaurs, advanced extraterrestrial intelligences have been guiding, or contesting, the unfolding of the evolutionary drama.
As Ashley remarks in that lecture, neither we nor similarly embodied extraterrestrial intelligences could have guided evolution in the remote past, since both we and they, as corporeal, would had to have evolved beforehand. Thus, “the cause of biological evolution in our universe cannot be reduced to the interaction of material causes that are inevitably subject to the many chance interferences with each other. Therefore, the guidance of cosmic and biological evolution can only be ascribed to that part of the universe that is a community of pure spirits”: namely, the angels.
In the Transformers mythology, the Autobots or Decepticons are imaginative examples of extraterrestrial embodied intelligences. But although Lockdown speaks in the film of their “creators” (note the plural), we never see these “creators” in bodily form, which suggests they may very well be angelic intelligences that have no bodies.
Consider the evolution of the animal types on our planet, in relation to the film’s dramatic robotic types. In Age of Extinction, as the film begins, we learn that somehow the efforts by aliens in spaceships to cyber-form the dinosaurs into a technologically enhanced species actually ended up causing their extinction 65 million years ago.
Technological advances, moral dilemmas
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds, at least to anyone familiar with the thought of Aquinas on chance and causation. Accordingly, Ashley points out that “the more we come to understand through scientific investigation the course that the evolution of the universe has actually taken, we may see that it could have followed a very much smoother path toward the production of our earth suitable for human intelligence and of the evolution of humankind than in fact it has. Already we perceive many crises in that immense history where the outcome was perilous. Think only of the time when meteors and planetoids were raining down heavily on the earth and the moon, leaving the moon with the scars it still bears. How did the earth survive that crisis?” (Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian [The Pope John Center, 1985], p. 657) Age of Extinction dares to contemplate this sort of cosmic drama as part of evolutionary history.
Thus, Ashley’s fascinating theological and philosophical proposal is that “the history of evolution has reflected the civil war among the cosmic intelligences.” (Ibid., p. 657) Ashley insists that Aquinas’ doctrine of the angels can illuminate a number of theological controversies; for example, the problem of physical evil, which is a sign of the angels’ behind-the-scenes contest: “The angels know from God what his plan for the universe is, but it seems likely that he leaves to them a considerable degree of freedom in how they execute that plan, just as he does to us” (Ibid., p. 657). In Age of Extinction, this is dramatized with dinosaurs being made extinct by higher alien intelligences—who are still fighting today about the next direction of animal evolution on our planet.
Ashley cautions that his proposal concerning the angels’ role in evolution “does not substitute for scientific explanations of evolutionary processes but includes and completes them, while remaining entirely open to further exploration of the precise details of this historical process.” (Choosing a World-View and Value System [Alba House, 2000], p. 306) Philosophy and theology can only consider the historical dimension, where physical science encounters its analytical limits.
Ashley speculates about how things would have been different in the universe without the opposition of the bad angels: “if the good angels had governed the process of cosmological evolution it would have been smooth and gentle with much less waste and emptiness, and biological evolution would have come about by symbiosis, or cooperation, among living things rather than by their competition to survive” (Ibid., p. 306).
Because evolutionary history “might have been very different” in the past, we can also extrapolate about what the future may hold. Consequently, Ashley suggests that, before original sin, it was a real possibility that, right from the beginning, humans actually could have used their intelligence and free will to protect themselves “from all physical evils.” Only now, at this point in history, is this mind-boggling possibility once again conceivable in a way similar to the way it was possible in the Garden of Eden before the Fall:
If it seems incredible that we could have gained this degree of control over nature and our own bodies, we have only to consider the unlimited promise of scientific technology. Times previous to our own had no notion of these possibilities. No doubt this is why theologians never saw this implication in the Genesis account. But today it has become entirely plausible that all these wonders can be accomplished if only we do not first destroy ourselves or allow human sin to prevent our pursuit of research and its wise application. (Ibid., p. 304)
This is exactly the possibility that Age of Extinction magnificently dramatizes with its robot types: namely, the technological enhancement of animal and human nature, and its accompanying moral dilemmas.
The movie begins with its speculation about the unsuccessful stage of dinosaur evolution. (Seemingly, the most that the evil alien intelligences were able to cyber-form out of the dinosaurs were the Dinobots, which the film depicts as clearly inferior in evolutionary status to both humans and Autobots—after all, we get to see Optimus Prime in command riding a Dinobot T-Rex, as he cooperates with the good humans!)
The movie ends by raising the possibility that only good humans, robots, or angels in possession of the “programmable matter” called Transformium could morally guide us to the next stage of scientific technology’s “unlimited promise.” Alternatively, bad humans, robots, or angels could still thwart the pursuit of such scientific research, or “its wise application.”
So, the options remain open. Thus, the drama continues, both for Transformers sequels and for us. Given the staggering possibilities now at least imaginatively plausible—as illustrated by the dazzling computer-generated cinematic effects in this very film—maybe we should be less cynical and not so afraid to think big about the cosmos. After all, Michael Bay dares to. And his epic mythology challenges us to do likewise.
As I have pointed out, so too does one of our greatest and most adventurous Thomistic metaphysicians. On a remarkably scientific basis, Benedict Ashley, OP insisted that there has to be more to this universe than meets the eye. Angelic intelligences—created pure spirits—are real, he argued. And once you become convinced enough to admit the same, then perhaps Age of Extinction’s cinematic thought experiments are really not as foolish as most critics want us to believe.