What history dictates, Hollywood redirects.
Following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq (President George W. Bush's own landmark case of redirection), skeptical and shaken moviegoers were offered a spate of films responding to our new wars on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan and at home. Most were met with cold stares and thin crowds at the box office. "The Hurt Locker," which won the Academy Award for best picture of 2009, proved an honorable exception, though it remains the lowest-grossing film ever to winthe Oscar.
It takes a different, more extreme brand of action movie to provide catharsis. The collective numbness many felt after the attacks of Sept. 11 cried out for a release.
Enter the Autobots and Jason Bourne: heroes, strong and determined, channeling very different forms of aggression in the latest age of anxiety.
Launched in 2007, the "Transformers" franchise ("Transformers"; "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"; "Transformers: Dark of the Moon") clearly has the planet's number. The three films constitute a frenzy of destructive payback for recent tragic events, in our corner of a globe wracked by bloody uncertainty.
Each one of director Michael Bay's metallic wonders made more than the previous, and together they took in $2.7 billion worldwide. Something's up when a franchise trends in that direction. The robot war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, plus a few nominal humans for expositional and cleavage purposes, became a way for global audiences to process and further escalate America's wars on terror, "terror" being a metaphor both handily vague and inarguably evil. The "Transformers" films wage war on terrorists with enormous toys who lay waste to much of the planet. The answer to our problems, according to these pictures, is the military answer. In "Revenge of the Fallen," the primary human antagonist is a sniveling Obama administration security adviser who pushes unpopular diplomatic options while the Decepticons make hash of the opposition.
Bay's imagery consciously evokes real-life scenes from 9/11, though with less artistry, say, than Steven Spielberg managed in his version of "War of the Worlds." In "Dark of the Moon," downtown Chicago becomes ground zero for the apocalyptic showdown. When Shia LaBeouf and company fight for their lives as their skyscraper topples, you're thrown directly back to the World Trade Center towers.
Crass? Exploitative? Even Bay would probably admit as much. But his timing has proved exquisite. Enough years had passed in the early 21st century for audiences to accept, even crave, a fantasy in which 9/11 carnage became fodder for relatively bloodless slaughter on an infinitely larger scale. The first "Transformers" came out two years after Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider said in 2005: "There's a lot of blood being spilled in the real world these days. So people don't want to see blood spilled on the screen for no good reason." No studio head has felt the need to say that sort of thing lately. The global domination of the "Transformers" films suggests we were simply waiting to see our major world cities beaten up by robot terrorists instead of human ones.
To the degree the "Transformers" trilogy is selling a reactionary message, and it's considerable, Bay's blockbusters constitute one of the great conservative victories in modern Hollywood. On the other side of the political divide, yet (like "Transformers") popular all across the voting spectrum, lies the decade's other key post-9/11 franchise, the "Bourne" trilogy.
Based loosely on Robert Ludlum's best-sellers, the trilogy began in 2002 with "The Bourne Identity," in which Matt Damon played a CIA-trained assassin scrubbed of memory, identity and clear purpose, other than to find out who he is, and to elude a perpetual stream of would-be killers. The three "Bournes" — "The Bourne Identity"; "The Bourne Supremacy"; and "The Bourne Ultimatum" — grossed $945 million worldwide, a little more than a third of the total "Transformers" franchise take. (A fourth "Bourne," starring Jeremy Renner of "The Hurt Locker" and directed by Tony Gilroy, comes out next year.)
Neither franchise depends much on human speech. They're too busy running, or fighting. The "Transformers" films are tailored for the revenge-minded adolescent boys of all ages and nationalities; "Bourne" explores more complex moral terrain, where the killing actually matters and the violence, often thrilling, carries real consequence.
The second and third "Bourne" films were made by director Paul Greengrass, and in between the two he directed one of the few truly necessary 9/11 films, "United 93." In that docudrama as well as in the fictional CIA control rooms of "Bourne," the men and women in authority are trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Greengrass relishes the irony, and in action mode, the way Greengrass handles violence and action is a world away from Bay.
The great scene, I think, of the "Bourne" films arrives in the third one, when Bourne and his fellow assassin are running all around the rooftops, alleys and streets of Tangier, Morocco. The scene culminates in an astonishing blur of an encounter in a bathroom, one of the grungiest hand-to-hand combat sequences in recent memory. It's exciting, but Greengrass makes you eat it — realize the pain and difficulty involved — in a way Bay never would. It's akin to Hitchcock's filming of the farmhouse killing in "Torn Curtain," intentionally stripped of heroics.
Every flourish and detail in the "Bourne" films is like an encoded message. Post-9/11, chaos breeds chaos; revenge breeds more bloodshed.
Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, critic Emmanuel Burdeau argues that Greengrass' "slightly hysterical imitation of documentary methods" poses an aesthetic challenge, and that "one could therefore criticize Greengrass for a level of confusion that generally points to a director who wasn't made for action. But we could also recognize the evolution of the genre and the reasons for this confusion." Little wonder why the post-9/11 narrative imagined by the "Transformers" films is so popular. Amid titanic pain and suffering, it offers kicks without a single, nagging moral doubt about why we fight.