My five-year-old should be here. A bright-yellow, 30-foot-tall humanoid robot warrior is towering over the blue-carpet crowd that's gathered for the North American premiere of Transformers—tagline: "Their War. Our World." In between boot camp-style encounters with bulky security goons who act like they're guarding Air Force One, I whip out the cell and call the kid for research assistance. It's huge, it's yellow, with silver and black... "Dad, that's Bumblebee." Oh, right—I forgot. He's the one who turns into a souped-up Camaro, huh?
Several city blocks have been roped off to allow the safe procession of Transformers stars, including Earthling man-child Shia LaBeouf, and then a massive post-screening party ("Alien robots to storm Westwood Village," per the press release). Tickets to this all-American cultural event have been selling for hundreds on eBay—a marketing partner of the film, as it happens. For days, publicists have let me know that I'm lucky to be anywhere near Ground Zero of their worldwide PR assault. "Shia's grandmother can't even get in," an email informed me at T-minus four days to launch. Really? Not even with 4,000 seats spread across four theaters showing the movie simultaneously? A hundred or so frantic emails later, I get the feeling that my interest level is being tested—or maybe my tolerance for humiliation. "It's amazing how grown men transform over this movie!" says the senior Paramount flak who finally confirms my tickets for the movie and the party. Tell me about it.
And how was this standard-issue studio-movie giga-bash? Well, let's just say that alien robots didn't storm Westwood Village—not unless you count the studio's security squad as battery-operated invaders. Bumblebee was the highlight. I didn't see Michael Bay on jam-packed Broxton Avenue, but an acquaintance who works in distribution did, and told me the director's skin looked "flawless." Bay was pressing palms and fixing his hair in the midst of what would've been an outdoor dance floor if anyone had been dancing. Music—at deafening volume, of course—included New Order, old Madonna remixes, and vintage Snoop Dogg, whose beats were broken by the occasional sound-effects blast of an Air Force jet or the Dolby stomp of Megatron. (Megatron is one of the "evil" Transformers, if you're not aware.)
Otherwise, there were several open bars and tons of grub, including free Whoppers from another marketing partner, Burger King ("Attack your hunger"). No Army recruitment stand here, oddly enough, although I did spot about a dozen partygoers in military uniform—evidence of yet another marketing tie-in, and a reward, perhaps, for their employers' generous donation of tanks and F-22s to the production of the film, some of which takes place on and around a U.S. military base in Qatar.
I wonder what these ostensible patriots have made of the movie's POTUS—visible only by his feet peeking out from under a blanket, and audible only when he orders some hors d'oeuvres on the airplane: "Can you wrangle me up some Ding Dongs, darlin'?" Going in to Transformers, I really believed that Bay and his screenwriters would transform our war on terror into an us-against-them skirmish of a different kind—all of planet Earth, including Al Qaeda, versus Megatron and his super-bad toy army of shape-shifting Decepticons. Wrong. The real battle takes place on the streets of downtown L.A., where good and evil Transformers duke it out, the former battalion aided by our nation's finest. But this isn't really a movie about war. Or is it? Consider that the key line in the film is LaBeouf's: "God, I love my car."
Which reminds me: While combating the studio over access to their theater of operations, I kept noticing that the flaks' primary concern was getting me a parking pass for the evening. I'm sure I mentioned that I was staying in Westwood, less than a mile from Bumblebee, et al. But this is L.A., and I guess I was presumed to have wheels here—which I don't, this at the serious risk of death by pedestrianism. ("No sacrifice, no victory," says our hero's dad.) Marveling at a special-edition Hummer parked near the BK booth (no drive-thru service here, alas), I begin to recognize the mission of both movie and party, conscious or otherwise: to reassert the awesome primacy of car culture at a time when the impressionable core audience might be swayed against it by gas prices, global warming, and the war. Hey—cars are cool, kids! Remember, they don't just transform themselves; they transform us! Another quote from LaBeouf's 11th-grade Angeleno, this upon the metamorphosis of his Camaro, with its "high-rise double-pump carburetor," into a source of truly awesome power: "My car is alive!"
Automobiles—or nonbiological entities, as the film would have it—will save us all. Wow. As the world burns, could there possibly be a more dishonest, more dangerous message than this? Yeah, I'm well aware that I'm making too much of this naked display of flesh, fuel, guns, toys, tie-ins, and the good ol' American vroom-vroom-vroom. So, too, I confess that I bought the five-year-old an Optimus Prime when he begged me for it last month. More than that, I regularly drive an old Honda back home when I could walk or bike or take the bus; I fly on planes when I can; I pollute and corrupt the Earth in countless other ways. I go to infantilizing movies on a regular basis—and take pleasure in some of them.
So I'm guilty, no doubt. On some level, Transformers, like many a blockbuster before it, recognizes our culpability and offers absolution. "Humans are a primitive, violent race," according to Prime, who fights for our freedom to choose—even (or especially) our freedom to choose badly. "But," he continues, "there's goodness in them." Whew, yes: primitive, violent goodness. We can live with that, right? (Speaking of goodness, Transformers reserves its greatest emotion—or indeed its only emotion—for the momentarily unethical treatment of Bumblebee, which the director shoots as if it were the 21st-century Rodney King. Bay seems to feel that cars have been taking a terrible beating in some quarters.)
Now, I'm certainly no professional party-reviewer, but even I can tell that this one is running on fumes. Everyone looks disappointed, like they came expecting a Porsche and got a Neon instead. More than a few revelers have taken to wearing their paper crowns from BK—some ironically, or at least I think so. At 11:00 or so, the DJ cranks up AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" ("She was a fast machine/She kept the motor clean")—but I'm in bed by about midnight. For me, the Transformers party was like a lot of ordeals in which we find ourselves these days: I fought like hell to get in, and then, before I knew it, I was dying to get out.