Nothing that happens in Transformers: Age of Extinction makes any coherent sense, narratively or visually. But there’s a moment that sticks out for its sheer non sequitur audacity. It happens two hours and 20 minutes into the movie, when there’s still twenty minutes left—dear god, Trans4mers sucked—and after some of the bad Transformers appear in the sky with a giant vacuum that starts pulling cars and buildings and Chinese pop stars up into its maw. A Hong Kong law-enforcement officer exclaims (in English): “We gotta call the central government for help!”
CUT TO: Beijing, China. The Chinese Defense Minister is walking through an important-looking building. We know he’s the Chinese Defense Minister, because one of his subordinates tells him: “Defense Minister…there’s a crisis in Hong Kong!”
The Defense Minister walks outside, where the media is waiting for him. “The Central Government will protect Hong Kong at all costs,” he says, calm. “We have fighter jets on the way.”
There’s no reason for this scene to be in the movie. There’s no payoff. The jets appear later, vaguely firing missiles at the spaceship-vacuum—but that’s just background, some cool screensaver-CGI while Mark Wahlberg hugs his daughter and Optimus Prime gives a speech. Now, admittedly, there’s no reason for any scene to be in a Michael Bay movie—but if you’re interested about the future of Hollywood, the Defense Minister scene is unquestionably the only interesting moment in the whole terrible movie.
Trans4mers was co-produced in some capacity by the China Movie Channel, a Beijing-based company. You could arguably look at Age of Extinction as a Chinese film. Or anyhow, it’s roughly as Chinese as it is American. The film featured popular Chinese actress Li Bingbing in a role that was terribly written but vastly less embarrassing than whatever Kelsey Grammer was playing; it vaguely redesigned the Dinobot Transformers to resemble mythic Chinese dragons. It was shot in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland—and in a part of Detroit remade to look like Hong Kong.
Hollywood’s outreach to Chinese audiences has influenced some key creative decisions in big movies, usually in tiny and embarrassingly obvious ways: Changing the Chinese bad guys in the Red Dawn remake to North Koreans back when Hollywood wasn’t scared of North Korea; giving Chinese singer-actress Fan Bingbing a complete nothing role in X-Men: Days of Future Past; adding in some hilariously unnecessary scenes for the Chinese release of Iron Man 3 (featuring Fan Bingbing!). Even the best moments of Chinese audience-bait can feel out-of-sync; Skyfall makes Macau look like a Blade Runner-themed water park, complete with a maneating Komodo dragon.
But if you’re a fan of conspiracies, then Transformers: Age of Extinction practically qualifies as a Zapruder film. Trans4mers drifts off our general skepticism of the American government—the bad guy is a CIA agent—but the Chinese government gets the propaganda-film glamour moment. “The Central Government will protect Hong Kong at all costs”: That’s a line that rings weird, even if you don’t know the historical context.
Trans4mers made a lot of money. More specifically, it made a lot of Chinese money: A little over $300 million, $55 million more than it made in America. In the same year, Need for Speed grossed about $66 million in China. (All numbers come from Box Office Mojo and should probably be treated with absolute skepticism.) That’s $23 million more than it made in the United States, which probably explains why, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Trans4mers co-studio China Movie Channel is joining with Jiaflix and 1905 Pictures to develop a sequel. The Chinese joint venture is teaming up with Electronic Arts to create the film. Disney distributed the first Need for Speed, but there’s no mention of their involvement—presumably because Disney is about as interested in seeing another Need for Speed as you are.
This announcement reflects a few different aspects of the movie business right now. There’s the videogame thing: Game companies are trying once again to get into the film business, which is why Ubisoft keeps making noise about all the creative people vaguely attached to Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell and Watch Dogs. There’s the franchise thing: Literally any movie that made a reasonably amount of money can get a sequel now, even an unmemorable Fast & Furious ripoff. But by far the most interesting aspect of the Need for Speed sequel is its geo-economic backstory: A videogame created by a North American company, adapted into a movie by Hollywood, will now get sequelized as an official Chinese co-production, filmed to some large extent in China with a Chinese crew.
This doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the quality of Need for Speed 2; it’s almost certainly going to be better than Need for Speed 1, because almost every movie is. It’s completely wrong-headed to argue that more Chinese financing is somehow “bad” for Hollywood. Hollywood needs money to make movies, and they’ll take it where they can get it. It’s not like every movie with Chinese financing is somehow intrinsically propagandist: China Film Co. financed Furious Seven, but Furious Seven doesn’t feature any Chinese propaganda, because it’s too busy with all the Abu Dhabi propaganda. (China Film Co. has also co-financed a pair of Legendary movies, Seventh Son and Warcraft, which were both set in medieval landscapes where magic solves most human rights abuses.) Hollywood also enjoys making money off their movies, and Chinese audiences are buying an awful lot of movie tickets.
Then again, it’s also not like Chinese financing is good for Hollywood films. If Hollywood wants to get its movies released in China, it needs to get the approval of the Chinese government—something that can’t help but call to mind the history of censorship in Hollywood, and the bad old days of weirdo anti-semite Joseph Breen, whose power as a censor could be felt in explicit ways (no inter-racial anything) and implicit ways (nothing that even vibes vaguely communist.) Twenty years ago, Chinese director Zhang Yimou made To Live, a brilliant film about average people living through the postwar decades of Communist rule. To Live earned critical raves and tied for the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes; it was also banned in China. In 2002, Yimou filmed Hero, an awesome-looking movie that makes an explicit argument for totalitarian rule, and all Yimou’s (popular, well-financed) work since then reflects a turn away from hard truths into decadent imagery—an artistic evolution that reached its apotheosis with Yimou’s already-legendary opening to the 2008 Olympics.
You could argue that Yimou’s turn reflects the struggle of the artist in an ideologically repressive regime; former EW critic Owen Gleiberman called all the focus on visuals an “aesthetic survival strategy.” Then again, you could argue that Marc Webb deciding to shoot the utterly god-awful Amazing Spider-Man 2 on beautiful 35 mm was an aesthetic survival strategy—when an oppressive regime like Sony is forcing you to follow a narrative set in stone 40 years ago, what else can you do beyond make it look cool? (From this perspective, Michael Bay actually looks like the smart one. America, China, Victoria’s Secret: He’s an equal-opportunity propagandist, willing to make anyone look cool as long as they give him money and the opportunity to stick a camera behind some hot chick’s behind.)
But it could be that Need for Speed 2 reflects a greater shift in power behind the scenes. Companies like the China Movie Company might be in the co-production business right now, but as THR‘s Kim Masters noted a couple years ago, the long-term goal for everyone involved is to make China’s own version of Hollywood. There may come a day when the biggest movies in China are entirely Chinese. It’s not crazy to imagine a Transformers sequel—say, Transformers 8—with everyone speaking Mandarin. Certainly, that’s less crazy than imagining a Transformers sequel that isn’t terrible.