This is the edited and complete version of an earlier review.
I’ve just walked out of the theater after seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the sequel to the 2007 blockbuster. In short, it’s not a good movie, not even for fans of science fiction or of the line of products associated with the robotic toys.
But the film is more problematic than not being good. Though it feels odd to make these kinds of extreme measurements, “Transformers 2” is dangerous. What’s worse, it might not be aware of how dangerous it is.
And let me say, right from the start: this is not a movie blog. I write about movies, and TV, and other forms of culture, but I don’ fancy myself a movie reviewer. I am a person who love popular culture, and who also happens to be a trained specialist in the history of race and ethnicity in the United States. I can shut the History Professor side of me off to watch movies and TV, and I often do. But there are times when the content on the screen is so messed up, it activates that other side of my brain and keeps it alert and on guard. This was one of those times.
If you want plot, go somewhere else. And I don’t mean because I don’t want to sum up the movie. When it comes to plot, “Transformers 2” is a little light. Good robots fight with humans against bad robots and teens must work with the good to save the world.
Alot of that plot is contrived, that is, it feels unnatural, forced, and made up. Like when the Decepticons learn where their fallen leader–Megatron–and powerful piece of energy metal (“Allspark”) are being hidden by the US government. They learn when one of their own hacks into a satellite, just as one of the characters is summing all this information up in a conversation with military leaders.
The forced plot–obviously built by a bunch of “creative” heads who know what a summer blockbuster is supposed to look like–is mirrored in many of the sequences and visual decisions. This film is as derivative as you have ever seen. In other words, it “steals” from a whole bunch of other cultural products–in almost unconscious ways. It takes from Voltron, The Matrix, Alien, and an assortment of other sci-fi and action sources. That’s not bad, in and of itself. But here, it is a reflection of the lack of creativity in the making. They steal what they think is cool to make a movie they think is also cool.
All of this doesn’t necessarily make the movie “dangerous,” mind you. But it does reflect the larger problem that does. “Transformers 2” assaults you with a flurry of images laden with unquestioned sexism, racism, and militarism. Just like it unconsciously takes from other cinematic sources which have formed our expectations of the science fiction world, it also takes the gender, racial, and political constructs that inform the mainstream reality of many (young boys) and packages them in a glorified (and uninterrogated) way.
It does this without thinking, but you feel the effects of it as you watch. Racial stereotypes (like the guy with bad teeth in the deli) are used for comic fodder, as our men who “act like women” (like the geek who is crying in the car or Shia LaBeouf screaming when the “hot girl” turns out to be something else). The expectation of what is appropriate and needed in the movie is based on the assumption of white supremacy (like the US having the defend the Third World and the entire planet). It glorifies war and the military, sexualizing violence as heroic acts of the young.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
The film is masculinist. To say it is sexist would almost miss the point. It glorifies masculinity as it actively feminizes everything it does not glorify.
Shia LaBeouf’s character–Sam Witwicky–embodies the values of the film. He isn’t the jock, but he isn’t the geek or nerd either. He isn’t classically good looking, but he isn’t ugly either. He is meant to be you, the teenage, male viewer. He is meant to be the you that doesn’t think you’re good enough but every once in awhile gets glimpse at yourself in the mirror and thinks, yeah, you just might be sexy enough.
Sexy enough, that is, to get a girlfriend like Megan Fox. Fox is our stereotypical “girl in need” (like the Earth, the non-western world, and, to an extent, the nerd). Yes, she is a participant in the trials and tribulations of the group of young people trying to save the world. But she is more the person being dragged along with Sam than she is an active and necessary player. When the crisis hits the fan, she takes her direction from Sam.
Sam is the fullest embodiment of the basic conceit of the video game genre. He is the average kid who can save the entire world (maybe even the galaxy). He has a destiny, one that is assured even though he is so plain and average. Just like you, the gamer sitting in his underwear holding a joystick and sitting in front of his computer, he is going to save us all and do the incredible. (Male fantasy anyone?)
As if to acknowledge what the movie is about on the gender plane, the struggle between the two teenage lovebirds is who will say “I love you” first, in effect, who will open themselves up to weakness first. Megan Fox’s character–Mikaela Banes–is trying to get Sam to say it, seemingly needing Sam to say it. She tells him, in an illustrative scene, maybe all girls just want a dangerous man. Sam, all appearances to the contrary, is that man, leading her on a testosterone-filled adventure on two continents and saving the sun from destruction.
The movie celebrates the values and characteristic most traditionally associated with masculinity. It values and rewards being tough, necessary, brave, unemotional, and willing to do what is needed when it is unavoidable. Like the gender stereotypes it portrays, the movie is about war being sexy. The characters avoid death at every turn, usually by running from a explosive of some sort. More on that below…
Dear god this movie is colonialist! White, American men save the day. They are the ones with technological supremacy. All others are absent. Even when China is being attacked, the Chinese army (which is, in reality, big and technologically advanced) is absent. When Jordanians comes in to help Americans and a Brit, they end up crashing, and becoming another burden for the white man to have to save.
The movie celebrates the “reluctant imperialist.” In a way, that is the dominant strain of imperialism in our culture. We are reflexive about war and empire, from our popular conception of the war in Vietnam. But it doesn’t close us off to “necessary war.”
For example, in the film, we see a politician who is the “bad guy.” He is a bureaucrat who is standing in the way of the noble men who are trying to do their job. He complains about not being given access to the robots technology on behalf of the nation, and we know why he hasn’t. Like the robots, we don’t trust him. He has none of the nobility of masculinity to shepherd the use of that power.
He then asks if the robots would leave the planet if the president asked, describing Earth as “our planet.” Of course, it is not. He is a representative of the United States (and the President of the United States). The U.S. doesn’t own the world. Well, it might not, but who else can save it? Though they seem like they are the opposite of the politician, the men of the military who fight with the robots are very much doing the same thing the politician is: they are reflecting an imperialist impulse and acting on it. They step in when nobody else can (see notes on gender above) and save the day.
Race is most obviously a problem in the robot characters themselves. In terms of voices, unless I am mistaken, the only times a person of color voices a robot it is either a Decepticon or a comical, racial caricature (like Mudflap and Skids). Every leader robot, or one with “historical” significance, has an American or European accent. The colonialist narrative served piping hot!
The movie’s climax takes place away from the “modern” (“First”) world and takes place in the “pre-modern” world of Eygpt. For those who don’t know, Eygpt was part of a European colony for years, and an object of colonial desire for many more. Here, it becomes the site of a contest for the Earth, where Americans and Brits step in and save the day. They save us with their modern weapons and tactics but, ultimately, with the heart and verve of a young, white teen.
The past is not present, it is all about the future. As the robots destroy the most famous pyramids in the world (which we learn, of course, were built by aliens) we don’t worry at the destruction. We know we are safe in a land of the future. As Optimus Prime rises from his battle, in tact and strong, he stands next to an even more crumbling Sphinx. Ah, yes, the robot have saved the day. And, as we see the final scenes, featuring the young Sam and the mighty Optimus standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, we know they have saved the days to come as well.
You might think this makes “Transformers 2” a bad movie, or a “politically incorrect” one, but dangerous? How is any film dangerous?
Well, let me say, first, I don’t want to ban the film or anything. I’m fine with it being made, and with people seeing it. But people shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking it is just mindless entertainment.
Films like this one (and any cultural product like this) help to glorify a host of problematic ideologies and practices, all of which serve as the backbone for real peoples’ pain, abuse, and oppression. Even worse, it naturalizes them, making them seem common and simply “the way it is,” giving them further fuel for the future. The young boys (mostly) who see this film and others like it, before they have the critical analytical skills to make sense of it, areslowly but surely being prepped to be supporters of a status quo that is simply f’ed up.
Look at it this way. By the end of the fiscal year 2008-09, the US military will have trained more unmanned drone pilots than actual bomber and fighter pilots combined. That’s right! For the first time in history, we’re training more people to fly war robots than actual planes. The old argument that kids who play video games are being desensitized to war is kind of moot now. They are actually and quite literally being trained. They learn the basics, the foundational skills that it takes to work a robot and kill remotely.
This movie isn’t going to start a war. But it isn’t going to hurt a war being start either. By glorifying the most disturbing trends and visions in our social fabric and crafting them as something that is good and noble, it is one other voice in a choir of voices singing the same, tired, oppressive song of violence.
Plus, the dialogue sucked.