Transformers: Age of Extinction

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Yes, I saw it and yes, I enjoyed it.

Yes, it was dumb, but I suspect my reasons for calling it dumb differ from yours. And just because it’s dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining on its own terms. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that the film is devoid of ideas worth discussing. Yeah, you read that correctly.  I said IDEAS.

Many seem content to simply dismiss it on the grounds of it being another Big, Dumb and Loud Hollywood Movie, but are either ignoring or missing out on the ramifications of what is being said and the more subversive moments presented. Don’t get me wrong. This film ultimately defaults to standard tropes of American collectivism, (i.e. nationalism, loyalty over individual agency, deference toward paternalistic leaders and the state, freedom as a non-natural right, fighting for a “greater good”, vengeance as a rationale for violence, etc), but despite its cop outs, there are some pretty potent portrayals of rogue government agents seeking power for its own sake, the perils of contemporary intellectual property law, and the poisonous nature of the relationship between state power and corporate power and the latter’s ultimate subservience to the former.

For those of you who don’t like apocalyptic sci-fi destructothons involving giant robots in the first place, I’m doubtful this film will make you a convert. However, for those of you who can dig that concept, this film represents another high water mark for sheer visual excess and a pretty cool story to boot. The last hour of the film is such a relentless orgy of demolition, combat, and CGI driven epicness, it is nothing short of awe inspiring.

I saw the first film and its blatant glorification of American militarism left me uninspired. I skipped the two sequels which followed, so I entered this one with very low expectations. Those who believe these films offer no narrative simply aren’t giving them enough credit.

Apparently, in the third installment the Autobots teamed up with the US military to kick ass on the Decepticons. Chicago was levelled, but we won!  This time around a CIA black ops guy (Kelsey Grammer) decides that all Autobots are enemies of the state. As it turns out, he’s working with a Cybertronic bounty hunter who is out to return Optimus Prime to his creators.  Meanwhile, the government has harvested the remains of the Decepticons and a corporate entity called KSI is using the technology to create a man-made army of Transformers, thus rendering actual Transformers obsolete. A Texan inventor and his daughter and boyfriend team up with Optimus and the Autobots to recover “The Seed” which produces Transformium, the metal from which Autobots are made and the substance sought by the government for military purposes. Much mayhem ensues and the fate of civilization hangs in the balance once again.

On the plus side:

1. Portrayal of unchecked government power.

Ultimately, the US government is the real villain in the film.

When we are introduced to Cade (Mark Wahlberg), he is a struggling mechanic/inventor trying to make ends meet with his teenage daughter, Tessa. The Feds have targeted him for giving refuge to an Autobot enemy of the state. The federal goons arrive in black SUV’s armed to the teeth and proceed immediately to put a gun to Tessa’s head. Cade asks for a warrant, but the head goon spits back “My face is my warrant”. Because this was a “Transformers” film, the impact of this scene was probably completely lost on many. Besides being a perfect visual metaphor for the nature of state power all by itself, this was also a pitch perfect portrayal of the obscene overreach currently carried out by the federal, state and local government on a daily basis.

When we are introduced to Attinger (Grammer), he basically tells the White House to fuck off.  He says that he is answerable to no one, he’s protecting God and country and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  Furthermore, his alliance with the Cybertronic bounty hunter, Lockdown is a perfect metaphor for the various proxy wars being waged throughout world by the US government.

In one particularly funny scene, he is able to forestall a full scale military assault on an alien spacecraft, because alas, he has an “asset” on board.

Attinger displays the narcissistic, entitled, venal and power hungry mentality that is intrinsic to agents of the state. At one point he says, “Innocent people will die.  This has been happening for thousands of years”.

Remarkable honesty for a giant robot film if you ask me.

2. The problem of intellectual property

There are numerous references to intellectual property in the film and this is arguably one of its central themes.

In a heated moment, Cade tells his partner that “he owns him”.

Upon acquiring an alien weapon, Cade declares that he’s “totally going to patent this thing”.

Stanley Tucci’s corporate mogul, Joshua Joyce, tells Optimus that “What we do here is science. Because if we don’t do it, somebody else will. Because you cannot stop technology.”

To which Optimus replies, “We are NOT your technology!”

This scene reveals one of the film’s subtly clever conceits. By humanizing robots, the film humanizes technology itself and asks us to reconsider the motivations and the very right of an individual to create whatever they please, let alone call it “their technology”.

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers were simply plying the simplistic dichotomy of technology wielded by “good people versus bad people” and the dehumanizing quandaries presented by contemporary IP law. Whether or not the filmmakers intended it, what it actually reveals is the poisonous attitudes of statism itself which intellectual property confers to individuals and to society in general.

The very idea of a monopoly power so great that it would allow you to own others or to call upon the power of state to exert control over others is only possible because the state makes it possible. Unfortunately, the film tries to have it both ways. It trades in on the popular cliché of corporate power and intellectual property as its own form of totalitarianism instead of making a sharper distinction between the pursuit of economic freedom and the power of the state. Through Cade’s character they make an attempt at the former though the collectivist themes ultimately prevail.

The mass proliferation of so many films based off games, toys, and comic books which reinforce similar themes of nationalism, militarism and other forms of state sanctioned violence is by itself a byproduct of the confluence of corporate military state power.

Speaking of corporate military state power…

3. The unholy alliance of corporate power and state power and the former’s subservience to the latter

This is, for me at least, one of the film’s biggest wins.

When the shit really hits the fan, Attinger completely overrides Joyce’s authority by pulling the state card.

In yet another scene, Attinger goes one further and makes his intention even more explicit by pulling a gun on Joyce and telling him point blank that he regards him as a meal ticket and a golden parachute.

I couldn’t really ask for a more honest portrayal of state power.

Admittedly, the film trades in on numerous dumb clichés.

Worst of all, it flogs the insipid and poisonous notion of freedom that is bestowed by leaders as opposed to a natural right.

In order to win the allegiance of the Dinobots, Optimus reminds them that “We’re giving you freedom!”

Oh, that’s great.  You can be free by swearing allegiance to some clown who is commanding you to enter into a military conflict.

It is at least offset somewhat by a flash of honesty uttered by one of the subordinate Autobots as they mobilize for war.

“Ugh, you just want to die for the guy. That’s leadership. Or brainwashing, or something. ”

The characters are paper thin and are doing the best with what they’re given.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the sexualized portrayal of the Tessa character.  I’ll leave those discussions to the Puritans. What I found infinitely more troubling was the suffocating and domineering paternalism of Cade.  If you can’t trust your 17 year old daughter to make good choices and handle herself then you’ve blown it as a parent, pal.

Again, for spectacle value alone, this film is hard to beat.  They spent $210 million and it looks like they spent twice that amount.  If you can’t enjoy slick, Hollywood excess like this, then by all means, watch something else.

Sure, it’s ultimately little more than glorified militarism and nationalism. But scratch the surface a little, and there are rewards to be found.

Transformers. More than meets the eye, indeed.

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