Category Archives: war

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

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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, and this is a completely understandable position. Hollywood blockbusters like this always carry ideological programming and those who dismiss the film are either ignoring or missing out on the ramifications of what is being said. 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 cliches, there are merits, too. If you peer beyond the surface a little, you get a glimpse of what’s really going on behind the curtain of power. The entire film is basically a portrait of rogue deep state agents and black budget military projects. It’s also highlighting the blurred relationship between the state and the corporate sector 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.

Unchecked Deep State Power

Ultimately, the US government is the real villain in the film. Specifically, the deep state.

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 is a Transformers film, the impact of this scene is 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.

Transhumanism

The entire franchise is arguably a giant commercial for transhumanism and scientism. What better way to acclimate people to the AI revolution than to have anthropomorphic robots who save the world?

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 is the film’s clever conceit. By humanizing robots, the film humanizes technology itself and asks us to reconsider the motivations and the right of an individual to create whatever they please, let alone call it “their technology”. Robots have rights too, you know.

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers were simply plying the simplistic dichotomy of technology wielded by “good people versus bad people”. In this respect, it is yet another spin on Nietzschean will to power.

I would also argue that the film touches on the dehumanizing quandaries presented by contemporary IP law. Whether or not the filmmakers intended it, what it actually reveals is the poisonous attitudes which intellectual property confers to individuals.

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. Ultimately, it wants you to see corporations as villains and the State as good as long as it’s in the Right Hands.

The mass proliferation of so many films based off games, toys, and comic books which reinforce these themes is by itself a byproduct of the confluence of corporate military state power.

Speaking of corporate military state power…

The Corporate Military State

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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The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, Jackson’s tiresome sops to the revolutionary spirit detract from from the traditional mindset that made LOTR click.

The LOTR series is already an anachronism in our age of globalization and multiculturalism. Jackson does indeed place emphasis on biracial love affairs and multicultural cooperation, but the world of Middle Earth is a world of racial and cultural distinction. The various nation states within Middle Earth are very proud of their cultural heritage, and are quite keen on seeing them continue. This entire prequel series was entirely dedicated to the dwarves reclaiming their homeland. Naturally, there is also great deference to elders, tradition, history and authority. In this respect, the LOTR series is deeply conservative.

Jackson exploits this veneration of authority to portray the various acts of defiance as virtuous. These individual acts of defiance occur very selectively and the agenda behind them isn’t difficult to discern. Remember, kids. Despite the fact that the societies of Middle Earth have built a robust heritage and culture over millennia, it’s the spirit of rebellion that wins the day.

Tolkien wrote these races as having rich and distinctive histories. Subsequently, they honor authorities and respect the hierarchical order of their respective monarchies, military leadership and aristocracy. Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders. The dwarves pay obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth do not make much allowance for the province of individual agency. In contrast to the respectful treatment Jackson gave these societies in the original LOTR, he puts authority in a less charitable light in this film. Obviously, people who hold positions of power can become corrupt, but Jackson seems to be making choices that conform to contemporary sensibilities.

The most libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Of course, Bilbo’s defiance ends up helping Thorin so we’re meant to see Gandalf as some shortsighted dolt. But when nearly every piece of pop culture promotes the same message around defying authority, it just turns this into humdrum pablum that blends with everything else.

The film places your sympathies squarely with the dwarves. They are the outsider race in Middle Earth and they’re the wandering Israelites seeking to reclaim their homeland. But they’re not without moral failings either. The film attributes Thorin’s moral lapse to greed. His obsession with Erebor’s existing treasure coupled with his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. In place of one of the seven deadly sins, the “Dragon’s curse” is the great evil that befalls Thorin Oakenshield. Naturally, this provides an opening to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn bastard who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. Covetousness does indeed have its downside, but flogging the old materialism fallacy is a little too convenient in an age where socialism is regaining purchase in the mind of the youth.

The most interesting stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because Jackson gets away with a full throated nationalism that would be scorned if seen as just white people. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the troops? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes! Jackson inadvertently makes alt-right dwarves the sympathetic heroes.

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown brings out the best in the citizenry. The citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. FEMA was not necessary. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown! He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt like a forced and overwrought sop to multiculturalism. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they deferred to tradition and suffered. Jackson obviously wants you to see the downside of traditional norms and as a wedge of division.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. Jackson feels like he’s coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.

The Imitation Game (2014)

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Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The story of Alan Turing simultaneously touches on the history of modern computing and cryptography, the contribution military intelligence made to the Allied victory in WW2 as well as the repression of gays and women by the State.

The story also perfectly captures the tortured contradiction at the core of democratic capitalism; to pursue true individualism is to pit yourself against the will of the State.  

The film deals primarily with Turing’s groundbreaking work at Bletchley Park as he leads a team of cryptographers in the development of a machine which eventually cracked the Nazi codes and hastened the victory of the Allied forces.
 
The performances are fantastic across the board, but Benedict Cumberbatch deserves praise for his excellent portrayal of Turing. His performance gives us a portrait of a man grounded in the conviction of his ideas who advocated for logic and reason over sentimentality while also revealing how these virtues came across as callousness to his associates and acquaintances.  

Though it’s a hardly a serious flaw, I have a minor quibble with Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke. Her performance smacks of a new kind of cinematic cliché; the Virtuous, Intelligent, Tolerant, Independent Woman who is without flaw and beyond reproach.  Naturally, she’s brilliant, compassionate, and suffers the sexist indignities she experiences with class and aplomb.  It feels less like an actual person and more like a caricature and a sop to feminists and sanctimonious culture cops. It seems like a performance geared towards those who go to films looking for female characters who meet some idealized fantasy of leftist feminist virtue and are monitoring films for their fidelity to the Bechdel Test.  It’s hilarious and unsurprising that both Turing’s biographer and niece castigated the filmmakers for romanticizing their relationship and for choosing to cast a glamorous actress to play her.
   
The ending is heartbreaking and the emotions it wrenches are solidly earned. Turing’s death is a scathing indictment of state power. Though I hope that many will leave the film with this impression, the cynic in me dreads the desire this film will undoubtedly stoke to seek state power for “good”.

Turing was a giant and this film is a moving tribute to his immense legacy.

Highly recommended.  

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