Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are likening women to cars. This week they run out of gas during Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Well, Ben, the Transformers franchise traditionally fetishizes automobiles, because it’s literally “based on” a line of toy cars. But watching this third installment, I got the feeling that Michael Bay’s feelings about cars have changed—he seems ambivalent, no? The resurgent Decepticons far outnumber Autobots in Dark of the Moon; it’s hard to make a movie that appreciates the automobile when most of your car-characters are bad guys, right? When one Autobot traitor declares, “Let the humans serve us or perish!” I couldn’t help but think of the Decepticons as the Lemons from last week’s Cars 2 who wanted to restore oil hegemony. Geez, Ben, is a Michael Bay movie really saying that cars are bad?
I mean, the Decepticons wanted to make the humans their slaves—just like cars make Americans slaves to oil? Did you notice the way Decepticons drooled oil, like they were literally thirsty for it? Or how, in the battle scenes, a mechanic’s shop was destroyed, as well as more than one parking lot? How about the battles on highways, causing accidents and widespread carnage? Are the Autobots, then, supposed to be hybrids? Or electric cars, or something? Since they’re so righteous yet so underrepresented in the movie’s general automobile population? Or, shit, I think I got it: since they fight with the Americans, they represent the American auto industry, don’t they? And the Decepticons, the flood of foreign (“alien”) competitors?
That makes sense, Henry, except then why not set the film in Detroit instead of Chicago, and have the GM-made Autobots defend their adoptive hometown? I’ve puzzled over this choice of setting—are Decepticons radical vegans come to destroy America’s beef capital? aspiring Al Capones running the stolen car racket?—and decided that the location actually extends your environmental argument nicely. Chicago is America’s green urban design leader, with its concentration of environmentally certified skyscrapers and City Hall’s green roof, not to mention its long history of forward-thinking Modern architecture, the perfect target for fossil fuel-dependent Decepticons. Their attack on a new America, one (sorta) striving after sustainability, sends the city’s tall buildings crashing to the ground or into one another and clouds of office paper floating through smoke-filled skies—is Chi-town this blockbuster season’s San Francisco? Bay’s terrorism analogies are overt, and his eco-terrorism only slightly less so. But 9/11 isn’t the only bit of modern American history that figures prominently in Dark of the Moon; how about that Buzz Aldrin, Henry?
Going back for a second, Ben, I think any contemporary disaster movie has to revolve around destroyed skyscrapers, because, ten years later, it’s still the American civilian’s only reference point for mass destruction in the real world. But, Jesus, Ben, that Buzz Aldrin thing. My mouth dropped when he walks in and says to Optimus Prime, “as a fellow space traveler, it’s an honor to meet you.” And Optimus Prime answers, “the honor is mine.” No it’s not! You’re a fucking truck from an alien planet that’s alive! Anyway, yes, apparently one of this summer’s emerging themes is historical revisionism: like the X-Men origin movies have come up with conspiratorial secret histories behind the 20th century’s nuclear disasters, Dark of the Moon has a moon-landing conspiracy and an explanation for Chernobyl that incorporates Transformers mythology. So, since the Soviets caused that disaster trying to harness an unstable alien energy, does that constitute an anti-nuclear subtext, like what we saw in Green Lantern? Or does it just set up some dated Soviet perfidy so we can find a through-line from the USSR to today’s terrorists (who have their own “illegal nuclear site” in “Middle East,” which the Autobots hilariously take down). As for the NASA thing, I thought it was an easy way to expose corruption within the agency—to show that big government, and its bureaucracies, are ripe for treason. Dark of the Moon struck me as conservative in a deeply ideological sense: it believes in American exceptionalism, machismo, and small government. But in a lot of superficial ways it seemed to me pretty neutral, maybe even lefty; I mean, it lets Shia go gaga for Obama several times, whereas the last movie specifically portrayed POTUS as a tuck-tail sissy. Glenn Kenny suggested on Twitter about this movie that “whatever [political commentary] is there is just a function of its ultrareactionary aesthetic.” What do you think?
I don’t know, Henry. Do you think that moment when Bay and his trio of editors cut from the moon landing, a scene of transcendent human success and unity, to a different moon, Carly’s (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) ass in 3D close-up, would qualify as a symptom of an “ultrareactionary aesthetic”? Probably, right? What about how Megatron, having suffered severe head trauma at the end of episode two, re-emerges in sub-Saharan Africa as a Mad Max-ish horned truck rolling amidst herds of zebra and water buffalo, like some kind of nomadic tribesman. Talk about the return of the repressed! I know what you mean, though, about Dark of the Moon‘s superficial near-leftness. Notice how Carly’s aristocrat car collector boss turns out to be a spineless Decepticon collaborator, like some slimy Republican who’s in bed with oil industry lobbyists. And then there’s the whole Shia-needs-a-job subplot, in which his insane parents drive their Will Smith trailer of a caravan to D.C. to check in on their just-graduated son’s employment status. As if going against the franchise’s apparent small government agenda, our unemployed hero wants nothing more than to work for the government, to the point that he literally breaks into a Health and Human Services building—a robots base in disguise! But perhaps all these contradictory signals indicate that Bay has accepted the impossibility of making apolitical mass entertainment, and is trying to keep everybody happy. After Shia repeatedly fawns over Obama, Megatron destroys the president to whom he’s been so frequently compared, Abraham Lincoln, and takes his place on the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln-Obama-Megatron!? Yikes! I half expected the bearded marble one to come to life as in Night at the Museum 2 and kick some ass. Does Bay pull off this tenuous checking and balancing of opposing political symbolisms, Henry?
Well, no, Ben, it just feels like a muddled mess; I was left as disoriented by Transformers‘ politics as by its action sequences. There’s not much ambiguity in a line like Optimus Prime’s “today, in the name of freedom, we take the battle to them,” but there kinda was in the movie’s depiction of war, as though Bay-the-director were undercutting his screenwriter (Ehren Kruger, a poor man’s Kevin Williamson.) Shia’s narrative arc is to find his own worth in soldierhood, but there’s also his girlfriend’s hastily mentioned brother, who died in war. “You think we want his medals,” she asks Shia, “or we want him?” Shia goes to battle anyway—for love!—nobly but foolhardily, along with some all-American soldiers who do cool things like jump out of airplanes to the tune of heroic Army-ad music; but what about the climax’s horrifying, seemingly endless battle sequence? Transformers did not inspire me to enlist, Ben. But whatever ambivalence Bay shows about war doesn’t extend to his thoughts on the battle of the sexes; hooray for some kind of predictability, eh? The sexual politics are just stupid—men strong, women weak. Did you notice Shia lived in D.C. above a theater (or something?) called STRONG, and that when his girlfriend got kidnapped by baddies, she was threatened with long, twisty metal snake-things? DECEPTICON PENISES? And that the film’s one strong woman, Tony-winning Frances McDormand, repeatedly insists that she not be addressed as “ma’am,” because, “do I look like a ‘ma’am’ to you?” (What does that even mean?) Also, Megatron is undone by the fury at the idea of being anyone’s “bitch,” which causes him to behave irrationally. As for the movie’s objectification of women, well, it’s almost self-parodying—like that ass shot you mention—so I don’t even want to get into it.
Sure, there were plenty of winking over-the-top details and sequences, like Sam, Carly and their soldier buddies running, sliding and jumping around the upper half of a glass skyscraper as it topples, crashes and sinks like James Cameron’s hydraulic Titanic deck on steroids. Or former agent-turned-tell-all military memoirist Simmons (John Turturro) being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly. Or that the ship which, according to Autobot mythology, carried their potential super-weapon to crash-land on the moon, was called the Ark. That would make Sentinel Prime Noah and all the evil robots he unleashes on our planet his freight of saved species? Now there’s a muddled environmental statement for you, Henry. But what of those many hundreds of meanies? Did you notice how in this film we actually see them kill people—as opposed to Transformers 1 and 2, in which most human deaths happened off-screen or otherwise out-of-sight. Aside from the countless thousands who must be squashed by airborne cars and crumbling buildings, we see dozens of Chicagoans vaporized by Decepticon cannons. I guess it’s in keeping with this episode’s general escalation of violence—so many bots killed by having their car-spines ripped out!—but also seems symptomatic of where this franchise is headed: towards an all-robot principle cast. (Especially in light of Shia and Bay’s fight over Feist.) This aggression towards human characters extends to the audience itself, which comes out of the Transformers 3 marathon disoriented, in need of nutrition and utterly exhausted.