July 30, 2009
The universe provided the opportunity to see it for free on the big screen, so I did. I never saw the first one. Maybe that matters, but I doubt it.
Now, the movie was insultingly beyond shit. It is indeed remarkable than anyone, even Michael Bay, can make So Much Movie, and still have it suck so much. But this was only to be expected. Given that, the experience of the film is best approached as a document of the cultural psyche – the stories we tell ourselves at the mass myth level are revealing material for psychoanalysis rather than film criticism – and it is on this level that we shall focus.
Given the number of comments about how incomprehensible it is, I didn’t actually have any trouble following the plot, such as it was. In fact, one of its few claims to genius was the scene were John Turturro demands a condensed plot exposition from a giant robot, who duly obliged. Actually, if anything, the film assumes a really high degree of visual literacy, but requires a suspension of narration. What is on screen happening is happening – there is a thimbleful of context and that is enough – the staged emotions and big moments have no real story to link them or give meaning, but they are understandable – they are stylised by the poor acting, direction and story to the point where they are almost as refined a representation as an opera singer performing an aria, and bearing as little connection to the actuality of the experience.
Transformers 2 is a succession of filmic Big Moments – parts of every 80’s action movie thrust together all at once in a breathless rush – with no understanding that big moments exist in a context that gives them meaning and makes them good. From Bay, we get only the Moment. Hyper-real, camera endlessly swooping in or past. As a movie it fails, and as a director, he has failed once more.
So, at the mythic/psychological level, what is revealed behind these big moments?
Transformers 2 can be read as being about the response to the current converging global crises from the male psyche and the current dominant systems of control.
What stands out is the insane hyper-militarism of American culture – a culture, which, for all its misogyny (the less said about the film’s portrayal of the feminine the better – the best moment for a woman comes from a leg-humping robot which acknowledges her sexual power), portrays its men as either completely ineffectual and lost – geek (in the negative sense of geek) heroes, or as soldiers – staunch, dumb and honourable – confronted by forces beyond their power that are remaking the world.
The reliance on military might and hi-tech effectualness is a balm to this ineffective male, providing the means by which masculinity is reclaimed and empowered.
In all this mess, the hero is the one who has certainty – not power, or smarts, or bravery, or anything other than being there – but certainty – belief – in the face of chaos and uncertainty. And this is the underlying message I would read from the cultural psyche. We feel the powers at work remaking the world, feel ourselves teetering on the cusp, and no-one is immune – the usual strengths do not prepare us, our muscle-bound heroes have failed – and what is needed is certainty. Someone who, against all the odds, knows what is going on, and what to do.
And there is this faith that humans somehow have this power, as represented in the quasi mystical revelation granted to Shia LeBouf’s character. This also seems the reason for the bizarre characters given to the robots, who are all given astoundingly awful lame personalities.
Somehow, the human – represented of course by the male throughout – is superior than the massively powerful robots, and even stranger, is sure of it (and even more weirdly, the robots even seem to think so, too). What else is going on with Bumblebee’s weird mechano-homo-eroticism for Shia LeBouf? And the unspeakably embarassing ethnic stereotype comedy robot duo? Optimus Prime plays the noble techno-savage.
These immensely powerful and ancient forces, anthropomorphized, are immature and laughable as children next to us.
This provides fuel for the human faith that we can somehow overcome these forces; while beyond us, they can be mastered. Even when the humans portrayed are so vilely heinous, shallow, pathetic, and absurd as the neurotic ineffectual sex and trivia obsessed goons populating the film. No matter how munted humanity is socially, individually, and interpersonally, somehow we will triumph. We are still the master race.
And that is the myth underlying Transformers 2. This is why this movie is being channelled through the mainstream, why it got however many hundred million dollars to make it.
We (or maybe America) need this reassuring myth.
(I don’t for a second think Michael Bay consciously intended any of this, of course. That is the point of psychoanalysis.)
Whether or not the myth is true is another thing. I think we can do better.
(And frankly, if it was satisfying on the mythic level, the movie would have been better liked, even if it was such a steaming pile of shit. (This, incidentally, is why almost no one liked the Matrix sequels – they were propagating a new myth to which most viewers were not yet receptive. But that is a much longer rant.))