By Christopher Campbell | Spout June 29, 2011 at 1:04AM
The following is a lengthy discussion of elements of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” which contains some minor spoilers.
In the same week Tom Hanks seems to be delivering his least appealing film ever, Hollywood continues its apparent interest in "Forrest Gump"-like historical fantasy. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" works in a conspiracy plot involving NASA's past that the few genuine Michael Bay loyalists will appreciate (the first ten minutes are more like "The Rock" meets "Armageddon" than either of the previous "Transformers" installments), and the revisionism is akin to what we got throughout the entirety of "X-Men: First Class." Yet while I compared that prequel, with its Kennedy cameo and its tentacles all over real-life past events, to a script by Eric Roth ("Gump," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Bay's movie shares more with the effects side rather than narrative aspects of those "history-humping" epics.
Kennedy is here, too, as is Nixon and Obama, the latter meeting with Shia LaBeouf's character in such Gump-ish fashion that if only Sam had said he had to pee would I know for certain it's intentional (and that would be fine in a film with as much winking going on as "Dark of the Moon" has). Weirdly enough, the digital magic Robert Zemeckis used for "Gump" is abandoned by Bay for strange mixing of authentic material and weak-resemblance impersonation. In Nixon's scene, the real and the reenacted actually share the screen as a TV monitor displays the former in the foreground and the latter in soft focus behind. For a movie otherwise exemplifying the best in special effects, it's a startlingly cheap-looking moment. It also might be the first time I've seen such distinction since the David Letterman bit in "American Splendor."
"Forrest Gump" Needed More Explosions and Victoria's Secret Models
Regardless, it's kind of a funny idea, making the Space Race about a mission to check out a crashed ship from Cybertron in much the same way "First Class" makes the Cuban Missile Crisis the effect of an evil mutant-designed world domination plot. And hey, that means there's a Cold War thing going on, which keeps the old conflict hotter than ever this year (by the way, the best film I've seen recently that reflects the dull absence of Cold War tension that Hollywood is clearly nostalgic for: Michal Marczak's military outpost hybrid flick "At the Edge of Russia," which I just saw at Silverdocs). As are, in an oddly timely manner, old nuclear plant disasters. First we had Three Mile Island referenced in "Super 8" and now Chernobyl figures a bit into "Transformers."
That's not the only 1986 disaster evoked in the new movie, either. At one point late into the plot (I think it's around hour four?), a giant space shuttle explodes in a very similar manner to the Challenger accident. I mean, it's shot down, which isn't what happened to the real shuttle 25 years ago, but the explosion itself looks like that of the Challenger. Surprisingly there is no limnic eruption like the extremely tragic one at Cameroon's Lake Nyos that same year, but I don't recall that being such big news. And it doesn't have anything to do with a Cold War-related nation. Meanwhile, also on the subject of disasters, I've heard people have unavoidably thought of 9/11 while watching Chicago skyscrapers fall in the trailer. In the greater context of the movie, though, this lengthy city-wide destruction isn't so much 9/11 as "Terminator: Salvation."
"When You're Not Going to Win, You Join Their Side"
Back to the Cold War: 1986, in addition to being when the animated "Transformers: The Movie" was released, was also smack in the middle of Reagan and Gorbachev's summit meetings, with the second, failed, summit taking place in October of that year. What is the significance? Well, the major theme of "Dark of the Moon" is the idea that there is only good and bad, no room for compromise. I know, it's kind of fitting for a movie that ultimately can only be rated as good or bad in the Rotten Tomatoes era of criticism and is currently going through heated debates over who's on which side (I personally am very neutral on the film, because it really doesn't matter if a movie like this is definitively thumbs up or thumbs down -- which is fine since this "review" won't affect the Tomatometer anyway). Anyway, just as with the two-sided conflict of the Cold War, in the world of "Transformers" you can only be on either the side of the (good) Autobots or the (bad) Decepticons.
The funny thing to think about is which of these definitive robot sides applies to which side of the Cold War. I see the Autobots as actually being the Communists. Because at a very Cold War-like moment, one of the good guys turns out to be a sort of spy for the bad guys, and he's not just any good guy. He's their leader. Much like how Gorbachev brought down his own side by attempting to work with the other side, in the name of peace, Sentinel Prime's aim for a unification for the greater good of all Transformers and their home planet is seen as a failure for Autobots. There is probably something to the idea that a German car (the heavily promoted Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG) winds up being of kinda complicated ownership, yet ultimately is on the Decepticon (Western) team, too.
Obviously this is a weird political stance for a blockbuster movie to have. But, hey, it did have its world premiere in Moscow of all places, right? Anyway, if you like I can go even further into this basket of nonsense -- and I like nonsense; if you like "Dark of the Moon," you certainly do as well -- and name another person Sentinel Prime and his disappointing compromising/partnering with the enemy represent: Barack Obama. First of all, it's hinted early in the film following that Gump-ish interaction between Sam (LaBeouf) and POTUS (pronounced as a word by Sam in the movie) that nobody really gives a crap about the current President, or at least doesn't find Sam's award from Obama of any worth at all.
So if he's also read as represented by Sentinel Prime, that makes the Autobots the U.S. Democratic Party, annoyed with him for giving in way too much to the Republican Decepticons for what he sees as a unifying good for us all. Little does he know that his chummy golf games and lack of real promised change is going to lead to human slave labor and a Windy City war zone (look what you've done to your hometown, POTUS!). It all makes perfect sense that Sentinel Prime is red, like the Republican Party (or red, like the Communist Party), while Optimus Prime is part blue (for the Democratic Party) and part red (for the Communist Party). Wait, no, the color thing is just as confusing as a Transformer fight. Never mind.
Mr. Megatron Goes to Washington
Now, I don't know what Bay's political leanings are (the other two "Transformers" movies took minor jabs at Bush and Obama, their respective contemporary POTUS), but he's often thought of as having rather conservative imagery in his films (you know, because patriotism and lots of flag waving is conservative). And he arrived on the wings of Jerry Bruckheimer, a well-known Republican Party supporter. If he were uber conservative, his collaboration with Steven Spielberg, producer on this movie, is the greatest political filmmaking mix since the days of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin's partnership. (Megatron's scene at the Lincoln Memorial would break Jefferson Smith's heart, wouldn't it?).
And by greatest, of course, I don't mean quality so much as scope. Yet how can they work together if their movie is clearly against the idea of two sides coming together for a greater good? Wait, is the fact that "Dark of the Moon" is, for the sake of the argument, a mess of epic proportions an intended piece of evidence in support of its own cause? If so, this could be the greatest (scope) meta political allegory of our time, maybe.
Who Watches the Transformers?
Actually, it's just a silly, nonsensical movie with some good and some bad. It's also, as much as I thought "X-Men: First Class" was going here, the real movie "Watchmen" wanted to be. At least in the way the Autobots are set up as unstoppable superheroes at the start of the movie. They're shown as working with the government and assisting in covert missions to places like the very generically yet also quite inclusively labeled "The Middle East," where they eliminate the possibility of American enemies developing WMDs. If only the robots had made it here in the 1960s rather than crashing on the Moon, we could have won Vietnam and continued the Nixon Administration through the '80s.
Of course, in a world of such mega heroes, the balance of power kind of eliminates the existence of enemies, too. It's only when Doctor Manhattan is banished that the Cold War can really matter again. Then a mastermind, a la Sentinel Prime, attempts to save the majority of the world by destroying a city and having the Americans and Soviets united for a single cause rather than destroy each other. Both "Watchmen" and "Dark of the Moon" present difficult ideological situations. And in the end of this movie, is it really much different for the Autobots to wipe out their enemy completely, leaving only one side, than it would be for the two sides to work together (just forget the human slaves part for a moment) as one side? In theory, I like the sound of the compromising cooperative plan over the one side takes over completely plan. Now my childhood hero (Optimus Prime) seems a lot less perfect to me. It's kind of like what happened to the office of the Presidency, and to the theoretical utopia of Communism, as I grew older, too.
The Most Michael Bay Shot of All Time:
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is now playing everywhere
Recommended If You Like: "Transformers"; "Burn After Reading"; "Terminator: Salvation"