Friday, July 20, 2007


In Michael Bay’s Transformers, the U.S. gov’t is represented not as a monolithic force, homogenous in all ways, but as a collection of individuals, each of whom is capable of good, evil, ingenuity, or stupidity. Power branches out from specific bits of knowledge. To be in the know is the same as being powerful in this film, and that state of knowingness has little or nothing to do with notions of intelligence.

After the discovery of a giant alien robot at the North Pole, Herbert Hoover built his namesake Dam around the massive E.T. to keep it secret. All microchip technology was then reverse-engineered from it. The only people who know this are the President and a shadowy unit called Sector 7 (so secret even the Secretary of Defense hasn’t heard of it) represented by John Turturro’s Simmons. Therefore the President and Simmons control the most power in the gov't. This knowledge and power, however, is tempered in each character. The film’s buffoonish version of President Bush is seen only once, barefoot on a bed in the back of Air Force One ordering a ding-dong and calling the flight attendant ‘sugar.’ Simmons is similarly moronic, as well as petty and evil.

Of course, power is also invested through position. Jon Voight’s Secretary of Defense Keller is not only powerful, but smart, capable and willing to adapt to new concepts and situations easily (as when he turns two computer hackers—powerful because of their knowledge of how the aliens are attacking us—into his personal advisors.) Nothing in the character or the portrayal is played for laughs. Aligned with him, and taking direct orders from him, is the miltary, personified here by white guy Lennox and black guy Epps. Throughout Transformers, U.S. armed forces are shown to be heroic in the extreme, exemplifying a never-say-die attitude and displaying ingenuity at all moments.

The problem here is that both the Secretary of Defense and the military are ignorant of the fact from which all power in the film generates. Lennox and Epps hold a little more power than Keller because they have been in direct contact with the aliens and have survived an attack by them. Secretary of Defense Keller, however, holds none of the cards once it is revealed that Sector 7 really calls the shots. Even the computer hackers (one of whom works for the Department of Defense) in his custody are more powerful than him because they know how the aliens are hacking into their system.

Each of these characters are privileged and empowered by their knowledge (of a specific type) and form a hierarchy accordingly. Interestingly enough, the character that is closest to the aliens—and the truth—and thus at the top of the hierarchy, is not employed by the gov't at all. His grandfather made the initial discovery of the aliens, before the gov't took over, therefore knowledge of them is almost Sam Witwicky’s birthright. In addition, he is the only one who has had direct communication with the good giant alien robots, the Autobots, and knows that there are two groups of aliens on earth, one good, one evil.

The greater power held by Sam (and his girlfriend) is displayed in the scene in which Sector 7’s Simmons arrests him and his girlfriend and take them in. The Autobots rescue them and Sam is shown to be more powerful than Simmons not because he has the Autobots to back him up, but because he knows the truth of their mission. Once Sam tells Secretary of Defense Keller what he knows—investing Keller with that power—the corrupt buffoon Simmons falls into line behind those with greater knowledge of the aliens.

When expounding on this topic to a few friends in preparation for writing this post, I received some interesting responses to my ideas. Neither had seen Transformers yet. One said that the film sounded like an amalgamation of every conspiracy theory posited since Roswell. The other said that the film might be realistic in its portrayal of a U.S. gov't that is multileveled, with power spread out among those in the know. Perhaps neither of them are that far off.

No comments: