Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Transformers and Liberty

Written by johnleemk on 2:21:53 pm Jun 30, 2007.
Categories: ,

Today, on the occasion of my sister's birthday, I tagged along with her and her friends to see the Transformers movie. I was not expecting much, though initial critical response seems to have been good.

Fortunately I was a pessimist. As American commentator George Will once remarked of cynics, we are either pleasantly surprised or proven right.

That's not to say Transformers is a bad movie. Not at all. It's perfect — provided you turn your brain off. Sadly, people tend to avoid drawing distinctions between movies meant to be enjoyed for fun, and movies meant to make you think — Transformers is one of the former, not the latter.

I think how a movie is marketed plays a significant role in how the movie is perceived. I think Bicentennial Man was a brilliant movie, but it was ravaged by both audiences and critics because it was advertised as a movie meant to make you laugh, rather than a movie meant to make you think.

Unfortunately, a lot of Transformers fanboys seem to be raving about the depth of the movie, and how it is suited for all audiences. This seems to be because the filmmakers have marketed it to them as a deep movie, when it patently is not.

Apparently, a major theme of the movie is about "coming of age" — but if there was any such theme at all, I could not discern it. If the movie had any coherent message at all besides "Dude, robots, soldiers and pretty girls are so cool!" I think it probably had something to do with the question of freedom.

After all, the leader of the good robots, Optimus Prime, expounds on the importance of freedom of individual choice a couple of times in a very awkward exposition on liberty. (Its intent was probably to have some propaganda for freedom, but the presentation was done so poorly, I doubt anyone will actually take this message away.)

The movie, however, raises far more important questions than it answers about freedom — questions worth pondering. One of them: did the moviemakers actually intend this, or did they accidentally end up pointing out that freedom may not be so absolute? (You probably want to stop reading now if you would hate to see a possible spoiling of the ending.)

Despite Optimus Prime's awkward insistence on the importance of choice — his battle is being waged on the premise that human beings have the right to choose — the movie's denouement denies choice to the human race.

After all, when the film ends, what do we have? A classic government cover-up, hiding the junk corpses of the extraterrestrial robots miles under the ocean. This cover-up seems to be endorsed by Optimus Prime, since he is the one who narrates it without even a suggestion that he disapproves.

During the credits, we see the parents of the teenage protagonist insisting that there is no cover-up, and that there are no aliens because they are in America, the land of the free, and hey, the government would tell us if there was something up, right?

This may be a subtle dig at the suggestion that we ought to be protected from ourselves, but it feels like it was just added for the sake of a laugh, rather than to even attempt to consistently handle the issues of freedom and choice.

After all, freedom is predicated on information. You cannot choose if you do not know what the choices are. If Optimus Prime is fighting for humans to have the freedom to choose, why is he tacitly endorsing the decision to hide the knowledge of extraterrestrial life from humans, the decision to deny them the choices consequent from this knowledge?

The movie's failure to consistently approach this issue makes it very dissatisfying for the careful observer, and these gnawing questions it raises can give the philosopher a headache.

After all, freedom is good, right? But the movie is implicitly saying that humans can't handle the knowledge of extraterrestrial life — and it may be right. After all, how would we react to a piece of information that completely alters how we view the universe?

The same line of thinking probably applies to massive catastrophic natural disasters, etc. — governments have shown a historical reluctance to disseminate full knowledge of these events' scope lest it cause unnecessary panic and complicate efforts to manage the disaster.

Of course, I think these arguments are a little weak. But they merit examination nonetheless, and it is good that Transformers has — perhaps unintentionally — raised them.

That is, if anyone watching the movie can bother to look past the illogical plot and sometimes hilarious attempts to sound intelligent (I'm still not entirely sure how "quantum mechanics" would have enlightened the US military about the alien invasion).

Transformers is plainly low-brow fare — it's fun, but the only deep issues it raises are those likely to be drowned out by its waves of mindless action, family-safe comedy, and really cool special effects. It's not a shame — it could have been much worse — but hopefully we can think about the questions the movie subtly raises, if only to take away more from it than just a good time.

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