A traditional review of this film is redundant. By now you already now how ridiculous it is. (If you don’t, read this laugh-out-loud link.) It includes racist, gansta rapper robots reminiscent of Jar-Jar Binks. The women in the film are either idiots (the mother) or supermodels shamelessly exploited by the camera. Its treatment of college life is moronic, even by the standards of a film this bad. And the story is such a convoluted mess, its hard to know what is going on. Instead I want to focus on the politics of the film, especially its outdated understanding of military conflict. If this sounds unnecessary, its worth noting that Bay has better relations with the US military than any other director working. His films frequently showcase US hardware and show its use in ways flattering to, and approved by, the US military. Particularly, his relationship with the Air Force is strong, so you always know his films will treat you to kinetic displays of our coolest tools.
1. Bay fetishizes military hardware, and he has been rewarded with unparalleled access. Transformers 1 was the first movie in which the F-22 Raptor and the Predator drone were shown in a film. The second has even more real-life hardware on loan, including the M1 tank, B-1, F-22, F-117, and Predators. Across Bay’s ouevre (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, T1 & T2), he has stressed big airforce hardware in such a glorifying way, that they feel like commercials for the military-industrial complex.
2. Bay’s particular interest in the airforce is comic given the slow erosion of the airforce’ actual role in America’s combat operations. Specifically, no power in the world is really ready to take on the US, and in the air least of all. The macho, fighter pilot cult of the airforce makes for cool movies like Top Gun and Stealth, but this does not actually fit what the airforce has done in US conflicts since Korea (the last air war with frequent, serious dogfights). The airforce is a victim of its own success. US air dominance is greater than on the ground or the seas, so the actual use of US airpower against other airpower is minimal. Instead, the US uses the airforce as a part of combined arms for ground support. This irks the AF brass, so Bay’s films are a nice chance to pitch the US public on the continued, but bogus, need for fighter jets. On the actual role of the US airforce in combat try here; compare that with the image you see in film.
3. Another obvious clash between the film and reality is the straightforward, good guy-bad guy action of the film, vs. the reality of US counterinsurgency & third world operations since Vietnam. This is another way in which Bay channels the military’s preferred view of itself. In Bayworld, the airforce is the dominant branch of the military. Also, the bad guys are easy to identify, so difficult questions surrounding the use of American force for the last two generations don’t exist. The Decepticons are just evil so the Autobots can, yes, behead them, and it is ok. There is no sorting between VietCong and local farmers, no accidental killings, no torture, no intercultural misunderstandings.
4. The final delusion of military conflict in Bayworld is the requirement of massive firepower. This is another US preoccupation. Part of the traditional American way of war is to use overwhelming force. The Decepticons are large, metal, hardened, military-only targets – exactly the sort of Cold War-era targets the airforce prefers to attack and which scarcely exist anymore. But the reality of US micro-operations in mixed, combatant/civilian third world environments is quite the opposite. The Decepticons are the Soviets or the Chinese. The Americans need to use all their super-cool advanced firepower to bring them down. This is the way the US military wants to fight wars. But the reality is different, and has been since Korea. We scarcely use huge, indiscriminant firepower anymore (that failed terribly, with awful civilian consequences, under Westmoreland in Vietnam). Instead everything today is geared around micro-bursts of extreme precision – the Kosovo air campaign of 1999 or the Predator strikes in Pakistan since 2008. Our most recent Iraqi dalliance with the Michael Bay, ‘blow-‘em-all-to-hell,’ approach to conflicts ended in a ‘fiasco.’
5. The film includes a cheap shot at the Obama administration. His national security advisor tries to kick the Autobots off earth, and after the Decepticon attack, Obama goes into hiding. I guess this means that Bay is a Republican. I wonder if he believes he is channeling US military discontent about Obama as C-in-C. Either way this was poor taste.
Bay’s film is silly but it tells us some important things nonetheless, as bad US action movies usually do.
A. Bay is clearly the foremost advertising vehicle of the US airforce and the US military in general. When people complain about the socially corrosive effects of the military-industrial compex, movies like this are exactly what they mean. Bay channels the US flirtation with militarism and celebrates jingoism. I find it a pleasing irony, that for all Bay’s military technology porn (long, loving shots of military metal), SecDef Robert Gates recently ended the wasteful and unnecessary F-22. Outside of Bayworld delusions of asteroids and robots from space, real US military needs are far more mundane – more soldiers, more cultural experts, better veterans care, better body armor, etc.
B. Bay also reflects the way the US military wants to fight wars and the way it wants to be perceived by the public. He avoids the messy reality of the small wars that have characterized US military conflict since Korea. The bulk of these costs are carried by the army; they involve small operations and targeted force; they require cultural sensitivity and good intelligence; there is rarely ‘moral clarity.’ Instead Bay presents simplistic good/bad moral clarity and super-sleek airshows. Awful.