Transformers

Not shown: cell-transmission-induced population collapse

Don't you wish your first car did this?

A nerdy-but-wealthy high schooler goes with his father to visit a local used-car dealership run by a humorously sleazy Bernie Mac. The son, Shia Labeouf, is drawn to an ancient-yet-alluring Camaro, but his father (whose tightfistedness might lead us to the conclusion that his multimillion-dollar-mortgage is underwater) refuses to move past his stated $4000 limit. But soon a burst of sound, seemingly emanating from the mysterious Camaro, breaks all the other windows in the lot and the dealer agrees to settle for $4000. On its steering wheel is a strange logo, presumably aftermarket: the angular outline of a face.

How have the ‘Transformers’ films, despite their generallyagreedupon narrative awfulness, made nearly $2 billion dollars worldwide?

In the film, barely three scenes pass before the Camaro makes its first intervention: as Shia frets and pines over the obviously not-for-him Megan Fox, the car stereo loudly plays a clip from a song–‘Let me take you home.’ Soon Sam is driving her home, and shortly thereafter, when the duo are ambushed by a police car that turns into an evil robot, the Camaro unfolds itself, becoming an anthropomorphic martial artist and defending both Shia and Megan from chittering evil. Over the course of the next two hours, we learn that the Camaro is in fact a ‘Transformer’ known as Bumblebee, an endearingly protective (and damaged!) refugee from an alien planet who eventually plays a major role in saving not only Shia and Megan but humanity itself.

We see bad films to be comforted. What is an automobile? In the world of Transformers it is more than an appliance. It is a conspirator (defeating our father’s parsimony and a salesman’s greed with lighthearted vandalism) a sexual ally (one whose stereo says what we cannot, one on whose hood we will eventually make out with Megan Fox) a bodyguard (defeating the enemy when he is on the very brink of killing us) and finally a savior of worlds (defending all of humanity against a menace of his own nature).

If you have seen an advertisement for a Prius, or a Porsche, you are familiar with the great myth of American automobile culture. Purchasing a car will change the world, turning it from white to green and causing elegant shimmerpop to play. By purchasing a car we will exchange the morning commute for a heroic struggle to save the world. We will exchange the world in which we give our wives a stapler for the world in which driving is a form of dreaming, in which your human potential is fulfilled by a consumption decision. Our automobile will have a moral valuation.

And, although it is less common in the commercials, there is another: that our car will be a social ally. It will help us make, locate and impress our friends. Perhaps–if we are lucky–our car will even be a friend. It will speak for us before we can, comfort us when we need, defend us against comparisons with our friends. Our automobile will have a personal valuation.

But despite the myths it is common in this world for a car to be a burden. Our car makes demands of us: it breaks and must be fixed, it depletes and must be refueled, it must be insured. And it is too common for it to give little back. It is too common in this world for a car to be a mere appliance, an assembly of parts lacking a soul. Not Bumblebee. Bumblebee has all of these things and more. Purchasing him, in the space of two hours, converts Shia-the-afterthought into a dangerous Megan-Fox-dating protagonist, and converts his world from a frustrating banality into a world of brave, dramatic triumph.

Transformers: the myth that, within each of our cars, there is a secret soul waiting to be revealed. The myth that one day, when we are most desperate (for love or safety) our car will transform into a crusader, one who fights not just on our behalf but on behalf of our tribe. And that in this moment we ourselves will be uplifted, turned from citizen to protagonist. The myth that we spent all that money on something more than a conspiracy of metal. The myth that industrial consumption is a fulfillment of humanity. We spend an average of twenty-nine thousand dollars on our cars. Surely it is worth ten more to be comforted, for a few hours, with the dream that they are more than cars.

But what does Bumblebee fight? Other machines, like himself! A coffeepot that becomes a saboteur. A jet fighter, a helicopter, a tank, all turning into superanthropomorphs who threaten to destroy the world. Transformers submits correctly that the greatest menace to man is a technology whose consequences go beyond his ability to manage. But Transformers submits that man can save himself with more technology, that the way out is through. That we can survive without changing our living. That a second tribe of technologies (intrinsically automotive, strangely) will redeem us against the depredations of the first.

It has been remarked many times that the Transformers films make the human characters little more than bystanders in a war between machines. Perhaps the greatest myth of the series, at once the most comforting and the most insidious: that man can be a bystander to his own salvation.

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