Of late I have found myself greatly troubled by Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (henceforth: T2:ROTF, or as some wags would have it, T2:ROTFL). Like an ancient curse or a prophetic dream, it keeps worming its way back into my consciousness, mysteriously commandeering my cable feed so that I must bear witness to its metallic majesty, even when I have ambitions no higher than relaxing with a light comedy. But to what end? What does T2:ROTF want of me, of us? Straining to see past its chimerical walls of light and metal, one suspects some profound enigma awaits behind, drawing us ever closer to either a revelation or reckoning. But then, just as we are about to glimpse this riddle, submitting at last to a logic that the story itself wills into existence through the very act of beating us senseless, our brains begin to melt away and, like Icarus of yore, we are cast down once again, wretched, onto the shores of incomprehension.
I know what you are probably thinking. Here’s another snarky snotball taking cheap shots at Michael Bay, a director who has nobly sacrificed nearly a decade of his life and millions upon millions of dollars to tell us of the struggle between Autobot and Decepticon, two proud tribes of mechanical warriors capable of assuming the forms of everyday appliances and high-end motor vehicles. Nothing could be further from the truth. More narcissistic directors, like say Ingmar Bergman, have created long, tedious trilogies that merely chronicle a personal crisis of faith or solipsistic anxiety over their own mortality. Others have doubled-down on the trilogy structure to infect whole new generations with the blather of a “timeless” mythology of good, evil, and some supernatural “force” that gives order to a universe of cretinous philosophy. But only Bay has been so generous as to devote much of his adult life to asking the harsh and sometimes ugly philosophical questions that shape our era, a sacrifice that is all the more courageous in that so many would dismiss The Transformers as merely an insignificant children’s cartoon series of the 1980s, or worse yet, a venal attempt by the Hasbro Corporation to exploit Reagen-era deregulation of the rules banning direct marketing of toys to children within cartoon programming. In theory, Bay could do any project he wants. He chooses to do the Transformers. I think that speaks volumes.
And what does it mean to say Bay “directed” The Transformers movies anyway? In truth, the mysteries of T2:ROTF are so deeply perplexing that I do not believe they can be said to issue from a single mortal man. It is but a convenience of language, much as we attribute the deep historical genesis of the Odyssey to a “being” called Homer. Better to say that the lessons of Cybertron speak through Bay and his team, calling us to answer for the character of our age and the destiny of our future. No, I would no more mock Bay and The Transformers trilogy than I would piss on the Necronomicon in a graveyard at midnight.
But before we ponder the mysteries that have been put before us, I must admit up front to being only a neophyte in the ways of Autobot and Decepticon, and that I have yet to make it all the way through T2:ROTF. At present, my path toward enlightenment has ended just before the one they call the Shy Beef and his Lady Fox are about to sprinkle some pixie dust on Optimus Prime in an attempt to resurrect this worthy warrior for righteous battle. But, though I have yet to see this plan enacted, it is unthinkable that this gambit would not work, for the prospect of the noble Optimus set atop a flaming barge and cast down the Nile, his fellow Autobots tossing cans of motor oil and tins of Turtle Wax atop the pyre in remembrance, is just too melancholy a fate to imagine.
Some might object that one who has yet to ponder the mythos of the T2:ROTF in its entirety should not speak to its deeper mysteries. To this I say, no one can ever be said to “master” the great works of philosophy and scripture, and we all partake of the world’s collective wisdom from differing and often partial perspectives. As a famous philosopher probably once said, the excited flame of the impassioned novice can at times illuminate the cave of reason more brilliantly than the weary lantern of the aged acolyte.
And so let us begin.
Enigma 1: Optimus in Flames
From what I do understand of Transformer lore, both Autobot and Decepticon are robot-beings that came to earth long ago in some type of “Ark” searching for something called the “AllSpark,” which legend tells us is a cube that has the power to transform mechanical devices into sentient beings. Of course, like all forms of religious doctrine, this merely kicks questions of consciousness and ensoulment down the road by forcing us to wonder who exactly created the AllSpark. But luckily, this bromidic obsession of western metaphysics is not the major question posed by T2:ROTF. More importantly, the story forces us to contend, not with fairy tales of some great junkyard in the sky, but with more embodied issues of subjectivity and identity in the here and now.
So we must wonder: Where did Optimus Prime, in vehicular truck form, get those awesome "flame" decals?
If we consult more ancient scripture (the story bible of the cartoon series), we discover that the Autobots first took vehicular form in the mid-1980s. Here I must quote from the book of wiki.
In the Earth year 1984, the volcano housing the Ark erupted, reawakening the ship's computer, Teletraan I, which then set out a probe to scan Earth life, and modified the Transformers so as to give them alternate modes that could blend in on Earth, but the probe did not recognize carbon-based life, and instead chose vehicles like a truck for Prime and F-15 Eagles for 3 Decepticons.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that this mythology is unnervingly close to that of Scientology, we see here that a "computer" calculated that Optimus could best “blend in” as an extended-cab model 379 Peterbilt truck. Of course, reason dictates that the odds of any extraterrestrial Autobot or Decepticon perfectly conforming to the exact specs of a mid-1980s earth vehicle are remote at best. So here, I think, we must assume we are in the presence of a Vitalist allegory. Was Optimus fated to take the form of an extended-cab model 379 Peterbilt truck (even before arriving on earth and even before knowing he would one day need to assume a vehicular disguise), or was this “truck-body” merely the most “convenient” identity foisted upon him by a “computer” entrusted with the social management of Autobot life? In other words, if Optimus exerted a bit more will and determination, could he assume the form of a GMC semi-trailer, a Caterpillar Earth mover, or perhaps even a psychedelic school bus? Moreover, if he had landed on another planet, could he have assumed the form of a vehicle indigenous to that civilization? Or, at an even more cosmic level, does a T76-Aqua Spanner on the planet Voltron look just like an extended cab model 379 Peterbilt truck on earth, thereby confirming long-held geek cosmologies of parallel development across the universe?
Wisely, T2:ROTF does not speak to these larger and perhaps unknowable mysteries, but instead uses the Autobots to interrogate a particularly human concern: Is mecho-biology mecho-destiny? Are we simply fated to be who we are, or are we “shaped” by the demands of our own societal “computers” to assume certain forms?
The flames adorning Optimus Prime’s fenders provide a significant clue here in that they are, one would think, a needless adornment on his otherwise trim and efficient vehicular body (seeing as there is no corresponding flame motif on Optimus Prime himself). In fact, rather than help Optimus-as-truck better “blend-in” with his surroundings, they mark him as a rather remarkable and even “badass” ride, one sure to garner the attention of anyone who sees him pass on the freeway.
Even more perplexing, this exuberant flamage seems to go against the very nature of Optimus’ “true” personality, in effect opening up a certain dissonance between his binary identities as military Bot and long-distance cargo hauler. For example, when Optimus is in his ambulatory fighting Bot mode, he is the very essence of sobriety, reason, control, and authority. He instantly takes command of the situation, focused on the larger task of preserving both human and Autobot civilization. In doing so, he must keep the more “playful” and mischievous bots in order, for he is OPTIMUS PRIME, a divide made all the more palpable in that his fellow bots all speak in a strange ethnic patois of cholo, ebonics, Brooklyn-ese, and other less than “prime” languages. Optimus, meanwhile, has the voice of an ATM at the biggest bank in the richest subdivision of Whitey Town.
Now, some might think it is racist to project earth dialectics onto extraterrestrial robots in such a way as to suggest Optimus has taken on the “white robot’s burden.” But I think his flame decals challenge this assumption. Yes, the so-called “computer” determined that Optimus must assume the form of an extremely utilitarian truck, one that looks to be hauling Wonder Bread and Mayonnaise across the country. But deep in his heart, perhaps Optimus bristles at this arbitrary confinement of his desire and identity, and so he manifests his flaming decals as an expression of his secret fantasy life, signaling a world where Bots are not predestined or even just pressured into hiding within certain stereotypical “normative” forms (i.e. forced to speak like a cheap imitation of Chris Tucker, as is the case with another Bot), but are free to “transform” and "be" however they so desire. Perhaps Optimus, by taking up the flame, signals solidarity with a truck running moonshine in Tennessee, a low-rider in East L.A., a land-speed cruiser on the Great Salt Flats, or the sound truck for the Pussycat Dolls. Who knows what life and identity Optimus will assume once the Decepticon threat is vanquished?
Clearly, T2:ROTF demands that we ask these same questions of ourselves, forcing us to account for the “forms” we assume in a technocratic order that seeks to crush all opportunities for true freedom and happiness. Who am “I” and how did “I” come to be? What is the great “computer” that chose my destiny? Through the example of their constantly reversible binaries, the Autobots rehearse this prison of modern subjectivity for us, and yet also speak—in the very act of transformation—to unimagined third terms, identities that might still yet come into being. The lever in this process, the wedge for derailing the closed logic of the subject machine, might be as simple as sporting a little flame on your fender.
Related to this hope, Optimus teaches us an important lesson at the beginning of the story. Working with the U.S. military, the Autobots deploy to Shanghai to confront a giant Decepticon unicycle wheel rolling through the city. When the lesser bots cannot stop this adversary, they must call upon Optimus to put an end to the destruction. A C-130 cargo plane flies over with Optimus—still in the form of an extended-cab P379 Peterbilt truck—waiting in the payload. Optimus as truck then dramatically drives out the back of the plane and begins his free-fall, heavy-metal death from above. He transforms as he plummets toward the earth so that upon reaching the ground, he is now Optimus Prime in all his humanoid glory—ready for combat.
Now, basic logic and military tactics dictate that Optimus would be much better served by transforming before he leaves the airplane, seeing as this is the form he must take to land properly and engage the Shanghai death wheel in battle. After all, if there were a “glitch,” God forbid, in his mid-air transformation, both Optimus and the mission would be greatly endangered. By driving out the back end of the cargo plane and dropping like a multi-ton brick, Optimus is—as they say in the sports world-- “hot dogging” it. Who could deny, then, that we are called here to witness the sheer exhilaration of “becoming-Optimus,” invited to imagine the thrill of shedding the “dead weight” of the socially territorialized body so that a new magnificent self--Optimus in his Prime, leader of Bots, kicker of metal ass--might take its place in a celebration of pure transformative power.
Of course, this suggests that the Autobots in some way resent their vehicular forms. But I think T2:ROTF is much more subtle in its thinking than simply accepting this binary as is. For example, there is a scene early in the film where a U.S. soldier tells a superior that the Autobots are “waiting in their hanger.” We cut to a static shot of all the Bots in vehicular form—cars, planes, pick-ups, and of course Optimus as Peterbilt truck. It is an extremely uncanny moment. We know, as does the solider, that these are in fact sentient beings. And yet here they sit mute and immobile, maintaining a mysterious aloofness from their comrades. After all, in one of the story’s most poetic lines, a human solider notes that man and Bot have shed “much blood and oil together” in their battles against the Decepticon menace. And yet despite now being a “band of brothers,” the Autobots choose to remain remote and distant in this “showroom” mode—even though there is no need for such secrecy within the safe confines of their military hanger. They are “among friends,” so to speak, and yet choose to perform their more secretive identities—perhaps as a bond among themselves. Are they saying, in essence, this is what your (human) world has forced us to become, and so we find solidarity, perhaps even comfort, in maintaining this masquerade?
It is all very curious.
Well, I see that contemplating this first enigma has taken much more space than I had anticipated. Such are the haunting complexities of T2:ROTF. So I will save the other enigmas for later this week.