Saturday, July 07, 2007

Socio-Political Undertones In Transformers

One thing that I feared might happen, especially with Michael Bay at the helm of this new Transformers movie, was that people might watch it and find it so incredibly absurd that once they got over the really cool special effects and started analyzing the story, they would begin to wonder why anyone would be a fan of this property for over twenty years. For all of you who think Transformers was a cool movie, keep in mind that a lot of people thought Independence Day and Armageddon were cool movies too until they started picking apart the plot holes and vapid content. I had a fear from the onset that Transformers was destined for a spot next to Godzilla in the $5.88 bin at Wal-Mart, and after watching it, that feeling was confirmed. In less than five years' time that's where it will be. In less than ten years' time, it'll be used as a basis for comparison when fans of some other childhood memory fears Hollywood destroying it for them.

I'll admit that about ten years ago, a friend of mine dragged me to one of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers movies at a dollar cinema with the expressed intent of making fun of it, however once the movie started he revealed a disturbing lack of desire for any sarcastic comments to be made. That being said, whichever Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers movie it was had more depth and character development than Transformers. Some people blame this on being a toy movie targeted at seven- to fifteen-year-olds, but Pirates of the Carribean is based on a fucking Disneyland ride and it has infintely more repeat viewing potential.

Aside from getting a few of the names right, Transformers had very little to do with the original property it was supposed to be updating. Hell, it really had very little to do with transforming alien robots. To say that they had very little, and aside from a few characters, zero character development would be to reiterate my last post, but as a fan I will say that it did not properly represent the property, and it should not be used to guage the motivation of the fandom. The original Generation One mythos had many important underlying themes that helped a generation of children embrace the world they were growing up into.

I think one of the main things that endeared people to the original Transformers property in the Eighties was a certain familial connection to it. In the Eighties, the divorce rate was climbing at an exponential rate. Some people were without a true father figure and others had father figure which was reprehensible to say the least. Does anyone ever wonder why Optimus Prime is one of the most widely recognized, beloved, and iconic cartoon characters of all time, right up there with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Superman? Optimus Prime filled in a gap that was missing in a lot of children's lives by filling in as a surrogate father figure. Kind, compassionate, wise, patient, understanding, and stern when needed, Optimus Prime was a character that children could look up to as an ideal father — something they wished they had, or something they wanted to be. Optimus Prime wasn't the leader of his troops; he was their father, and in a lot of ways, he was our father too. Children cried when Optimus Prime died in the 1986 movie. Cried, over an animated robot's death. It was like the police coming to your door and telling you that the most perfect dad in the world was just gunned down at the mall.

On the other side of the spectrum, Megatron, leader of the Decepticons exemplified the type of father everyone feared having. Prone to fits of rage, abusive, controlling, cowardly, insulting, and degrading. Megatron may have been just as wise as Optimus Prime, but unlike Prime, he didn't gain his army out of respect, but rather fear. Megatron was the father whose child obeyed him for fear of being smacked around for so much as smarting off. The childish and selfish opportunist Starscream was routinely used by Megatron almost as an example of what might happen to his other troops if they dared cross him; possibly the main reason Megatron kept him around. Everyone else in Megatron's entourage were either too stupid, too crazy, or too scared to question his leadership, and thus he was surrounded by groveling ass-kissers as an army. Prime's troops followed him because they valued his compassion and believed in his cause. Megatron's troops followed him either because they were just as abusive or for fear of what might happen if they didn't. The battle during the first third of the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie symbolized everyone's ideal father protecting them from the abusive father to the point of his own sacrifice, and to this day it served as one of the most memorable scenes in cartoon history, I'm certain because of what it represented.

However, digging even deeper into the Transformers abstractions, the original series contained far more significant political undertones. The Generation One Transformers cartoon was propoganda at its finest. Not only did Transformers parallel America's Cold War struggle with the Soviets, but it also predicted the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism years before the Berlin Wall fell. LiveJournal user
helpimarock really helped get this idea started months ago, and I've been putting it off until I could get around to making the relevant parallels. Really, I'd noticed the underlying themes for a good chunk of my adult life, but his comment really inspired me to actually write about it.

He already made the point about Megatron's sharp, angular appearance and gunmetal gray color with splashes of red symbolizing the USSR and Optimus Prime's red, white, and blue symbolizing the United States, but I think the similarities don't stop there. Megatron and the Decepticons were power-hungry tyrants who would stop at nothing to take all the world's energy resources for themselves and who would systematically invade other worlds to expand their empire. The only people to stand against them were the Autobots, the stalwarts of freedom across the universe, much like Americans felt they were the only people standing against the spread of the evil Communism. With his John Wayne Texas twang, Optimus Prime's motto was "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," which mirrors the philosophy that America aspired to, (but routinely failed in practice). Megatron's cold, dead snarl was "Peace through tyranny," which when you think about it was an underlying principle of modern Communism. Only through the oppressive control of the government would the people prosper.

Later in the series, the 1986 animated movie signified the then-theoretical fall of Communism and made way for an all-new political threat — terrorism. Whereas Megatron's thirst for power and belief in peace through oppression made him a sinister and calculating expansionist who could even sometimes bring himself to collaborate with Prime for the greater good of the planet, his second incarnation, Galvatron, wanted no part of it. He was literally insane and desired only the downfall of all civilization. Under Galvatron's leadership, the Decepticon attacks were no longer over energy or power, but purely terrorist attacks to show off how powerful and scary Galvatron was. Their attacks were destructive but otherwise pointless, mainly to call the Autobots to arms so the Decepticons could try to wipe them out.

If you look at the robot designs of the three main post-movie Decepticons,
Galvatron, Cyclonus, and Scourge, and apply a little bit of imagination, their forms even look to be constructed in traditional Middle Eastern styles, with rounder edges, flowing chest and leg pieces, crowns, jewels, and even beards. They were fashioned from a dark god, much the same way Western propogandists claim Islam originated, and they even stationed themselves in a desolated wasteland of a planet called Char, which could theoretically reflect the desert areas of the Middle East.

The movie also left a new generation of Autobots to fight the new type of Decepticon threat. Gone were many of the iconic, golden age freedom fighters. They'd either died or just disappeared without explanation, probably a parallel to their growing old and being ignored by the new generation of young upstarts. The new Autobots had to figure things out for themselves, and although some were quite effective, others just couldn't really make the cut. The symbolic death of Optimus Prime passsed the torch to the new generation of leadership, a young and naïve but well-meaning kid aptly named Hot Rod who spent half of his leadership time questioning whether he could actually be an effective leader, and the other half proving that he couldn't. Rodimus Prime, (the leader incarnation of Hot Rod), was joined in his council with Ultra Magnus, a throwback to the original Autobots in personality except more in the way that Pat Buchanan is a throwback to the glory days of American politics, Springer, a seasoned warrior with a sarcastic sense of humor, Arcee, essentially a working mother, and Kup, one of the oldest Autobots but cool enough to still have his voice of experience accepted, maybe like a Bob Dole.

Much like the younger and pandering politicians we're electing these days who seem to have a connection with the common man but in reality are not quite the great seasoned leaders of the past this clumsy posse of Autobots were all that stood in the way of what amounts to Islamic funadmentalist terrorism. It's small wonder that only the return of Optimus Prime, a symbolic representation of past days of glory, could defeat the terrorist Decepticon threat. Maybe Transformers is telling us that what we need is for the return of the calibur of President who listens to his own internal moral code and not the polls and who has the kind of integrity to make decisions based on what is best for the majority and not his own pocketbook. We don't need a President who acts like us; we're all idiots. We need a President who will lead us, foremost by example, to better ourselves. We've seen what happens when we vote for politicians who act like us and talk like us, maybe it's time we started voting for ones who act and talk the way we want to be. We need to stop voting for Hot Rods and start voting for Optimus Primes.

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