Thursday, 28 October 2010

"We've Learned Earth Language Through the World Wide Web" - Transformers: The Movie

A friend once told me a story. It perfectly fits the structure of an urban myth - foaflore as they say - but I like to believe it is true nonetheless. It involves a friend of this friend whose sister somehow met and befriended Barbara Bush, twin daughter of Laura and George W. whilst at Yale. So this guy's sister and the Bush girl get quite close and one day, a few years ago now, my friend's friend finds out his whole family - mum, dad and sister - all went bowling. With the Bushes. Barbara, and her mum and dad, at that time the President and First Lady. Turns out Dubya had rather a habit back then of referring to himself in the third person. But not as George, but Potus - an acronym for President Of The United States. As in, Potus takes the ball, Potus bowls, Potus hits a strike!

I'd almost forgotten about this story until I watched Transformers, Michael Bay's (2007) toy-inspired high concept science fiction action movie. Quite near the beginning of the film (in which we only see the President as a pair of red [=Republican] socks asking for some Ding Dongs), a secret service guy refers to the computer system on Air Force One as the "Potus Mainframe." Transformers is big on NewSpeak and acronyms. The military, echoing minitrue and miniluv as much as comintern, refer to SecDef, and John Turturro's Agent Simmons coins his very own Three Letter Acronym - NBE, for Non-Biological Extra-terrestrial ("Try to keep up with the acronyms") - one of Intelligent Life's "quintessentially modern annoyances."

It was executive producer Steven Spielberg who suggested to the writers the idea that the central idea of the film should be, quite simply, "a boy and his car." It is no wonder that General Motors supplied over two hundred cars for the film-makers to destroy. Bobby B (!), the used car salesman, speaks of the "mystical bond between man and machine" before introducing us to a car that wants to be sold, hypermodern equivalent, perhaps, to Douglas Adams's canard concerning an animal - served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe - that wants to be eaten. The mystical bond in question soon transpires to be the car's mysterious ability to translate directly the driver's desires and speak them through a language of 70s rock classics.

But Transformers is more than just an advert for cars. It is an advert for practically everything, from Apple computers and fashionably distressed Strokes t-shirts to weapons of mass destruction and Armageddon itself. More than glib abbreviations and initialisms, the film speaks the language of brands (Porsche, X-Box, Panasonic, Nokia, Hasbro), of products that have quite literally been taught to speak our language by the internet, so they say things like "Sorry! My bad." Transformers could be said to stage the perfect hypermodern myth: the final violent (albeit notably bloodless) battle between brand identity multinational corporations and nation-state governments - and the government are clearly the bad guys here. Even the government men know they are the bad guys. When the man from the mysterious Sector 7 refers to his "ridiculous government salary" he could be quoting Glenn Beck.

Of course, when that final confrontation between the nation-states and the brands they protect (but perhaps not quite enough - not in the eyes of the products) comes, not just the consumers, but the military - "Our Boys" - will be on the side of the products. The police are bad guys - "to punish and enslave" - but the military are on Our Side and need as much of our money as we can give them. "You're a soldier now!" Josh Duhamel says to Shia LeBeouf. Everyone's a soldier now, taking up arms to protect their consumer goods. The U.S. military and Ministry of Defense provided a great deal of support for the film's production, giving the film-makers real soldiers as extra, authentic uniforms for any other extras, free brand new F-22 aircraft. Michael Bay was given tank catalogues to browse, picking and choosing as he pleased. Some of this stuff was donated from the military's Future Force Warrior and Future Combat System programmes.

But what is Optimus Prime saying, when he says to the government men of Sector Seven, "Taking the children was a bad move" ? This isn't a case of Zizek's Hollywood anti-capitalism, capitalism containing its own critique. This is a direct rebuke from the products to the state. Children may die, and often have died, as a result of government decisions but the brand identity multi-national corporations will always look after the children, because when you're making profit growth predictions for the next ten or twenty years you better look after the children, no matter what you're selling. The state has been largely barred access to the language of the future lately. The only people who talk about the future are the brands and the military. Our future consumers and future force warriors, the future of motoring and future combat systems.

"Fate has yielded its reward - a new world to call home. We live among its people now, hiding in plain sight, but watching over them in secret, waiting, protecting... Like us, there is more to them than meets the eye." For we too share the glimmer of commodity fetishism, having given up the Soul for the souls of products. They are watching over us now, the only ones looking out for the future. In the war against the machines, the people will take the side of the machines and gladly destroy their own civilization.