Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:33 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:33 | SYDNEY

International policy projector: Transformers


Sam Roggeveen


3 December 2007 13:43

This is the first post in an occasional series I'm calling 'International Policy Projector', on how elements of international policy are portrayed on the cinema and television.

Michael Bay’s Transformers might seem an unusual subject for this sober blog. It is essentially an action film designed to sell toys to teenage boys. But considering how a similar film like Top Gun came to be seen as emblematic of Reaganite America and its foreign policy, Transformers is worth a closer look.

In common with other Bay films, the US military is pictured in a heroic light, and there’s a recruiting commercial quality to the way high-tech military ‘kit’ is dreamily shot. Hollywood is constantly criticised by the American right for being insufficiently patriotic in its military-themed films. Bay could never be accused of this – even the Rumsfeldian Defense Secretary comes off looking pretty good.

There is a slightly discordant note, though. One staple of US film and TV treatments of the US government, popularized by The X Files, has been the ‘shadow’ or secret government. This gets another working-over in Transformers, with the revelation that the Hoover Dam was actually built to hide an alien spacecraft. Much ink has been spilled about how this pre-occupation with government conspiracies reflects on Americans’ dissolusionment with the state, though in this case it could just be a convenient device to hold together a threadbare plot.

Outsourcing also gets some treatment in Transformers. In an early scene in which besieged US troops are desperately trying to contact the Pentagon, one soldier eventually finds a mobile phone, only to be frustrated by a South Asian operator flogging phone plans. Clearly the joke relies on recognition – every Westerner watching the film would know the occasional frustrations of the Bangalore ‘help’ desk. The fact that this aspect of globalisation can be used as a font of humour in a mainstream film suggests American ambivalence about, but perhaps also acceptance of, the phenomenon.

Although I mentioned Top Gun above as a point of comparison, Transformers is just too frantic and confusing to impact global pop culture the way that earlier film did. And maybe the world has changed too. Much as popular music, with the aid of technology, has fragmented in recent years, we have probably passed the point where a single film can speak to a big enough audience to define an era. And that might turn out to be the truest thing Transformers has to say about globalisation.