“Disaster Capitalism”: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)

For its first twenty minutes or so, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not only eminently watchable, it’s also downright fascinating, putting forward—in a clever and calculatedly streamlined fashion—an Autobot-centered conspiracy theory behind the Space Race, leading up to Apollo 11’s lunar landing, that rivals some 1970s post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers. (One thinks of Capricorn One [1978], with its Hollywood soundstage-fabricated mission to Mars, in particular.) In the best of these early scenes, Bay’s compositions skillfully combine staged reenactments and actual televised footage of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon exhorting the public on the necessity and urgency of putting a man on the moon (as seen on a TV monitor within the shot, a sophisticated and self-reflexive frame-within-a-frame).

Which renders it all the more lamentable that the ensuing two-plus hours abstain entirely from both cleverness and sophistication. (On a purely technical level, the film remains impressive: the Transformers’ transmutations are rendered clearly and cleanly; the film’s many—and I do mean many—action set-pieces are often eye-popping, if ultimately brain-numbing.) Instead, Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger favor flaccid social satire (only hyperactive Ken Jeong and self-effacement-prone John Malkovich manage to register), wall-to-wall product placement (down to websites proclaiming price tags), rah-rah militarism (a nearly ubiquitous offense in Bay’s films) and, worst of all, instances that serve as prime examples of what Naomi Klein labeled, in the subtitle of her recent book The Shock Doctrine, “disaster capitalism”—that is to say, the systematic manipulation of events following a disaster (whether natural or man-made) to 1) line the pockets of corporate interests that step in to “assist” in damage-control and reconstruction and/or 2) use the opportunity to force a free-market economic system down the throat of an otherwise unwitting populace.

Granted, T:DOTM doesn’t accomplish this literally—it merely reproduces the template on the level of image and metaphor, thus rendering it a bit more palatable to the American “imagined community,” the national collective consciousness that participates in a common “dream life” orchestrated (manipulated?) by the corporation-throttled mediascape.

In the first instance of such egregious opportunism, an Autobot-laden ship attached to a Space Shuttle (for “military protection”) is blown to bits: imagery eerily (and, one might add, irresponsibly) evocative of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Adding further insult to injury, it’s soon revealed (but not before sufficient time passes to allow for some emotive hand-wringing and audience agitation) that the Autobots weren’t fool enough to permit themselves to be destroyed, instead hiding out in one of the jettisoned booster rockets. Remarkable, then, that NASA agreed to have its logo festooned all over vehicles involved in this bit of historical revisionist wish-fulfillment. Perhaps, calculatingly enough, they saw it as just another opportunity to drum up publicity for the final Shuttle launch. (Mere coincidence the film was released exactly a week prior to that event?)

And that’s just the tip of the disaster-appropriation iceberg! Exponentially more troubling would be the constellation of references to 9/11: from an array of images and entire scenes centered on smoking and/or collapsing buildings to Optimus Prime’s invocation of the now-canonical Todd Beamer catchphrase “Let’s roll!” to the appalling frequency with which Prime exhorts his Autobot “troops” to “Take the fight to them!” and “Kill them all!”

When, at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), we discover Kurtz’s summary assessment of the War, scrawled across the bottom of an official report (“Exterminate them all!”), it’s meant to be cautionary, a manifestation of madness as much national as individual. T:DOTM would prefer to take such sentiments as a clarion call. (One might well ask: to what…? Attempted genocide…? To, at the very least, rather indiscriminate slaughter.)

Needless to say, the timing of the film’s release, at the start of the July 4th holiday weekend, can hardly be coincidental. Were there any doubt, the final tableau presents the rag-tag bunch of Freedom Fighters gathered at the foot of a tattered, yet gallantly streaming, Old Glory, while Optimus Prime declaims his mobilization mantra: “In any war, there are calms between storms. There will be days when we lose faith. Days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come, that we forsake this planet, and its people.”

All things considered, we might not be entirely mistaken in calling this one Independence Day Redux

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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