This is the sixty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.
This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).
Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative
Jason W. Ellis
26 March 2009
The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.
Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.
It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:
Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.
Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)
The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.
The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”
The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)
What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:
At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)
It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.
Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:
The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)
The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:
The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)
Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.
Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:
When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?
Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)
Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.
Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).
Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.
A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:
Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)
Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.
The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:
We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)
The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.
The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.
Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.
Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.
Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).
Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.
Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.
Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?
The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.
Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.
How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1). The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:
Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)
Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.
Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.
—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.
Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.
Cartmill, Cleve. “Deadline.” Astounding Science Fiction 33:1 (March 1944): 154-178.
Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.
Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.
Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.
Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.
Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.
Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.
Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.
Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.
Lind, William S. “Understanding Fourth Generation Warfare.” ANTIWAR.com. 15 January 2004. 17 March 2008 <http://www.antiwar.com/lind/index.php?articleid=1702>.
Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Twentieth Century Fox. 2005.
Milius, John. Red Dawn. MGM/UA. 1984.
Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. 2005.
—. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. 2008.
Raimi, Sam, dir. Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures. 2002.
—. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures. 2004.
—. Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures. 2007.
Reeves, Matt, dir. Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures. 2008.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures. 2001.
Spielberg, Steve, dir. War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures, 2005.
Wilson, Scott and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name.” The Washington Post 25 March 2009. 26 March 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/>.
Wise, Robert. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox. 1951.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (Spring 2002): 385-389.