Everyone who knows about films, will know about Transformers. There is a lot wrong with the franchise even though it is commercially very successful, but then again the disgraced and disgusting News of the World was incredibly commercially successful as well. Media commercial success is not a guide to the integrity of a film, book or publication. I, of course understand that expecting a Michael Bay film to deliver some food for thought on the ethics of war, the development of the characters or a storyline which actually makes sense is expecting too much and is unfair. People watch these films for the adrenaline rush – that’s fine, everyone enjoys a little bit of escapism. But in his quest for dollars and box office records, Bay has single-handedly destroyed the character of the main hero of the film – Optimus Prime. The Prime I remember from reading the old comics and watching the old cartoons was a great leader who could always make the right decision no matter what the circumstances. But in the new film, Prime executes his former mentor Sentinel whilst begging for mercy and proclaims he will, ‘kill them [the Decepticon] all’. It was not that Prime actually did these things that made me disillusioned it was the fact that Bay portrayed Prime as being comfortable and at ease with his deeds. There was no self doubt, no apprehension or moral quandary within Optimus Prime. Hollywood films have long portrayed sadistic violence, victor’s justice and frequently morphed justice into violence giving rise to a distinctly harsh American attitude towards justice. This frequently comes up – the last time such a clash between these different conceptions of justice occurred was in the case of the Lockerbie bomber, who was allowed to return to Libya on the grounds of his poor deteriorating health. The American side was furious demanding retribution, but the Europeans were shocked at what they seemed to perceive as the American thirst for revenge. There was a distinct culture clash within ‘the West’ – that alone should prove that there is no ‘one’ West. But Optimus Prime has been militarised American style – the impression given is that Prime would acknowledge and accept torture as well to achieve his goals, under the new look franchise of the Transformers. Prime is seen taking sides in human conflicts, leading the Autobots to bomb an Iranian nuclear site that is deemed ‘illegal’. Such blatant propaganda only detracts from the value of the film – American audiences will lap this up no doubt. Already conservative groups in America applaud the Transformers as being ‘patriotic’.
Apart from ‘freedom’, Prime speaks about little else. The compassion and mercy that is supposed to be part of his character is lost somewhere when he rips throats, hearts and beheads other robots. Bay destroyed the one thing about Prime’s Autobots – they were above human conflict and Prime himself was above the culture of revenge and tribal justice that ravaged their homeland Cybertron.
There, of course exists even throughout the old comics, a tension between the saintly aspirations of Optimus and the violent practicalities of being a leader. But Bay never explores that – he uses the robots in the film as playthings rather than developing them as real characters. That was what was most disappointing about the whole experience. The audience never gets to understand Optimus – he is just the chief executor, a brilliant gladiator and of course a “freedom fighter”'. Perhaps that is the one redeeming feature of the whole film – Optimus’s creed of ‘freedom is the right of every sentient being’ stays throughout the whole franchise. But Bay’s representation of the characters is woeful. The ploy of getting Shia LeBeouf a good looking co-star has meant the great tradition of objectifying women as a prize or reward for the hero’s conquest continues. If I wanted to see a cheap juvenile film, I would have just seen a Salman Khan film. What’s more, the whole dynamic between Sentinel and Optimus is never explored throughout the film. Neither is the audience clued in about how Megatron featured in the relationship. Sentinel was the ‘Hero’ who had fallen and succumbed to violence but again this tension is never explored and Optimus’s reaction is never fully developed. Too much emphasis is given on the vacuous and empty-headed characters of Sam Witwhicky and his new girl-friend Carly. It isn’t too much to ask for a bit of development on the characters – to portray a sense of empathy, to give an insight into the conflicts that plague the Transformers and their leaders beyond epic gladiatorial duels. It is possible to combine a deep story with action and commercial success. The new Batman franchise has achieved that magnificently. The real coup, director Christopher Nolan pulled off was developing Batman’s character whilst providing him with equally complex villains such as the Joker. The tension and dynamic of this relationship defines the film’s conflict and its main premise. Transformers 3 seems to suggest anything is permissible in the cause of freedom. Freedom is the new ‘Crusaders religion’, fight in the name of freedom and you don’t have to care about conscience, ethics or morality. It’s just a shame that the good name of Optimus Prime had to be sacrificed at the altar of American patriotism. Not to forget here the rightful and just critique of the Pakistani culture which has its own problems with justice and attitudes to violence and war.
Optimus Prime was supposed to be the reluctant warrior, who always stressed peace whenever possible and who had a great distaste for violence. I am not suggesting pacifism as a creed worth holding – we do live in the real world but some sort of framework of ethics that guides us through the messy business of conflict is necessary.
Heroes are supposed to represent a side of human nature that we all aspire to, a paragon for a great ideal who have a central animating moral vision.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.