Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Non-Delphi: Postmodernism, Transformers: ROTF and Baudrillard

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)

I've just watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and it got me thinking. It's perhaps the most post-modern movie I've seen to date.

T:ROTF isn't so much a movie as a string of soundbites, stereotypes and cliches arranged into a 2.5 hour trailer for a movie you'll never get to see, because it was never made. You turn up for the product the advertisement is selling, but it turns out the whole product was ad. There's no "there" there. I've never seen a better embodiment of Baudrillard's conception of simulacrum than this.

The meaningless symbols are so densely packed in this movie I need a convention. Everything in the movie is a stereotype or cliche: a stand-in, an intellectually lazy shorthand reference. I'll be lazy too, and mark stereotypes in my commentary with [brackets].

The beginning is indistinguishable from a trailer. A brief [dawn of man] scene, you know the kind, [stone age people silhouetted against a dawn sky somewhere in Africa], doing [caveman things with the spears and the facepaint], with a [rumbling voiceover] helpfully telling you that it's ["Earth, birthplace of the human race"]. If it were storytelling, it would be rushed, heavy-handed, and contemptuous of the viewer - both showing and telling. But I don't think it is storytelling. It's arranging some symbols (humans, decepticons) into a particular aspect required for later symbolic purposes. The decepticons portrayed in this ancient time are [evil] (with [King Kong-like grabbing] of a feeble human, albeit male), but there is no motive, no narrative. Why would such powerful machines pay any more attention to stone age humans than they would apes, or insects, which they can swat away with similar ease?

Next up: Shanghai, [disaster scene], with [disaster radio news chatter]. Cue [Pentagon command centre], explaining that some black hawks are moving in, while showing some black hawks moving in: Americans aircraft and troops entering Chinese territory, in complete suspension of geopolitical disbelief, no explanation considered necessary. Expository trailer voiceover says "new autobots", while expository camera shot shows new autobots, including [hot girl on bike], [fast car], and [military transport]. "Together, we form an alliance", explains voiceover, while showing human troops in [military transport] (which subsequently transforms). No attempt to explain why squishy soldiers with small arms are going up against fast-moving heavy machinery. What do they hope to achieve with their flying pieces of lead? Would they go up against even a human-engineered tank with such miserable munitions? Nor an explanation for the gunships flying with mere tens of feet clearance from the ground and the surrounding buildings that tower over them, completely negating the tactical advantages of a mobile, hovering cannon and missile platform.

But all is soon revealed. The squishy humans aren't going in to fight, they are going in to be squished, to symbolize human weakness against the machines. After a decepticon slams its fists into some concrete pipe sections, somehow creating a fiery explosion, gunships capable of engaging the enemy with missiles and canons from considerable distance approach low and close enough to be clobbered with a mere wave of mechanical arms. As an alleged depiction of a military engagement, it's beyond ludicrous, laughable on its face. Suspension of disbelief isn't possible: this isn't a battle; it isn't even a simulation of a battle. It's a simulation of battle simulation, an arrangement of symbols of battles. Here are our valiant heroes going into battle; here's our shockingly powerful foe, see how he easily puts our heroes on the back foot; but wait (!) here come our heroes again with reinforcements, to win the day with a bunch of soundbites: ["damn, I'm good!"], ["punk-ass decepticon"], ["any last words?"], "the fallen shall rise again", ["that doesn't sound good"], ["not today!", reload-click, bullet to the head].

That's just the first 8 minutes or so; it goes on for hours (!), with no variation in pacing that you wouldn't also expect in a 30-second movie trailer. Some other commentary roughly concurs with mine, though I didn't enjoy the spectacle or visual feast aspects, primarily because those spectacles are filmed too close to the action, and the subjects, transformed machines, have so many bits and bobs hanging out of them it's hard to tell where one begins and another ends, much like how camouflage breaks up outlines. Trying to figure out what's actually going on within the pace of the editing cuts would give me a headache. Besides, marvelling at the sheer density of signifiers and its generally jaw-dropping empty awfulness is more fun, in a perverse way.


Anthony Mills said...

I don't often "like" stuff in Google Reader, but I liked that.


Warren said...

Maybe they should have called it Transformers:ROTFL.



Lars Fosdal said...

I liked the technology demo, the slapstick, and and the demolition and destruction. But as for substance, motivation and depth of content... pretty darn slim. Still, I was entertained, prolly since I grew up with the autobots on TV :)

Anonymous said...

For nitpicking, its Baudrillard not Baudriallard as in the title and 2nd paragraph.


Leonardo said...

Hm, if it were a little slower I would have probably liked it.

(On a similar vein, I really enjoyed Battlefield: LA since it was a two-hour long visual feast. Marines, aliens, giant battles, big explosions. Lack of ninjas and zombies prevent this movie from being perfect in my book.)