Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the representation of archaeology in the action/adventure cinematics of Michael Bay's Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2007), a film predicated on hidden relics transforming explosively into action. The film's diegetic environment—which features a hunt for a lost relic that happens to be the key to an ancient doomsday device secreted away inside the Great Pyramid at Giza—is analogous to the its specific geographical and historical setting. The film is "Babylonian" in that it invokes Orientalist imagery as an almost inevitable generic necessity within SF action/adventure cinema. The chapter argues specifically that the military, archaeological and geopolitical motifs of the film are most clearly and coherently aligned in the framing and shot-making techniques of the action sequences themselves. By figuratively compressing time into literally compressed spaces (here principal photography at Petra, Giza and Luxor is collapsed into a single location), the set/setting is a chronotopic threshold that transforms antiquity into a battle ground for military technocratic modernity.
It isn’t the size of the blasts that ‘sells’ the movie; it’s the iconography of the targets.
Pasts erupt into the present.
In an interview with Judd Apatow at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Transformers star Megan Fox revealed that had she not pursued acting she would ‘want to be an archaeologist,’ an avocational interest kindled by a particular television programme. ‘I am obsessed with Ancient Aliens,’ she relates; ‘I Netflix that show like crazy.’ This may be playful commentary on the History Channel’s pseudo-documentary series, but Fox seems genuinely intrigued by its premise that archaeologists conspire to cover up material evidence of extra-terrestrial intervention in Earthly affairs. She states with animation, ‘I would love to shadow someone on digs. I think it’s amazing, and it holds all the answers. I want to go and see the real stuff that they’re not willing to show the rest of the world, because they hide all the real stuff because humanity would panic’ (Feinberg). However whimsical, Fox’s endorsement of Ancient Aliens is an apposite commentary on her role in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), the story about a secret paramilitary organization battling ancient aliens who have returned to Earth to activate a prehistoric doomsday weapon stashed inside the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Transformers 2 develops the basic themes of Michael Bay’s first Transformer film (2007). Chronicling important rites of passage in the (p.60) life of high school sophomore Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)—buying his first car, attracting a mate with said car, and ultimately proving worthy of said mate in the crucible of battle alongside his transforming car, Bumblebee—the 2007 film affirms a Hasbro-centric version of childhood play, the ‘scopic relation between male viewer and fetishized object: the car-man’ (Wilson, 350). Set against the background of Sam entering university, Transformers 2 amplifies Sam’s role as honorary Transformer through two ancient astronaut inspired adventures: an expedition to Petra to recover the ‘Matrix of Leadership,’ an artefact that fuels the weapon of mass destruction in the Great Pyramid, and a joint U.S.-Autobot clash with the Decepticons for possession of the Giza plateau. The colossal damage to World Heritage sites in the finale is a spectacular analogue of Sam’s mutation into an action hero, a transformation that also embodies the contradictory tenets of stewardship in the military-archaeology complex.
This chapter examines relationships between the film’s production history and its representation of historical remains within the milieu of SF action cinema. Collaborations with the Pentagon and with archaeological oversight organizations in Jordan and Egypt contribute to the film’s ‘realistic’ portrayal of conflict in the Middle East. I argue that these relationships are indicative of ‘structural violence,’ a term coined by peace and conflict studies scholar Johan Galtung and adapted by archaeologist Reinhard Bernbeck to critique the mechanisms by which Western academics and institutions consciously and unconsciously perpetuate political and economic inequalities, often on a global scale. This concept assumes several complementary meanings in a contemporary SF action film that locates conflict at World Heritage sites. Violence to things in the film—the pyrotechnic spectacles of exploding military machinery, cyborg soldiers and ancient monuments—is a visceral correlative of the ‘violent structures’ inherent in the power of the military-archaeology establishment to secure consent for the questionable political worldview Transformers tacitly endorses as entertainment.
In the social sciences, the conceptualization of violence encompasses but is not restricted to its physical meaning. Johan Galtung’s term ‘structural violence’ refers to the tendency of dominant social structures like capitalism and patriarchy to produce economic and political disparities, which are then naturalized in cultural systems that legitimize inequalities of gender, class, race and nationality. Structural and cultural violence are the subliminal ideological forces that inevitably lead to and are expressed physically in ‘direct violence’ like assault, police action and war. At the same time, physical or direct violence maintains systemic (p.61) inequality often by posing as the solution to, rather than the product of, structural and cultural violence (Galtung, 1969, 1990; Galtung and Høivik). Structural, cultural and direct violence thus circulate in a hegemonic system that ‘vehemently denies the connections between direct and structural violence’ (Bernbeck, 395).
Applied to archaeology, Bernbeck’s focus is not on violence to objects per se, but on the ways his discipline thrives within the ‘violently unequal structures of our present world’ (390). He illustrates this through several post-9/11 funding programmes and application procedures for international students at U.S. universities. These seem innocuous enough. Mandatory language testing (TOEFL) and Educational Testing Services, levying international student fees, complex entry and work visas, and security vetting are all realities in the post-9/11 English-speaking corporate and academic world. They are in place for our protection by screening for people ‘pre-adapted to U.S. academic standards by indirectly ascertaining their financial background, class position, discipline, and willingness to submit to Western values’ (400). These benchmarks of competency are deeply embedded in, Bernbeck argues, a system of inclusion and exclusion ‘guaranteed to result in minimal impact of foreign ideas on institutions in the West’ (401) by erecting intellectual and social barriers to knowledge transfer from non-Western countries (405). Positions of inferiority are perceived and interiorized by international students through structures that promote ‘the superiority of others’ (394) who are born into and/or have mastered ‘internationally acceptable professional discourse’ (398). ‘[B]iopolitics at the level of academics’ have, he continues, ‘such a deep history that they have become entrenched in our professional routines, on all sides of the structural divides […] The main problem of Western imperialist archaeology is our inability to see our own practices as a facet of much larger economic, military and political structures of violent domination’ (401, 405; cf. Starzmann).
Practising archaeology at sites of actual violence raises pertinent questions about the discipline’s ongoing complicity with violent structures. The ‘soft power’ initiatives by the U.S. government outlined by Luke and Kersel are a case in point. Aggressive appeals to global heritage and the return of Western archaeologists to Iraq as global stewards are embedded in larger strategies of pacification and reconciliation (cf. Hamilakis, 2003, 2009; Rush, 2011, 2015). A recent essay collection by archaeologists Alfredo González-Ruibal and Gabriel Moshenska, Ethics and the Archaeology of Violence (2015), explores, as the title suggests, the ethical dimensions of research conducted at sites of past and contemporary conflict. Reflecting on theory and praxis at locations of ethnic violence (p.62) and genocide, colonial and dictatorial oppression, and military conflict,3 the case studies consider how the discipline has been responsible for and profits from the kinds of violent structures outlined by Bernbeck (González-Ruibal and Moshenska, 5–6). Endeavouring to ‘historicize [the discipline’s] ethical principles’ (Gnecco and Ireland, v), the volume’s central message is the need for archaeologists to harmonize academic practices of fieldwork and publication with the goals and methodologies of social justice. Widening stakeholder inclusion to include the experiences and often silenced voices of people most directly affected by the violence under investigation is a fundamental step in this process.
Connections between Hollywood and contentious real-world issues by archaeologists working in conflict zones may seem tenuous or inconsequential, but a blockbuster like Transformers 2 not only represents global conflict but perpetuates through its corporate culture the violence it packages for global consumption. The interrogation of disciplinary habitus by archaeologists like Bernbeck, Luke and Kersel, and González-Ruibal and Moshenska helps expose ways in which archaeology is represented in a medium that is expressly about, profits from and perpetuates violent action. In the case of Transformers 2, popular representations of archaeology sublimate violent structures of inequality into powerful hegemonic images of salvation. By examining the effects such representations may have on an audience whose sympathies are aligned with the objectives of ‘good guys’ acting violently in global contexts, similar claims can be made for popular cultural representations of archaeology that naturalize the kinds of violent structures outlined by Bernbeck. Archaeology plays an important cultural role in maintaining the illusion that spectacular cinematic violence is self-contained on the screen and that its enthusiasts are merely spectators rather than sponsors of the action it references.
In this vein, film and media scholars have begun to appreciate action cinema as a vehicle of ‘soft’ power politics. Lisa Purse contends that the genre invites us to consider ‘historically specific questions, prompted by contemporaneous and recent events, about the basis upon which it is right or necessary to take violent action, about what constitutes heroism, and more generally about what can and cannot be represented on screen in a cinematic fiction at this contemporary juncture’ (2011, 5). In the Hollywood blockbuster era, violence circulates globally through high concept, protagonist-centred narratives that typically dramatize, in the words of media studies scholar Tanner Mirrlees, ‘conflicts and crises of (p.63) world-historic proportions. They stage threats and challenges that tap into or resonate with the hopes and fears of the whole world’ (188). Made-in-the-U.S.A. spectacles of violence for domestic audiences inured to ‘watching Babylon’ and exported to world markets assume particular kinds of global significance when, as in the case of Transformers 2, the strategic spaces for staging ‘crises of world-historic proportions’ are World Heritage sites.
Close collaborations between the military establishment and the production team are important for rendering historic space into spectacles of world-saving violence. The Pentagon has long been interested in what Georg Löfflmann characterizes as the ‘production of cinematic narratives of military power and geopolitical identity’ (280). Maintaining its entertainment liaison office in Los Angeles, each branch of the armed forces brokers deals with film producers willing to promote the ‘global military role of the United States in the defense of national security’ (282) in exchange for access to current military hardware and personnel.4 The cornerstone of this arrangement is ‘accuracy’ and ‘realism’ (283) in presenting positive images of the American military and U.S. foreign policy. The long-time chief of the Pentagon’s liaison office, Phil Strub, is on record as stating that ‘any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us’ (Robb, 143). Ties between the Transformers franchise and the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office in Hollywood are illustrative. A short promotional video on the AFELO website replicates the transformational logic of war into spectacle and the spectacle of war into entertainment. Introduced through a montage of Air Force activities and assets, the video advertises AFELO’s mandate to ‘protect and project the Air Force and entertainment media: films, television, music videos, comics, video games.’ Transformers military tech advisor Harry Humphries relates that the Air Force has been ‘very very aggressive in recent years’ in ‘trying to be a part of the support function [of the film industry], showing the new assets that the Air Force has to offer’ huge-budget SF projects like Armageddon (1998), the Ironman franchise (2008, 2010, 2013), Battleship (2012) and of course Transformers. The Hollywood blockbuster is the perfect medium for military self-promotion, and directors and producers speak admiringly (p.64) and uncritically about the production value these partnerships bring to their films.5
Löfflmann further observes that the ‘alien invasion’ film is a particularly fruitful genre for representing ‘authentic’ military action (287–91).6 With its clear enemy, moral certainty of the cause and the inevitable victory of the besieged, the alien invader action film displaces geopolitical contestation into widely accessible narratives and spectacles of defence and domestic security. The paradox of rendering ‘authentic’ images of violence through the conventions of SF is easily resolved by considering the public values the Pentagon and directors like Bay share. As film scholars Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard observe, the ‘deep patriotic and militaristic content of most combat pictures […] is rarely determined by stringent Pentagon controls over the way producers, writers, and directors do their work; instead this content flows from the larger political and media culture that is the repository of imperialist ideology’ (2007, 226). The Transformers franchise can disavow structural investments in military violence by accepting that ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ spectacles demanded by the Pentagon are divorced from political context in a film about cyborg soldiers saving the world from evil aliens. As SF, Transformers 2 supports AFELO’s mission to ‘protect and project’ the contradictions of military culture by presenting, as producer Lorenze di Bonaventura relates, ‘an extreme example of what the military does in everyday life’ (Davidson). The spectacles of transformation in Bay’s film—of vehicles into men and men into military machines—is the fantasy the military offers a theatre-going public desensitized to the political content latent in big-budget, high-tech productions of violent action.
The fantastic fabula of alien invaders who are actually war machines affords a broad canvas on which to mobilize military hardware. The plot reorients military commitments to homeland security and the war on terror through an all-or-nothing defence of the planet staged in the Middle East. The battle is spearheaded by Optimus Prime, who, after the defeat of his arch-nemesis Megatron in Transformers, leads a secret military organization of human soldiers and Autobots called NEST (Non-biological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty), which is tasked with (p.65) rooting out Decepticon terrorist cells. The planet’s survival depends upon finding the ‘Matrix of Leadership,’ an artefact that activates a Sun Harvester, a device that drains stars of their energy. Megatron plots to harvest Earth’s sun in order to recharge Cybertron’s depleted Allspark and thereby declare victory in the age-old civil war against the Autobots. In the opening sequence we learn that in 17,000 BC such a device was created on Earth by an evil member of the first race of Transformers called the Dynasty of Primes, and sheathed by what we now recognize as the Great Pyramid. This ‘Fallen’ Prime was defeated by his benevolent brother Primes when they discovered that he wished to use the device on a planet inhabited by primitive humans. To ensure that the Sun Harvester could never be deployed they sealed the Matrix within what would become the Treasury of Petra. The return of the Fallen in Transformers 2 is thereby imagined in terms of a battle to monopolize energy and consolidate political power in the Middle East. In this sense, Transformers 2 is an imaginative realization of Dick Cheney’s Project for the American New Century, which folded in 2006 when the first Transformer film was in post-production.
Violent structures linking Hollywood to the Pentagon also extend to archaeological agencies responsible for cultural oversight in Jordan and Egypt. Transformers 2 producers acquired approval from the Royal Film Commission of Jordon for a four-day shoot at Petra (Jafar). Fostering partnerships with Hollywood has become an important expression of Jordanian modernity (Ciecko). Acquainted with Steven Spielberg from the shoots at Petra for the concluding sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), King Abdullah II enlisted the director’s help to establish in 2008 the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Aqaba. Created in collaboration with the University of Southern California to train Jordanian students in the techniques and business of filmmaking, the institute is also endemic of the structural violence Bernbeck identifies in training programmes for foreign students of archaeology at American universities.7 Bay likewise procured consent from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities to shoot principal photography at the Giza pyramid complex and at Luxor. Similar to the Pentagon liaison office, the official stewards of archaeological heritage in these countries tacitly acknowledge the power of Hollywood to mobilize and ennoble their ‘assets’ in the cinematic war on terror. Structural violence in archaeology assumes multiple meanings in a film that features direct violence to actual archaeological structures, violence that in turn promulgates unequal global structures typified by the desire for countries like (p.66) Jordan and Egypt to solidify cultural relationships with the West by tapping into the transnational power of the Hollywood film industry. Symbolic violence requires, Moshenska and González-Ruibal remind us, ‘complicity of those who suffer the violence’ (5), in this case by actively seeking economic and cultural relationships with an industry that, as Hani’s dream in Manticore of ‘making pictures’ like Spielberg attests, has tremendous power in shaping perceptions of the Middle East, its peoples and history on ‘all sides of the structural divides’ (Bernbeck, 405).
Traces of these violent arrangements may be detected in Bay’s transformation of world historic sites into a site of ‘world historic’ action. In a pre-release interview the director relates that the Egyptian set he recreated at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico imparts narrative coherence for the finale. He says,
I personally thought the ending of the first movie was pretty weak. For one thing, I had to shoot the city battle [in Chicago] on five separate blocks, which made it confusing and hard to follow. But the climax here is much clearer in terms of the landmarks and what the endgame is. And it’s a really cool scene. You’ll never have seen anything like it before.8
We certainly have not, because Bay repositions archaeological ‘landmarks’ separated by hundreds of kilometres into a single diegetic field. After helping Sam locate the Matrix of Leadership at the Royal Treasury at Petra, Agent Simmons (John Turturro) observes through binoculars Optimus parachuting with the army’s Golden Knights demonstration team to the ‘pillars’ located at the base of the Great Pyramid; Sam then takes a short drive to regroup with the Autobot commander. There are of course no pillars at Giza (principal photography for these was taken at the Karnak temple complex at Luxor some 500 kilometres south), and it is impossible to see Giza from Petra, which is roughly 400 kilometres distant.9 On the New Mexico set Bay reorients archaeological space into action space, into what Martin Flanagan calls a ‘chronotopic threshold,’ the space where ‘time is waiting to happen.’ Like the tower in Die Hard (1988) or the bus in Speed (1994), defined spaces ‘seem to wait for the inevitable burst of action which will activate their potential.’ In action (p.67) cinema, the ‘interaction of the hero with the spaces around him drives the narrative’ and establishes dialogic engagement with ‘the temporal and spatial environment of the spectator’ (113, 107). Flanagan notes that the ‘unstable relation of what we might term “adventure-space” to its real geographical equivalent denotes a trend that, usually sanctioned by political or economic factors, has become embedded in film production’ (108). At the levels of production, representation and reception, then, these chronotopic thresholds are embedded in the violent structures of an industry with the influence to sacrifice the geographical and cultural verisimilitude of its landmarks to the ‘archetypicality’ (108) of the endgame.
Flanagan observes that films ‘in the blockbuster action tradition rarely engage with a “real” historical register, instead supplementing or conjoining historical allusion with self-conscious cinematic reference’ (110). In Transformers 2, however, the chronotopic threshold Bay meticulously reassembles on an army base cannot entirely escape the violent histories that resonate in the spaces the film exploits for its story. In Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World (2006), Lina Khatib contends that the association of the Middle East with violence is pandemic in Hollywood. She argues that since 9/11 the ‘Middle East has been perceived globally as a place of conflict that is no longer confined to its geographical setting.’ Instead, ‘[m]uch of the political debate on the Middle East revolves around space’ (11). Blockbusters like Transformers 2 play a significant role in shifting perceptions of geopolitical violence to non-specific ‘Middle Eastern’ spaces like the empty desert, impoverished labyrinthine urban centres and rubble-strewn streets. Hollywood films, Khatib argues, ‘attempt to use space as the stage upon which political conflicts are fought; i.e. space as background’ (15). This is certainly true of Transformers 2, whose characters variously refer to the environment as ‘a random’ and ‘god-forsaken desert’; they are appalled at being stranded ‘in the middle of nowhere surrounded by donkeys.’ Monuments of antiquity form a continuum with the desert and, indeed, with the Arabs who inhabit the fringes of the action space. Well-worn Orientalist images of poverty and backwardness divorce Arabic peoples from the military technology and car culture driving the principal narrative. Tongue-clacking goat herders, whooping Bedouins with their camels, and ubiquitous squawking chickens are atmospheric and anachronistic extensions of the pyramid, a monolithic Orientalist chronotopic threshold waiting activation by Sam, the Autobots and the U.S. military.
The final action sequences construct narrative causality between world heritage and the contemporary war on terror by sacrificing physical (p.68) structures conscripted as ‘background’ in the military-archaeology-entertainment complex.10 The final sequence vacillates between two distinct chronotopic thresholds: the pyramid, where the battle between Agent Simmons and the Decepticon Devastator takes place, and the pillars, where Sam runs the gauntlet of Decepticon assassins with the Matrix of Leadership, which Optimus needs to recharge after a near-fatal encounter with Megatron earlier in the film. A high-angle establishing shot over the plateau emphasizes the sublimity of antiquity about to be disturbed by ‘tightly framed explosive-montage-impact effects’ on the ground (King, 2003, 117–18). From the apex of the pyramid, Megatron orders the assault on the U.S.-Autobot position at the pillars and for Devastator to advance on the pyramid itself. Composed of six other Transformers and over 2,000 parts (Robertson, 22), Devastator is the most imposing and costly Transformer in terms of digital imaging.11 His job is to climb the pyramid, suction away its stones and expose the Sun Harvester. With over 122,000 blocks simulated to fracture dynamically as they collided (Duncan, 115; Robertson, 25), the scene forms one of the most interesting archaeological action sequences in the film. Devastator vacuums everything in its path, including a Ministry of Antiquities van. Though a trifle ironic given the last-minute permission secured by the producers for access to film at Giza, the sight gag is nonetheless an apposite commentary on the archaeological themes of the film. The Ministry of Antiquities becomes at the level of narrative as well as production an extension of the military mission to restore the democratic ideals sustaining world heritage.
Bay also negotiated with the Ministry of Antiquities to film John Turturro climbing the pyramid. Aping the forbidden tourist practice, the display of privileged access is in this context a form of symbolic deterritorialization of antiquity for action space (Khatib, 26). Simmons follows the Decepticon up the structure and braves an avalanche of broken stone being torn from its crown. The harrowing scene of the pyramid’s destruction warrants an equally spectacular military solution, an opportunity for the Pentagon to unveil a killing machine equal to the task: a prototype electromagnetic railgun. Still in development, and with plans to be integrated into battleships by 2025,12 this space-age (p.69)
weapon fires steel projectiles to ranges three times further than conventional artillery. Improved ‘lethality’ and cheaper rounds are hallmarks of the weapon. Simmons calls in a strike mission to the navy positioned in the Gulf of Aqaba. The audience is invited into the CIC of the U.S.S. Kidd to monitor the counter-attack. The railgun is brought to bear, fires and Devastator is blown to smithereens. Introducing computer-assisted targeting systems into the diegetic frame equates the scopophilic experience of the viewer with the soldier’s panoptic view of the battlefield. The audience shares the defenders’ physical and moral purview through cuts to military extras operating their guidance systems and assault vehicles. Collective memories of recent engagements in the Middle East are thereby reframed in Transformers 2 through the kind of privileged visual complicity offered to viewers ‘watching Babylon’ on ‘digitized battlefields’ (Masters, 121).
Shifting to Sam’s dash through the pillars, this phase of the mission—and the demolition of cultural space it entails—mobilizes a huge arsenal of military assets to get Sam safely to Optimus. The Coast Guard establishes a beach-head, delivering Abrams tanks and troops to shore up the defence at the pillars. The navy scrambles F-18 Hornets from the U.S.S. Stennis. A squadron of F-16 fighters fly in attack formation. A-10 tank killers patrol the skies. An E-3 AWAC team gives a B-1B Lancer clearance to ‘drop your 2,000 tonne payload.’ Establishing air superiority reaffirms reigning images of U.S. possession of the skies and the euphemistic parlance of surgical strikes upon the ‘[o]ther space,’ (p.70) asserts Khatib, ‘represented as a target’ (21). The spectacular realism of military endorsed perspectives of the battlefield dovetails with the panoply of action cinematic special effects. Rapid cuts, movement towards the camera, shaky hand-held shots, jerky reframings, slow motion, stroboscopic lighting, speed-ramping, whiplash pans, crash zooms, multiple angles and wave after wave of fireballs create a frenetic effect of movement, danger and thrills for the spectator. Displays of military technology at this chronotopic threshold are constitutive of the cinematic technology through which Sam’s evolution into manhood is configured.
A set piece in the midst of the action with the Witwicky family drives home this theme. Sam’s parents are taken hostage by the Decepticons and used as leverage against their son to surrender the Matrix. Sam is forced to choose between saving the world or his parents. Bumblebee intervenes and whisks the parents to safety, but not before a crucial rite of passage takes place. Sam exhorts his father, ‘You have to let me go.’ The father reluctantly agrees, allowing the boy to become the kind of man the situation demands of him. The scene prepares Sam for his final test. On the verge of reaching Optimus, Sam finds himself in Megatron’s crosshairs. Caught in an explosion, Sam is blown into the air and dies. Neither Army medics nor Mikaela’s love can revive him. But at this point something magical happens. The entire diegetic field of action shifts to a dream vision. Sam’s consciousness drifts into an overexposed after-life, where he is greeted by the spirits of the Primes who had entombed themselves with the Matrix of Leadership millennia ago. This quasi-mystical encounter is the film’s final chronotopic threshold. The Primes reveal to Sam that they have been watching over him, and that the search for the Matrix that has taken him around the world is actually a voyage of self-discovery. The Matrix is not found, they insist, but earned. Sam literally is the Matrix and he alone can wield its power to revive Optimus and save the planet. Sam comes back to life and he plunges the Matrix into Optimus’s chest. The anticipated fight with the Fallen can now begin. The Cybertronians duke it out mano a mano, the Fallen falls again, Megatron and Starscream fly off to fight another day, and the carnage ends with Optimus standing triumphant on the Sphinx, which comes to the film conveniently pre-stressed and battle-scarred.
But what does this enigmatic notion of becoming a thing signify? What does it mean for Sam’s transformation into an action hero by becoming the Matrix of Leadership, by in a sense becoming an ancient artefact that holds the power to save or destroy the world? I have been arguing that as a global entertainment, Transformers 2 displaces the global reach of military power into outwardly depoliticized images (p.71) culled from world heritage sites and SF alien invasion scenarios. The temporal tug-of-war between the deep past and far-flung cybernetic future describes a continuum of technological fetishism that is at the heart of Sam’s evolution into the kinds of man desired by Hollywood and the Pentagon alike. In action cinema, violence frames as much as it defends freedom and progress. This is particularly poignant in the Transformers franchise, which, according to Harlan Wilson, harbours the promise of ‘male capitalist “success,”’ which is ‘ideally carried out by means of aggression and violence, end-product representations of a cathexis applied by the gaze of the audience.’ Wilson opines that the first ‘film is itself a Transformer, extending and projecting itself as desiring-machine and phallus on to the body of its spectacular, scopophilic constituency’ (350, 351). Transformers 2 squares artefact destruction with the diplomatic objectives of the military-archaeology complex. Maintaining traces of the human subject in these dramas of direct violence requires the reconstitution of peace and order through the humanistic imagery afforded by material archaeological attachments to culture while offering the promise of ‘techno-masculinized’ transformation (Masters, 115) of human bodies into terrible weapons and ancient monuments into weapons of terror.
The film ends with a voiceover by Optimus delivered from the bow of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Stennis. Recalling George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech from the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (1 May 2003), the address provides a logical, aesthetic and moral conclusion to the story of alien invasion by reconciling the destruction of heritage sites with the forever war in the Middle East: ‘Our races are united by a history long forgotten and a future we shall face together. I am Optimus Prime and I send this message so that our past will always be remembered, for in those memories, we live on!’ The feeble logic notwithstanding, the kind of memory Optimus advocates demands that the audience forget the political events and geopolitical tensions that the film references in its action sequences and in its action spaces. In its temporal, physical and cultural manifestations, antiquity is a vehicle for imagining a peaceful or at least secure future under military stewardship, as long as we ignore the ongoing history of direct and structural violence gathered around it.
In Transformers 2 ‘fantasies of empowerment’ (Purse, 2011, 3) localized in the action hero are played out globally for audiences in its war on terror scenario. For Purse, ‘the question remains whether the action film, with its reliance on simplistic notions of heroism and justice, its often conservative representational hierarchies and its inexorable progress towards a thrilling, spectacular expression of the hero’s mastery over (p.72) clearly identifiable foes, will ever be able to accommodate adequately the complexities of the post 9/11 world.’ What is clear, she continues, ‘is that action cinema bears the traces of that world, whether through contextual references, direct engagement […] or the concomitant and persistent popularity of explicitly fantastical films’ (168). With its exercise of military assisted violence on terrain redolent with recent contestation, Transformers 2 reframes the troubling partnership between archaeologists and soldiers—imagined in the geopolitical and cinematic need to save the world through spectacular destruction of antiquity—through SF action, wherein the diegetic world seems to lie outside of the immediate social order. Yet, the film’s dissimulation of war in the Middle East reminds us how we ‘watched Babylon’ and ‘all the weaponry, gear and technology of the cyborg being set up in and around the borders, boundaries and bodies of Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom’ (Masters, 125). Like Hal in 2001, the Cybertronians at once incarnate and displace anxieties about the violent complexion of our own technological determinism. They are the ultimate artefacts of Hollywood’s techno-military fetishistic culture.
Evoking Kubrick’s film is an appropriate way to shift consideration from military SF to the figure of the ancient astronaut as source of geopolitical meditation and mediation in SFFTV. The ancient astronaut is a central trope in SF archaeology, and is, with the exception of Manticore and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the plot-triggering device of each text under investigation in the present study. As a revisionist figure of human history, the ancient astronaut is another futuristic model for imagining present configurations of global security and insecurity through archaeology. In Part 2, ‘Of Artefacts and Ancient Aliens,’ I argue that like military SF this figure from fringe archaeology is an important means of charting cultural anxieties circulating in post-9/11 SFFTV entertainments.
(4) Transformers 2 is a case in point. Involving cutting-edge military machines and hundreds of personnel from all five branches of the armed forces, the film is, in the words of Army liaison officer Lt. Col. Greg Bishop, the ‘largest joint-military movie ever made’ (Bell). Studies of the relationships between Hollywood and the Pentagon include Boggs and Pollard, 2007; Dodds; Power and Crampton; Robb; and Shapiro.
(5) Cf. U.S. Department of Defense press release, ‘Military Unites with Hollywood on Transformers’ (23 June 2009). Archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=54875.
(6) Mirrlees relates that with the exception of Titanic (1997), the top ten grossing films in each decade since the release of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) are fantasy, SF or their hybrid. Transformers 2 is counted among them. The economic reasons are fairly straightforward: fantasy and SF attract Hollywood’s most targeted teen and young adult demographic (187).
(7) ‘Jordan Signs Cinema Pact with USC.’ Cf. Ciecko.
(9) Spatial misprisions of Egypt have another domestic analogue in MGM’s Luxor Palace Hotel in Los Vegas, which served as a projection screen to advertise the film’s release. Cf. Malamud.
(12) For information on the railgun and its deployment see http://www.cnet.com/news/futuristic-navy-railgun-with-220-mile-range-closer-to-reality/; http://defensetech.org/2014/01/16/navy-rail-gun-showing-promise/; http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/naval/ships/2016/01/10/railgun-navy-fanta-naval-zumwalt-ddg1000/78443016/.