Continued from yesterday.
We’ve looked at how the 2007 movie embodied high-school male anxieties of Sam Witwicky, weaving them pretty intricately into the movie’s plot. We’ve also examined how the 2009 sequel only superficially addressed Sam’s transition to college life. Both of those periods in a young man’s life have been addressed often enough before. Dark of the Moon places Sam in far less familiar territory, as he enters the post-college job market.
Sam’s joining the American labor force at a very specific time in American economic history. After the crash of 2008, Wall Street recovered within a few years, and economic data indicated that the recession — at least as officially measured — was over. The affluent have remained just as wildly prosperous as before, and the aspects of the economy that cater to them (such as the high-end housing market) have done very well during the recovery. But Main Street still hasn’t recovered, and employment numbers have improved at a painfully slow pace. The gap between the rich and the poor keeps relentlessly expanding, and the middle class feel themselves to be slipping backwards, with more and more people struggling and unable to make ends meet, or being forced to take steps such as living with their parents in order to build any kind of economic foundation under their feet. Data shows that class mobility has for decades been weaker in the U.S. than most industrialized nations. The American Dream increasingly seems like an outdated notion, as the vast majority of Americans adjust their expectations downward.
This is reflected in the movie in Sam’s difficulty finding a job and in his class envy towards Dylan Gould, for whom his girlfriend, Carly Spencer, works. Gould embodies the American upper crust. His offices are super-modern. He collects expensive cars — a hobby not only indicative of extreme wealth but tied into the theme of the Transformers. Gould is a high-flyer with powerful connections. He’s slick, well-dressed, and happy… because he can afford to be. He’s also arrogant — although he sees himself as a good guy and promotes the idea that he is. To Sam’s consternation, Carly buys into Gould’s self-promotion — which represents how getting a paycheck so often corrupts our mentality, bending us towards the ideology of our apparent benefactors.
Gould is Mitt Romney. He’s Gordon Gecko. And of course, he’s ultimately the human villain of the piece, who sees a Decepticon victory as inevitable and wants to get his piece of the action. It’s a particularly capitalistic bit of rationalizing. The good of the planet, or the species — whether the issue is climate change or a Decepticon takeover — isn’t something the capitalist drive for profit is equipped to tackle. In the movie’s final act, Gould becomes a bit too two-dimensional for my taste, but it’s not hard to see how he could see a Decepticon takeover as an arbitrage opportunity. Indeed, we’ve seen what was once considered war profiteering become commonplace and even something that’s applauded in certain circles.
Gould is also an antidote to the wealthy, supposedly benevolent protagonists of many big-budget action movies. From Batman to Iron Man, we’ve often been made to identify with the wealthy and powerful — and to forgive their many mistakes and eccentricities because they’re depicted as the good guys, as smart visionaries who will always be in the right, even when they’re so obviously in the wrong. Gould’s not a perfect character, but he’s a breath of fresh air.
Sam’s relationship with Carly also reflects another timely issue: that women are making more money. The old idea of husbands as breadwinner isn’t quite dead yet, but it’s certainly on its way out. Recent economic downturns have seen women’s incomes recover quicker, so the two issues are connected historically as well as thematically in the movie. Of course, women still make less money than men, and there’s been more than a little consternation in some camps over this shift. Surely, a lot of that’s simply those with power — in this case, men — expressing alarm at their declining privilege. But that’s also true of anxieties about America’s perceived decline. That these are privileged concerns doesn’t invalidate them as subject matter for artistic exploration. In fact, many of the most beloved genre movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, etc.) reflect the anxieties of their times, and powerful movies do so ably, even when those anxieties seem more than a little silly, privileged, or paranoid in retrospect.
Yes, Dark of the Moon is really about the declining middle class and Sam’s crisis of masculinity. And yes, the movie ends up affirming Sam’s perspective, since he was right to be suspicious of Carly’s rich boss. From this perspective, the movie may be read as a male fantasy, similar to how the original Die Hard ends with John McClane’s estranged wife not taking his last name.
Sam’s experience in the film also reflects how many college graduates are naive about what an undergraduate degree means. For decades, Americans have been sold on college as a means to achieve a better job. When I’ve asked my own students, the vast majority say this is why they’re in college. That’s not what college used to be about — which is why four-year colleges still have general-education requirements designed to produce well-rounded, educated individuals, capable of critical thought, aware of how science works, and ready to participate in a democracy. College today is increasingly a business, and not only at for-profit universities (which have low success rates and huge overhead, despite what you’ve heard about business doing everything better). Non-profit universities are also busy replacing tenured professors with part-time instructors to save money, and the biggest names in American education are opening foreign branches to monetize their reputations. Meanwhile, undergraduate degrees don’t get someone very far. Data shows they help in the long run — although I suspect this is mostly because people feel more confident hiring a college graduate and expect to pay that person more. But in the short run, unless your degree is in a few specialized fields, a college degree doesn’t open an awful lot of doors.
Yet I’ve often heard from college graduates who were surprised at this. One told me he expected that an English degree meant some newspaper or publisher eagerly would hire him. In part, this is surely due to the widespread propaganda about how college leads to better jobs. Even at the most reputable schools, colleges do little to disabuse students of this notion. Most departments are desperate for enrollment. If they don’t get it, classes are cancelled, salaries are affected, and you can pretty much forget any new positions, expanded course offerings, or even (in some places) office supplies. So professors tell students about how an English degree or knowing a foreign language is useful in pretty much any occupation — which is true. But students take this nebulous advice to mean that they will find a job after graduating… and then they’re disappointed.
Heck, my father was a professor, and my undergraduate institution was all about making your brain better. It couldn’t have cared less about whether you were going to get a job, and it bravely didn’t pretend to. That was beneath its concern; that wasn’t its job, as an institution. So I had few illusions on that front. But I still felt that post-graduation let-down, as I discovered that the professors who knew I was a brilliant, hard-working student weren’t going to drop my name with publishers or other high-flying friends, including in major graduate departments. It’s hard to realize you’ve climbed a tall and arduous ladder, investing huge amounts of time and money and mental energy doing so, only to discover that you’re at the bottom of a whole new ladder, for which you have very little training.
And that’s the situation Sam finds himself in. He’s a college graduate, and no one cares. No one’s opening any doors for him.
Of course, this is informed by Sam’s experience in the past two movies. But instead of derailing the message, this enhances it. Sam says he saved the world twice, but he can’t tell anyone — because it’s a conceit of the first two movies that the Transformers’ existence remains a secret, marginalized to the conspiratorial fringe.
I absolutely love this dynamic. It augments the depiction of Sam as a freshly minted college grad, unable to find work and anxious about his masculinity. Because Sam’s not just a new graduate who’s excelled in high school and college. He literally saved the world during both these periods. It’s a great metaphor for Sam’s sense of his own accomplishments, of his hard work, which don’t seem to matter now that it counts.
This is also a great commentary on the fact that, despite the platitudes, American capitalism isn’t a meritocracy — a pain that’s very dear to my own heart. In some ways, Sam’s experience saving the world hurts him as he tries to find his place. People don’t believe him, and what boss wants to hire someone who thinks he’s done more for the world than all his coworkers? Many of the brightest young adults face a very similar situation, in which bosses may think they’re bragging about their accomplishments and are reluctant to have a subordinate who’s too smart, especially at an entry-level position. And these bosses are right to be concerned, because even if the young person is hired, he or she is likely to feel that they’re under-utilized and under-appreciated, since they know what they’re capable of.
This is a conundrum I know well, and I’ve rarely seen it reflected in a movie, let alone as well as it is in Dark of the Moon. As a 21-year-old college grad, I’d gotten a great education, taken my studies very seriously, graduated with honors, won an award, and had several helpful mentors. I’d also written several unpublished books, completing the first as a high-school freshman. I was in the top percentile on just about every standardized test, had grown up with childhood experts saying I was literally off their charts, and had known my I.Q. for eight years. If you grew up like I did, with movies about wunderkinds embraced by the American dream, you’d expect me to wind up at a publisher, on the writing staff of a TV show, snatched up by a talent agency, working for the government, or offered a scholarship at an Ivy League school.
Instead, even the local newspapers wouldn’t take me — in multiple cities. So I wound up doing temp work, for about $7 and hour, and nothing about me mattered except that I knew Microsoft Office and could type quickly. (Ironically, these were skills I’d refined doing research and writing that now didn’t count for anything.) I worked as a secretary at a low-rent psychiatrist’s office that was next door to a methadone clinic and got walk-ins from people very upset the clinic next door was closed. At another job, I worked in a corporate cubicle for months on a project that got scrapped for reasons I wasn’t privy to — and wasn’t expected to ask about. At another job, I sold porn magazines to businessmen on their lunch breaks. At one job, my boss was younger than me, wasn’t very bright, was rarely present, was a dictator when she was, and surely thought she got the job due to her innate worth. I only survived with my parents’ help, wound up with an awful lot of credit-card debt on top of my student loans, and finally had a nervous breakdown in which I realized I was (no joke) going to kill myself if I didn’t get into grad school.
Once I got over my humbled ego, I really didn’t mind any of the work itself. There was little responsibility, my coworkers were pretty cool, and I got to experience things outside the world I knew, which (being a writer) I valued greatly. Now that I’m older, I’m able to see that I needed a little humbling. And my impression that the establishment was anything but meritocratic helped spur me to at least be happy with what I did. So I went my own way and basically decided to build my own, more meritocratic institutions. Including Sequart, which you’re now reading this on. After 18 years of hard work and tons of truly amazing support, it’s still not quite a happy ending, but it is getting there.
Why recount all of this? Because I’m so sick of movies that perpetuate the idea that everything will work out if you have a good heart or a smart idea. Few things could possibly more damaging to perpetuate.
In fact, if you wanted to hurt people as much as possible, you might well come up with the idea that people have a destiny tied to their intrinsic merit. It’s a tempting idea, but it’s one I feel ethically obliged to correct.
Don’t get me wrong: talent and hard work matter, and they’re necessary if you’re building a business. Hard work, or at least perseverance, is necessary to graduate from college or to finish a big creative project. But talent and hard work at best win you a roll of the dice — and additional rolls, when the first few don’t work out. It’s luck that separates a Mark Zuckerberg from 99 just-as-talented, just-as-hard-working other people. And that luck includes all kinds of supports, including what opportunities your family, their connections, and their wealth provides. Without such good fortune, I not only wouldn’t have made it through that post-college period, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten to college in the first place. No amount of merit would have mattered. On the other hand, if I’d had more such fortune, I’d have achieved a lot more with a lot less suffering.
I’ve never seen this reality reflected in a big-budget movie as well as I have in Dark of the Moon. Sam’s not the smartest or the most talented candidate, but he’s saved the world twice. And it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, he sees douchebags like Gould thrive.
The fact that Sam’s had advantages and good luck — including supportive middle-class parents, an absurdly beautiful and wealthy girlfriend, and the good fortune not to die on those two past adventures — doesn’t negate the central dynamic that his merit fundamentally doesn’t matter. Sure, he’d have it worse if he were a woman, or a minority, or born poor. I’d pay to see that movie. But to the extent we care about the injustices perpetrated on any group, Sam’s experience that ours is not a meritocracy is a starting point, without which we can’t begin to discuss greater, endemic injustices.
Because if what separates Sam from Gould isn’t merit, what separates anyone from either of them might not be merit either. And what separates most women from the impossibly beautiful and wealthy Carly might also not be merit.
And boy if this isn’t a rare point of view. We’re constantly spoon-fed this myth of meritocracy, as if it’s a state that magically comes into being. Even most movies that celebrate someone who dies for a cause endorse the concept of meritocracy, because those characters become lionized, achieving posthumously a station they couldn’t in life. Movies like Erin Brockovich (2000) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), while ostensibly antidotes to sexism and racism, perpetuate the underlying notion of meritocracy, in which any sexism or racism is simply a temporary problem the meritocratic universe will naturally iron out.
Dark of the Moon is an action movie, and it’s not focused solely on these issues. But its depiction of present-day American capitalism is braver and more accurate than those two movies (both of which are based on true stories, selected and then altered to support a meritocratic agenda).
But there’s one final reason I love the post-college Sam sequences. How often do we see heroes save the day and get a happy ending? Often enough. But we’re almost never shown what happens next. Most sequels basically repeat the set-up of the original movie, and we’re asked to believe that either nothing’s really changed or that everything has radically changed. There’s almost never any thinking through of the implications of the earlier movies.
Sam’s situation, in that he can’t really talk about having saved the Earth, is hardly unique to the Transformers movies. We’ve seen dozens of everyman characters put into similar situations, and whether because a mission is top-secret or because it occurred in a remote region, they have no evidence for what they’ve experienced. Perhaps they’ve encountered extraterrestrial life, but no one else knows it. How do you go back to normal life, after something like that?
Yet we’ve rarely seen this. From a purely narrative standpoint, that’s both unorthodox and pretty smart. It struck me immediately, and I still admire it.
All of these issues with Sam aren’t separate from the Transformers-focused plot, even if the two plots aren’t as thematically interwoven as they were in the 2007 movie. Even if the good guys ultimately win, Transformers are cut down left and right, and there’s little accounting for merit in some of the deaths. Also, the revered Sentinel Prime is revealed to be an Autobot traitor, paralleling Gould’s role in the human plot.
There are things I don’t like about this movie’s Transformers plot. The threat, in which technological pillars are used to transport Cybertron into our solar system, is easy to ridicule. I’m not convinced by the plot in which Earth exiles the Autobots. Perhaps the worst problem is that Cybertron is casually destroyed in the climax — with an effect I initially thought was only meant to indicate the destruction of the planetary transport system. The film doesn’t adequately convey the sense of genocide — and presumably the demise of billions. In the end, Optimus Prime executes both Megatron and Sentinel Prime, which might be forgivable if we felt he’d just lost his entire species, or if the movie led us to question his morality. Instead, it’s essentially a war crime, which the movie seems to brush off as if it’s not really important, or doesn’t compromise Optimus Prime’s heroism at all.
With all of that acknowledged, there’s also an awful lot to like in this plot.
As previously discussed, each of the three movies involve a retroactively revealed past encounter between the Transformers and Earth. Revenge of the Fallen set this encounter in Earth’s distant past, which didn’t work. Dark of the Moon may not need another such encounter, but its version is perhaps the coolest of all three films: that the space race was inspired by an Autobot ship that crashed on the Moon. Given that the Transformers movies prominently feature conspiracy theories, the Moon landing is a resonant choice, and we’re treated to a fun sequence in which the astronauts stop broadcasting, then rush over to explore an impossibly vast alien craft.
The action and special effects are particularly dramatic, this time around. In the opening sequence, we get to see a live-action version of the war on Cybertron — in 3D no less, if you saw the movie in that format. But the highlight is the sequence in the Chicago skyscrapers, in which the building is torn apart and the human characters have to navigate a sloping floor with the windows knocked out, then slide down the outside of the building. It’s a stunning sequence from start to finish. There too, we see the film’s denial of meritocracy, as what divides human characters who die from those who live is sometimes as simple as their random physical position (as is so often the case in actual war). Rarely have I ever been so riveted by an action sequence, and I’m not usually dazzled by action for its own sake.
For what it’s worth, the plot’s filled with references that ought to please Transformers fans. We get to see the movies’ version of Shockwave. Sentinel Prime is a great character with a long history in Transformers comics and cartoons, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy, who voiced Galvatron in the 1986 animated movie. Even some of the elements I didn’t like might deserve a partial pass for their provenance. The transportation system that brings Cybertron to Earth is called a Space Bridge, and is a new version of technology that’s been important to the Transformers from the earliest years of the cartoon and the comic. The idea of bringing Cybertron to Earth originates in the three-part “The Ultimate Doom,” from the first season of the original Transformers cartoon.
But the movie’s plot is most notable for daring to carry forward the premise of the movies. The original idea of the Transformers, as reflected in the 2007 movie, was “Their War, Our World.” In other words, these impossibly alien mechanical life forms had carried their technologically advanced war to our planet. To depict this as a polite business, without casualties, is to avoid the implications of the original premise. The 2007 movie did a good job of following this through, especially given its budgetary and technological limitations, by setting the climax in the fictional Mission City. Seeing Transformers battle in an urban environment brings the original premise home in a way we hadn’t really seen before that movie. But at the end of the movie, the Transformers’ existence is still a secret, due to a (frankly improbable) cover-up of what happened in Mission City. This is a central conceit of the movies, in which the Transformers have altered human history without us knowing it and are the subject of conspiracy theories.
Revenge of the Fallen doesn’t move this original premise forward. Yes, one of the pyramids of the Giza plateau gets torn apart, but “their war” doesn’t alter “our world” much more than that. And in the end, the Transformers are covered up once again.
But of course, this can’t go on. The improbability of such (international) cover-ups increases with each movie, and there’s only so much fun to be had with the idea that the truth of what everyone’s watching is only known to conspiracy theories. At the same time, the very premise of the series demands that it’s only going to be a matter of time before “their war” affect “our world” in fundamental, big-scale ways. (This is similar to why I’ve defended X-Men: The Last Stand, despite its faults.) You can only do these kind of contained climaxes so many times before the lack of an intersection between the Transformers and present-day human history feels like narrative cowardice.
In Dark of the Moon, the Decepticons conquer Chicago.
To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t choose a fictional location, like the first movie’s Mission City. This helps bring the city’s devastation home, rendering it far realer and more powerful. It’s eerie, seeing Decepticon ships patroling the skies above the city’s canals. It certainly feels like an alien invasion.
The Decepticons’ rule looks like a military occupation. The conquest of Chicago is absolutely brutal, and the protagonists’ journey into the occupied city and battle within it feels far more like a war movie than a sanitized action blockbuster. If there’s one thing Michael Bay’s universally acknowledged to be good at, besides explosions, it’s filming military sequences. And to the movie’s credit, all of Chicago is shot like a battleground.
In other words, “Their War, Our World.”
By the end of the trilogy, we’ve seen the fulfillment of the original movie’s premise. We’ve also followed Sam Witwicky through three distinct stages of his life. And things have changed: Cybertron’s been destroyed, and there’s no going back. There’s also no hiding the Transformers’ existence, after what we’ve seen in Chicago.
Dark of the Moon has some heights that exceed those of the 2007 original, but the human and Transformers plots aren’t quite as wedded as they are there. Nonetheless, Dark of the Moon is a gripping action movie that compares favorably to the vast majority of big-budget action films.
I first saw it in 3D, and I was riveted through most of it. I’ve rarely had so much fun at a movie. An awful lot of the action was just mind-blowing to see. And for every bit that feels a little misjudged or unnecessary, there’s another bit that feels brave to me… and far better done than probably anyone has a right to expect from a billion-dollar blockbuster.
Considered together, the original three Transformers movies certainly aren’t art films, and they’re an odd mix of really smart and really dumb elements. But they do tell a consistent, unified, and fascinating story that deserves far more critical acclaim than they’ve gotten.
They haven’t quite displaced the original cartoon and comic as the “definitive” version of the Transformers. But their remix of elements from all past versions of the Transformers feels as close as any other version has come.