Year in Film: Cartooning the war - Page 2

Transformers and 300 turn the conflict into comic book blockbusters

Freedom is a word that's bandied about repeatedly here and in Transformers, but it's obviously the privilege of a select Darwinian few.

Snyder resorts to the ignorant and offensive tact of visually equating the forces of evil and darkness with the dark skins of the Persian forces. And the empire's pierced, proud, and power-hungry leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) — painted as perverse and ensconced in a polymorphic harem — comes off as a fetishy freak next to the Spartans' King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who are fiercely straight (judging from Leonidas's odd and likely historically inaccurate disparagement of bookish Athenian "boy lovers") and, by implication, straight shooting and Spartan-soldier tough. Which isn't to say there aren't vulnerabilities in the Spartan armor: Leonidas and his too meticulously CGI-embellished troops live and die by standards that doom the weak and disabled, and when a rejected Spartan hunchback is denied entry into their ranks, the scene is set for their final destruction, one that rhymes with that of Toshiro Mifune's Japanese Macbeth in Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Throne of Blood.

Able-bodied elite fighting forces take an even more artificial turn with Transformers. Though its production was aided and abetted by the US armed forces, preening military hardware in displays that rival those of the alien robots, the movie nonetheless exhibits a conflicted relationship with warfare that reflects the mood in the country. At moments its scenes precisely echo the visuals of those ubiquitous "Army of One" recruitment commercials; at others it reveals a wariness of its very exhibitionism. It's no marvel that director Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) can ape those ads as adeptly as a 'bot can mimic a sports car: in early 2006 he wrote on the forum, "The military looks like it is going to support the film, which is a big deal in giving the movie scope and credibility. The Pentagon has always been great with me because I make our military look good."

In keeping with that two-way support system and setting Transformers clearly in the Persian Gulf, Bay applies a veneer of salable heroism to his scenes of military machinery in action by battling the nefarious Decepticons and hastily dabs a quick layer of humanism on an identifiable, multilingual, and diverse clutch of everyday grunts. Jon Voigt's defense secretary makes his share of wrong moves, but he's no Donald Rumsfeld. This is likely Bay's most successful film, thanks to the self-mocking humor of the script, which extols the bond between "man and machine." After all, he knows and we know Transformers is all about toys — our hardware versus their hardware — and what makes them go, a.k.a. energy — whether it's the magical, Energizer Bunny envy-inducing all-spark cube or that oil the film's military is battling over when it isn't strafing robots.

The question is, who is to be trusted? Intriguingly, the Decepticons hide in plain sight on Earth by assuming the guise of US Air Force jets, Army tanks, and police cars, while the good Autobots change into civilian big wheelers, trucks, and cars. If a car makes a man, the machines in Transformers are giving out conflicted signals.

Also from this author

  • Women with movie cameras

    Cheers to CAAMFest's crop of female Asian American film directors

  • Spiking the box office

    THE YEAR IN FILM: Looking back at a triumphant year for African American films

  • Not from around here

    French synth-pop giants Phoenix and Daft Punk tap into the alien within

  • Also in this section

  • Con and on

    Thrilling, stylish Highsmith adaptation 'The Two Faces of January'

  • Cel mates

    Mill Valley Film Festival screens vintage and innovative animated features

  • Bridgeworthy

    More Mill Valley Film Festival picks