More than Meets the Eye: Neoconservative Rhetoric in the Transformers Franchise


In the summer of 2007, the first non-animated feature film of the Transformers franchise took in over $319 million in domestic box office receipts. Internationally, it made an additional $390 million, for a grand total of nearly $710 million in worldwide ticket sales.1 Further, product licensing generated an additional $482 million in merchandising revenue2, and five years after its initial release, this movie continues to make money though various video distribution outlets. Despite an immodest production budget of approximately $150 million3, itself a spectacle, Transformers has since made well over one billion dollars worldwide, thus re-legitimizing its brand as a profitable enterprise. This, in turn, has opened the door for two sequels to date, with a third currently in production and no immediate end in sight.

Although the aforementioned figures can certainly form the basis for a Marxist critique of the Hollywood machine, that is not entirely the intent of this paper. Rather, when we also factor in the estimated nineteen million people who have downloaded Transformers illegally4 or the unquantifiable number of people who have watched this movie through other, legitimate methods of video distribution (such as Netflix, iTunes, cable television, etc.), we are left with the simple, unequivocal fact that this film has been seen by a staggering number of people throughout the world. 

With this in mind, I intend to provide an oppositional reading of the three existing live- action Transformers movies in which I explore the dominant relationship between spectacle and audience. As Guy Debord states in The Commodity as Spectacle, “In all its specific forms, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption... the spectacle’s form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals.”5 The Transformers franchise, we shall see, is certainly no exception.

If we are to consider the breadth of mainstream American cinema’s international distribution, legally or otherwise, then we can safely draw the conclusion that there are places in the world where people who have never met an American have nonetheless seen Transformers, thus rendering director Michael Bay, like many of his contemporaries, a de facto cultural ambassador for the United States in some of the more geographically remote regions of the globe. 

Films of this genre, however, unlike many dramas and comedies, which rely heavily on the nuances of language to convey meaning to the audience, require very little translation for a foreign market, which may help to explain why Transformers was even more popular abroad than it was domestically. Giant space robots that blow things up rely on a fairly primitive system of signs to communicate their intended meaning to an audience.

Even here in the U.S., though, these numbers suggest that nearly as many Americans saw this movie as voted in the 2008 Presidential election, although independent marketing research points to a primary demographic that was not yet of voting age in 20076. With that noted, despite the consensus of many critics that Transformers was little more than a typical summer American blockbuster, not meant to be taken all that seriously, I intend to prove that there are certain ideologies that resonate throughout this entire franchise, and that the motivation behind their inclusion is to promote unconditional support for neoconservative policies at home and abroad. 

For this reason, I would like to suggest that scholarship of these films as cinematic texts is not only warranted, but incredibly important as well, not only because of their inherent relevance as contemporary artifacts of popular culture, but also because they impose an implicit agenda that serves to reinforce existing hegemonies and do so by targeting a largely unsuspecting audience. Beneath all of the computer generated imagery, shiny metal and explosions, there is an overwhelming undercurrent of neoconservative rhetoric woven throughout these movies. Ironically, there is truly more to these films than meets the eye...

In the Hollywood blockbuster model of film production and distribution, product placement has become increasingly commonplace in recent years; it serves to offset some of the marketing and production costs through endorsement deals. This is certainly not surprising in Transformers, especially considering that its characters and premise are based on a popular line of toys from the 1980s. A reviewer in the Chicago Reader went so far as to refer to this movie as “one gigantic commercial for Hasbro,”7 and of course, product placement for several other brands can be found with their labels facing the camera throughout the movie. At one point, there is even a Mountain Dew vending machine that transforms into a robot, which then shoots cans of soda at its enemies. 

As I have suggested, though, this kind of thing can almost be expected in films of this nature. However, Michael Bay takes this manipulation of audience passivity a step further with Transformers and sprinkles in what I would like to refer to as “ideological placement” throughout the film. By that, I mean that this movie does more than just subconsciously market products to its viewers; it also promotes a very specific lens through which to view the world and its inhabitants.

Beginning with the opening voiceover dialogue, the audience is subjected to what I believe to be overtly Christian rhetoric, explaining that these giant robots from space have returned “from the heavens” to save humankind from their own destruction. Optimus Prime, as the noble leader of the Autobots, represents a Christ figure throughout the film, even explicitly offering to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity on multiple occasions. 

Furthermore, the “Cube,” an object around which much of the plot revolves, represents a thinly veiled Christian God, as creator of life and all energy in the universe. Meanwhile, the “Allspark,” which provides the key to harnessing the power of the Cube can be seen as a representation of the Holy Spirit. The Allspark is empowering to some and incompatible with those less righteous, as we learn at the film’s dramatic climax, when Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, is incapacitated by its awesome power. In Japan, these pretenses were brought to the forefront, as Transformers was released under the title Super God Robot Force8.

In a further disregard for the subtleties of subtext, there is even a line earlier in the movie where Sam, the character played by Shia LaBeouf, when trying to convince his teacher to give him a higher grade than the B minus that he earned, utters the cringeworthy line, “What would Jesus do?” which we soon learn was enough to get his grade changed to an A minus. The lesson here is that by evoking the familiar symbolism and rhetoric of Christianity, one can take something that is just above average and transform it into something that approaches excellence, regardless of its actual perceived value.

The same could be said for the representations of American exceptionalism throughout this movie. Hardly a scene goes by that does not contain at least one symbolic representation of the United States, whether American flags or globes turned to the American continents or the insignias of the United States military. Through clunky, mechanical exposition, we learn that the Decepticons have come to Earth to take over all of its machines and use them to destroy humanity. 

Nonetheless, the only country, it seems, that is actually under attack in this movie is the United States, who is apparently also alone in fighting the Decepticons -- other than with the help provided by the Autobots, our guardian angels. It does not take much to draw parallels between this and the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that were very much in the public consciousness in the summer of 2007. It was US (and God) vs. Them.

Representative of the conservative ideologies that dominate this film, all government employees, with the noted exception of military and Pentagon personnel, are portrayed as arrogant and ineffective. At one point, John Turturro’s character, Agent Simmons, a high-level secret operative says in regard to a Decepticon attack, “...which I would bet my ridiculous government salary is coming,” as if to remind the audience that he is not only incompetent, but also grossly overpaid. According to the filmmakers, the only thing that Simmons and the agency he represents are good for is to tell the real heroes of this story that an attack by foreign invaders is imminent. 

As for the representations of U.S. military personnel, without exception, they are characterized as brave warriors, fighting these alien machines with what we are constantly reminded is the most powerful military in the modern world. One camera shot that presents a silhouetted image of American tanks in a desert landscape is accompanied with the off-screen dialogue, “I’ve never seen a weapons system like this...” Here, the character is talking about the Decepticons, but the filmmakers seem to be referring to the United States military.

In the opening action sequence of the movie, which offers a title card to remind the less geographically astute members of the audience that Qatar is in fact located in the Middle East, the filmmakers then conjure more explosions in one scene than I have ever before witnessed in a motion picture. Nonetheless, although it is implied, we do not see even one solider get killed by the attacking Decepticons, presumably because the filmmakers did not think that their audience would want to be reminded that soldiers actually do die in the act of defending our nation. A fact such as this could certainly hinder support for military involvement in the Middle East, and so it is quietly disregarded.

Although both groups of Transformers are explained to have come from the distant planet of Cybertron, the Decepticons are consistently referred to as “alien invaders,” versus the Autobots, who are never explicitly referred to as aliens, but rather, encoded as the guardian angels of humankind. 

This dichotomy is often illustrated through chant music when the Autobots appear on screen, as well as other visual and audio cues throughout the movie that serve to remind the audience which “race” of transformers it is that appears on screen. It is also worth noting that the Autobots speak an American dialect of English, whereas the Decepticons, at least early in the film, speak an unintelligible language that is even subtitled in an Arabic-like font momentarily before being translated into English for the benefit of the audience. 

As far as I can discern, this serves no purpose but to remind the audience that the Decepticons represent the foreign “other,” who have come to take over earth’s machines to use against us. This, of course, is not at all far removed from suggesting that these alien invaders have come to take American jobs. In 2006 and 2007, the years when this movie was being produced and distributed theatrically, the rhetoric of immigrants taking American jobs was very much a dominant topic in the national discourse, and I believe that the filmmakers made it exceptionally clear where they stand on this issue -- and how the audience should feel as well.

In fact, the first on-screen dialogue in this movie is of a Latino soldier talking to his peers in the back of a U.S. military helicopter. The scene opens with him speaking over the dull whir of the swooping blades: “Oh, God. Five months of this...” When he then utters a few words in Spanish, the other soldiers tell him, “English, please,” and “How many times do I have to tell you? We don’t speak Spanish.” This same basic exchange occurs in various manifestations throughout the film. Whenever a character says something in Spanish, without exception, he is corrected and told to speak in English. Later in the first act, when the Latino auto mechanic at the used car dealership says, “That’s loco,” his boss, Bobby Bolivia, responds by telling him, “Don’t go all Ricky Ricardo on me, man.”

Representations of African Americans in this film are hardly any better. Bolivia, played by Bernie Mac, speaks in a stereotypical black slang and is dressed in a tropical shirt covered in what appears to be images of bananas. At one point, Bolivia reminds his Latino subordinate, who is now dressed in a clown suit, to not “go scaring no white folks.” In the context of this film, white people are, of course, represented in a “naturalized” position of power and privilege. All decisions that move the story forward toward its dramatic conclusion are made by white, male characters.

Women, on the other hand, are represented as subservient characters with no other purpose but to be objectified by the male gaze and presented as a reward to the male characters for their heroism. Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela, appears in nearly a half dozen scenes before she is given even a single line of dialogue. Granted, her acting has all of the emotional depth of a swimsuit calendar, but this may very well be more reflective of the writing and directing of this film than any actual measure of her ability. No other female characters in Transformers received even that many lines of dialogue or that degree of character development, nor is there even one “female” Transformer featured in this movie -- yet, somehow we are supposed to believe that these robots are organic alien machines that are capable of genetic reproduction.

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the two credited screenwriters, have also worked together on such films as Cowboys & Aliens (2011), which also happened to be a movie about alien invaders (in Arizona, of all places), as well as the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, which famously centers on a white starship captain commanding an ethnically diverse crew. Meanwhile, after the first Transformers movie was released, Michael Bay has since gone on to produce a film called The Unborn (2009), which involves a woman being haunted by the spirit of an unborn baby, and Horsemen (2009), a thriller about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, loosely inspired by descriptions that appear in the Bible. Clearly, these filmmakers have a common agenda that can be extrapolated in their respective bodies of work, and we have seen, Transformers is no exception.

Revenge of the Fallen

Throughout the political spectrum of American media, the U.S. election in November of 2008 was widely interpreted as a referendum on the policies of George W. Bush, which were, of course, the same policies that had been celebrated in the first installment of the Transformers franchise. This election not only marked the first time in American history that a non-white male was elected President, but it was also the first U.S. election in sixteen years in which Democrats gained control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. It is perhaps then with a note of irony that the summer of 2009 saw the release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film which served as little more than a rearticulation of the same ideologies represented in the first movie... this time with a vengeance. As stated in one of the film’s theatrical taglines: Revenge takes many forms.9

From the very first audio cue, the audience is made aware that this is to be an attack on the senses. A title card sets up the opening scene as taking place in 17,000 B.C., and then the familiar voice of Optimus Prime presents the narration, “Earth. Birthplace of the human race... capable of great compassion, and great violence,” accompanied by the slowed image of tribal African warriors fiercely charging at the camera. The filmmakers clearly want us to see that these men were something to be feared, but they were also something to be conquered, as within moments, they are literally crushed beneath the feet of a giant robot in the spirit of technology vs. tradition, without the slightest hesitation. In one of the many instances in which these films transcend logic, the Transformer doing the crushing not only speaks English, but he apparently did so before humans had even developed complex language. “Here, here,” he says. About halfway into the movie, the audience learns that this prehistoric robot is known by the others as The Fallen; as explained, this is an obvious reference to the Antichrist; as suggested by the title, this film is about his return, which I believe was intended to nurture and exploit the fundamentalist hysteria that implicated the election of President Obama as a harbinger of the end of days and/or the United States of America. The tagline might as well have been: America, be afraid.

The characters that make up the central military unit are mostly the same as they were in the first film, except now they work for an organization known as NEST, which is implied to be some kind of special forces unit that is privately contracted by the U.S. government; their uniforms and equipment bear no insignias of the United States or its armed forces. In contrast with the first Transformers movie, where this same military unit was represented as the one useful part of the government, here they are portrayed as being outside and arguably above the U.S. chain of command and its diplomatic relations. Further, whereas the first film took place almost entirely in the United States, Revenge of the Fallen spreads computer generated destruction around the world, including pivotal scenes which revolve around the obliteration of national monuments in France and in Egypt, among others. The message here is: Americans, with our Autobot (Christian) allies, are perfectly entitled to mobilize our military forces anywhere in the world with little to no regard for the damage left in their wake, because the supposed values for which we fight are objectively just and noble.

This notion is epitomized in the very first action sequence after the titles, when Optimus Prime, savior of us all, holds a robot space gun to the head of his unarmed enemy, point blank, and says, “Any last words?” The Decepticon replies with, “This is not your planet to rule. The Fallen shall rise again.” In this context, such a statement could certainly be meant by the filmmakers to invoke fear of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil in response to continued American military presence throughout the world. To this, Optimus Prime says, “Not today,” and then fires without mercy. 

Later in the film, though, when the Decepticons do launch their global attack, the voiceover of the news broadcast says: “The military has just told us that they have assumed condition delta, which is the highest level we have been at since 9/11. President Obama is being flown to a bunker somewhere in the middle of the United States in the face of the worst simultaneous attacks ever around the globe.” Here not only do the filmmakers feel the need to use the real name of the sitting President in their fictional film about giant space robots, but they have also decided to paint him as a coward, at least relative to George W. Bush in the hypothetical scenario that they have created. This moment in the film does not serve the story in any particular capacity; rather, it seems to be driven by purely ideological motives.

In Revenge of the Fallen, the government bureaucrat from the first film has been replaced by a stock character from the same basic mold. “The President just appointed him liaison,” Major Lennox says, rolling his eyes via video conference, to which his commanding officer replies sarcastically, “Well, I guess I didn’t get that memo.” Later, when speaking to Optimus Prime, the officer asks, “If we ultimately conclude that our national security is best served by denying you further asylum on our planet, will you leave? Peacefully?” In this statement, I thought it was interesting that the American commanding officer referred to it as “our planet,” for which American stewardship is unquestionably assumed. Optimus Prime responds with what could easily be the lyrics to a country song: “Freedom is your right. If you make that request, we will honor it, but before your President decides, please ask him this: what if we leave and you’re wrong?” To himself (and, of course, the audience), the major says, “That’s a good question,” and the audience is left to ponder whether the U.S. military, under President Obama’s guidance, is strong enough to fight potential alien invaders without the help of the Autobots, their guardian angels.

Meanwhile, Sam is headed off to college. As he cannot bring his dog, Mojo, Sam leaves him with his parents, who also have a male dog named Frankie. When Mojo engages in sexual relations with Frankie, Sam’s dad says, “Mojo, stop dominating Frankie! Get the hell off the couch, you filthy beasts!” He then turns to Sam and says, “You’ll see a lot of that in college, too.” When they arrive at the unnamed east coast university, the establishing shot of the campus presents two very Russian looking spires at the top of a building. Sam’s new roommate, Leo, has a World War II era U.S. propaganda poster on the door to their room that reads, “He’s watching you,” accompanied by a German soldier cloaked in shadows. Leo, portrayed here as a stereotypical conspiracy theorist (read: crazy), also advises Sam to not trust the mainstream media. 

Within his first few days at college, Sam is aggressively pursued by Alice, a strong, young, attractive woman who, of course, turns out to be a Decepticon in disguise. Yes, this film literally objectifies women in that there happens to be an action figure of this particular character. This is also the only female Transformer to have appeared in any of the three films (at the time of writing), and by ascribing her with attributes such as sexual assertiveness and physical aggression, both of which are traditionally construed as male within our culture, she is portrayed by the filmmakers as a frightening beast. Sam, in turn, is practically defenseless to her seduction. 

In his attempt to evade her, however, Sam absorbs a remnant of the Cube (left over from the first movie), which suddenly makes him incredibly intelligent, as well as able to see alien symbols that no one else can see. To demonstrate his newfound intellectual prowess, in one of his classes, Sam exposes his egotistical professor as a fool. Meanwhile, Sam himself, with his ability to absorb and recite large amounts of information -- in the context of a culture that is constantly connected to Google -- is made to seem freakish. Again, in correlation to standard neoconservative rhetoric, there is a vein of anti-intellectualism that runs through this entire franchise. Needless to say, in the lowest common denominator business model of Hollywood production and distribution, this film was a hugely successful product.

Revenge of the Fallen had an estimated budget of approximately $200 million, fifty million more than its predecessor. Since the first Transformers film made back nearly ten times its initial investment, from a purely financial perspective, it made sense to produce a sequel. Most of the marketing was already done; audience members knew what to expect when they bought their tickets to the second film of the Transformers franchise. This is part of what makes it a franchise in the same way that McDonalds or Wal-Mart is a franchise: predictability. In contrast, if I may offer a brief tangent, I would like to suggest that this is the very antithesis of art, as I believe that the critical function of art is to surprise its audience in some capacity with something novel. If it fails in this regard, it is a cliche. It is a joke we have heard before.

Roger Ebert, in his review of this film, said, “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”10 With that noted, I think that it is safe to say that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was not created in response to popular demand, nor is it intended to answer any thematic questions left unanswered in the first movie. This film was created to make money, but also to promote the same ideologies as witnessed in the first installment.

Domestically, Revenge of the Fallen took in over $402 million, and international box office receipts added up to more than $434 million, for a cumulative total of over $836 million. Merchandising for this film contributed another $830 million, and when we add these figures to those of the previous film, we are up to a running total of about three billion dollars generated by ticket sales and product licensing for the first two Transformers movies. Compare this to the initial investment of about $350 million in the production of these films, and it becomes clear that from an investor perspective, this is a very safe and very profitable return. 

The Hollywood industry is first and foremost a business, driven by profit, which is why blockbuster films such as this dominate American cinematic cultural output -- except instead of reflecting the culture that they are a part of, these films often attempt to shape that culture by reinforcing dominant ideologies that often work against the best interests of the citizenry. Compare this production model to more modestly budgeted “independent” films, which attempt to forge a deeper cultural significance with a generally smaller audience, while more often than not, such films face a significant challenge in turning a profit. Conversely, investors are drawn to films like Transformers because they have proven time and again to make ridiculous amounts of money. Even if investors disagree with or are completely unaware of the political agendas of these films, which I suspect many are, as an investment, they make a lot of sense.

Even from a screenwriting point of view, the Hollywood system is designed to be a self- perpetuating machine. The general rule regarding the value of a screenplay is that is usually considered to be worth 3-5% of the production budget. For Revenge of the Fallen, that means that returning screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with former Nicholl Fellow Ehren Kruger collectively made between six and ten million dollars on the screenplay, which is not a bad living in the context of their chosen profession. Their agents and/or managers most likely each took ten percent of their clients‘ cut, and their lawyers probably each took five percent, as these are the standard industry rates. With that in mind, it becomes clear that agents, managers and lawyers within the Hollywood system are also financially incentivized to represent clients who write screenplays that demand a grossly inflated budget, and this, in addition to the factors already discussed, serves to further perpetuate the blockbuster model of production. In other words, it is not necessarily that contemporary screenwriters have run out of original things to say so much as that the existing system stifles creativity, if we are to consider that originality is a riskier investment and requires a great deal more marketing. 

Most screenplays that are greenlit today are those that are assigned by producers, whose primary motivation is generally profit-driven as opposed to artistically inclined; the other 10-15% are known as spec(ulative) scripts, which begin with an original idea by the writer, but these are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream Hollywood. Although assigned scripts are certainly not limited to franchise films, in 2007, the original Transformers movie was the only one of the top five grossing films11 that was not a sequel. The year that Revenge of the Fallen was released, it shared the top five with two other sequels: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Twilight: New Moon. By 2011, when the third installment of the Transformers franchise was released, the nine top grossing movies of the year were all sequels.12 Indeed, when film scholars look back at this particular moment in cinematic history, they will likely refer to it as the golden age of the franchise film.13 As a concept, it is among the central cultural products of late capitalism: an expression of its own predictability.

The plot of Revenge of the Fallen centers on finding a device that is hidden beneath the sands of the Egyptian and/or Jordanian desert that may provide the energy source that Transformers need to sustain their existence. Despite the obvious parallels to oil, this device actually draws its energy from the sun, effectively destroying it in the process, which again, plays into the audience’s fear of a global apocalypse under what they are led to believe is weak national leadership. In fact, it is Major Lennox in the NEST unit who makes the decision to mobilize his entire platoon along with the entire fleet of Autobots into Egypt without any prior diplomatic engagement. While battling Transformers in Egypt, the pyramids and the Sphinx are all but destroyed, along with several villages. 

As soon as the next battle is set up to happen in Jordan, they are then allowed to cross the border without any passports, simply because they claim to be Americans from New York. “I love New York,” the guard says in broken English as he waves them by. When Mikaela asks Sam about their reason for going to Jordan, she says, “How do you know this is going to work?” He responds by saying, “Because I believe in it.” In other words, faith trumps reason, thus reinforcing the general theme of anti-intellectualism/pro- Christianity that is embedded into this entire series. When Sam sacrifices himself for the good of humanity (another common theme in this franchise), in his near-death experience, he talks to Transformers in heaven, who remind him of his responsibility to mankind, after which he returns to life to save us all by releasing the power of the Cube within him. This is also the plot device that allows for the resurrection of Optimus Prime, who then destroys The Fallen. In the context of this film, ignorance is bliss, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Dark of the Moon

The third installment of the Transformers franchise was released throughout the world on the weekend of June 28, 2011. Its budget rivaled that of its predecessor at $195 million, but part three surpassed the others by taking in over $1.2 billion in worldwide box office receipts, making this the fifth most successful movie in history, not adjusted for inflation.14 Cumulatively, this brings the running total of ticket sales alone of the first three movies to nearly $2.7 billion dollars; but when we also factor in video distribution and merchandising, this figure soars to over $10 billion, which, to offer some perspective, is more than the GDP of many countries. 

Unlike the first two films, there is only one credited writer: Ehren Kruger, who co-wrote Revenge of the Fallen. Stylistically, this may explain why Dark of the Moon has a slightly different overall tone than the others. On some level, this film seems to aspire to be something more than its antecedents, including some A-list actors such as John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, but most critics seem to agree that their talents are squandered in what is fundamentally more of the same. Most of the notable differences in this iteration are purely aesthetic. For example, Optimus Prime now has flame decals (likely to market his action figure as something novel), Megan Fox’s character has been replaced by a newer model, and perhaps most disturbingly, Transformers now bleed what appears to be brake fluid when their appendages are blown off. Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to make these robots ostensibly appear more human, as computer generated images, the Autobots and Decepticons around which the narrative revolves are unable to convey virtually any of the drama on their own accord, and in terms of the overall story, this seems to be the only reason that humans are even involved in this epic battle between giant space robots that just happens to take place entirely on earth.

With that said, the central ideologies of this film remain fundamentally the same as represented in the other two Transformers movies. However, Dark of the Moon was released in the summer of 2011, in the lead-up to the 2012 Presidential election, and the specific messages conveyed by the filmmakers tend to reflect this. At its core, I believe that this movie is about reinforcing partisan divides, encouraging conservatives to “take back” their country, and propagandizing the perceived ineffectiveness of President Obama during his first term in office. From the very first dialogue in the movie, which Optimus Prime delivers through voiceover, “We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings, but then came the war between the Autobots, who fought for freedom, and the Decepticons, who dreamt of tyranny.” 

In the context of American politics, this parallels the “us versus them” rhetoric of neoconservatives that was being voiced by members of the Tea Party in opposition to the policies of President Obama. Optimus Prime continues, “Outmatched and outnumbered, our defeat was all but certain.” In other words, conservatives lost control of government through the mechanisms of democracy, and it looked as though their political agenda may therefore be faltering. “But in the war’s final days, one Autobot ship escaped the battle. It was carrying a secret cargo, which could have changed our planet’s fate... a desperate mission, our final hope... a hope that vanished.” Throughout this movie, the question comes up time and again, either explicitly or otherwise: Which side are you on?

Indeed, the central conflict of this film revolves around the (alien) leader of the Autobots, a Transformer named Sentinel, who ends up betraying his supposed allies, as well as all of humanity, by assembling a device that will allow the entire planet of Cybertron to be transported to just outside of Earth’s atmosphere. This way, the Decepticons can not only steal our natural resources, but also enslave all of humanity as well. Of course, the filmmakers never seem to consider the effects of gravity between two proximate planetary masses, but if there was ever a series of films that required suspension of disbelief, this would be it. In any case, the idea here is that Sentinel wants to essentially open up our borders, which will have the effect of destroying America and the world. It is therefore no coincidence that the opening to this “space bridge” happens to be in downtown Chicago, which is exactly where Obama delivered his victory speech in the 2008 Presidential election. The sequences that follow show the city being destroyed and feature the most African-American extras than appear anywhere else in the franchise.

In this film, we also learn that NEST, the fictional, top secret pseudo-military organization, is based just outside of Washington D.C. in the decrepit old building that supposedly houses the Department of Health and Human Services. The audience is therefore led to believe that the latter organization, a cornerstone of Democratic policies, is really just a means of syphoning funding for a covert military force. In other words, there is no Department of Health and Human Services; there is just a big, run-down building that secretly contains Transformers and high tech weaponry. Within this organization, Lennox is now a colonel, and the stock government bureaucrat who assumes control this time around is played by Frances McDormand. 

Meanwhile, John Turturro’s character, Seymour Simmons, is now a successful author, having written extensively about the Transformers, and within this film, he is even interviewed on Bill O’Reilly’s show The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, which is made to seem like a respectable source of legitimate news. “I’m a big fan, Bill,” he says as the interview begins. This entire scene serves as little more than a plug for O’Reilly’s show and to catch the audience up on how stupid they are. Turturro’s character explains that the Transformer spaceship to which Optimus Prime was referring in the opening voiceover was known as “the Ark,” which was the last hope of their civilization as their planet was being all but destroyed. The Old Testament parallels here are rather obvious, so we’ll move on. 

In 1962, according to this film, the Ark crash landed on the dark side of the moon, which prompted President Kennedy to famously propose a manned mission by the end of the decade. Early in the film, as this information was initially presented in the narrative, it was accompanied by images of a black Lincoln convertible, identical to that in which President Kennedy was shot, as well as 8 millimeter footage that looked remarkably similar to the Zapruder film. It is never clear why these allusions to his assassination are made, as it really is not relevant to the plot, though admittedly, I do have my own suspicions as to why the filmmakers chose to include these familiar images.

Once the narrative moves forward to the modern day, the audience is presented with a title card that reads: Middle East - Illegal Nuclear Site. This, of course, is an obvious reference to Iran, and interestingly, here the Autobots attack the Iranians without the help of their American allies. Basically, the filmmakers seem to be saying that whereas President Obama lacks the resolve for an offensive military strike against Iran, the Autobots, now acting on behalf of America’s foreign interests even without direct American involvement, are able to stop the bad guys and make the world safe... no thanks to President Obama. 

In the scene that follows, NEST moves into Ukraine, where the iconography of the Soviet Union remains omnipresent, and the soldiers, led by Colonel Lennox, track the Decepticons into Chernobyl. Here, we learn that the Soviets apparently tried to harness Energon as a source of clean energy, which is actually what led to the explosion in their nuclear facility in 1986. Oddly, rather than send in the Autobots to deal with the Decepticons that are present in the reactor, as well as the extremely high levels of radiation, the NEST team goes in, heavily armed and suited up in hazmat gear. Their Ukrainian guide, however, is apparently immune to the effects of radiation poisoning and goes in unprotected.

Sam’s narrative in this movie centers first on his inability to find a job in the current economy, a point which is reiterated repeatedly by both Sam and his father. As his subplot progresses, through a recommendation by his girlfriend Carlye’s evil boss, Dillon, Sam is eventually able to find a job in a mailroom, where he is encouraged to “pay his dues.” Dillon’s father, we learn, made his family’s fortune by selling aerospace components to NASA after learning of the extraterrestrial event of 1962. Later, we discover that both Dillon and his father were actually working with the Decepticons in helping them recover the pillars to build their space bridge. They were led to believe that the Decepticons were only interested in stealing Earth’s natural resources, which they did not really have a problem with, and in fact Dillon only takes issue with the Decepticons’ motives when he learns that they plan to enslave all of humanity... including Americans! 

As part of their fundamental character dynamic, Sam and Dillon are in constant competition for the ever-objectified Carlye, and her function in the overall plot is mostly limited to this basic exchange. At one point, when Carlye is trapped alone inside of Dillon’s Mercedes, which of course turns out to be a Decepticon, she is threatened with very phallic looking robot appendages, as Dillon utters the line, “It’s hostile takeover time, Sam. Which side are you on?”

Shortly thereafter, as a result of Sentinel’s betrayal, the Autobots are forced to leave the planet. They are all being deported because of assumptions based on the negative actions of one particular Autobot. The spaceship that they have built, called the Xanthan (yes, as in the gummy, flavorless corn product that is used as an inexpensive thickening agent and/or plot device), that the Transformers are loaded onto has no particular destination; rather, it is merely being shot aimlessly into space. This, of course, is not unlike the immigration policies of states like Arizona and Texas, where the only concern is in getting illegal immigrants out of the United States with no concern beyond that as to where they end up. Within moments of the shuttle launch, the audience is presented with the all too familiar image of an exploding rocket just above the launchpad; the smoke patterns even mirror that of the Challenger disaster. 

Once the Autobots are apparently out of the picture, Sentinel and Megatron move forward with their plan to take over Earth. This leads to a nearly hour-long action sequence that is completely devoid of any emotional content, save for the ghostly images of falling American skyscrapers and people jumping from them in desperation. As expensive as these movies are, that seems pretty cheap. In the midst of one such sequence, Dillon reminds Sam, “You have to be on the side of progress if you want to be a part of history,” and later in the film, Sentinel says, “You simply fail to understand that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” 

Both of these lines would be noble sentiments, except that they are delivered by the antagonists of this film and are therefore made to seem negative. In the closing shot of the film, Optimus Prime delivers the line through voiceover dialogue, “In any war, there is a calm between storms.” In the context of this film and the time of its release, this could be taken to mean that the U.S. was then between Presidential elections. “There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us...” Interestingly, this is accompanied by a shot of a black soldier and a white soldier standing next to each other. Optimus Prime then continues, “But the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people,” and the credits roll, along with the song Iridescent by Linkin Park, which features the lyrics:

When you were standing in the wake of devastation 
When you were waiting on the edge of the unknown 
With the cataclysm raining down
Your insides crying, “Save me now”

You were there, impossibly alone
Do you feel cold and lost in desperation?
You build up hope, but failure’s all you’ve known 

Remember all the sadness and frustration
And let it go
Let it go...

If we accept the notion that this film is indeed a work of propaganda aimed at, among other things, preventing the reelection of President Obama, then these lyrics certainly seem to support this idea. Of course, now that the election is over, one can only imagine what the ideological content will be in the fourth Transformers movie, which is set for release in the summer of 2014. As I have suggested, it stands to reason that as long as these films continue to be profitable, Paramount (or another studio) will continue to produce them. In terms of political discourse, as I have attempted to illustrate throughout this paper, the movies of this franchise only further exemplify the massive amounts of money being used to subconsciously shape public opinion in order to gain support for specific neoconservative agendas. 

With this in mind, even if the Citizens United decision was overturned, which seems unlikely given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, films such as this can accomplish essentially the same effect as achieved by any political ad, though these movies tend to do so rather indirectly, which I believe is even more duplicitous. 

Further, as I have suggested elsewhere, the target demographic of this franchise is primarily teenagers, and considering the merchandising tie-ins, despite the PG-13 ratings, it seems obvious that these films are being marketed to much younger children as well. In this sense, Michael Bay could be seen as planting the seeds for a new generation to be aligned with neoconservative values that work against their own interests. As the teenagers who filled the theaters when these movies were released or the kids who wore the Optimus Prime pajamas or played with the action figures come to be of voting age, without even recognizing why, they may find themselves identifying with certain neoconservative positions regarding immigration, U.S. foreign policy, the need for a well-funded military that functions as a police force throughout the world, and the naturalization of white, upper-class, heterosexual men as the dominant power in contemporary society.

Much like the character Bumblebee, an Autobot disguised as a yellow Camaro, who can only speak through right-wing talk radio, Reagan-era pop music or John Wayne movie quotes because of the damage sustained by his vocal unit, these films serve as an unwavering mouthpiece for neoconservative propaganda, aimed at maintaining the status quo of the hegemonies from which they emerged. What is especially dangerous about the Transformers movies and other films of the summer blockbuster franchise formula serving as vehicles for this kind of ideology is that it involves a sleight of hand -- a transformation -- by the filmmakers in representing their products as non-engaging movies to be passively enjoyed by a broad audience. The reality of the situation is considerably more manipulative. That is to say that the Transformers movies are not simply eye-candy-popcorn-movies about giant robots from outer space who have come to earth to battle; they are advertisements of neoconservative values aimed at seducing a very broad audience into supporting certain, specific social and political agendas. 

However, whereas most movies with a dominant ideological motive tend to make this clear in one way or another to the intended audience, the Transformers films only address these issues tangentially by burying the message in varying degrees of subtext. On the surface, the representations in these movies may look like a shiny new American muscle car or a unmatched piece of military hardware, but upon closer inspection, one will find that there is an incredible and complex machinery within it.

Transformers - Box Office Mojo” (Accessed 10/4/12)“Where’s the Movie Merch? (Accessed 10/4/12) Transformers - IMDB” (Accessed 10/4/12)
“The Most Pirated Movies on the Internet” y-tips/post.aspx?post=831c8ab7-9b64-465c- a194-dda60bf2611f (Accessed 10/4/12)
Debord, Guy. “The Commodity as Spectacle,” Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (West Sussex: 2012), 109.
“Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood” (Accessed 10/4/12) 
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review by Andrea Gronvall, Chicago Reader” transformers/Film?oid=1056192 (Accessed 10/4/12)
Transformers - IMDB” (Accessed 10/4/12)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - IMDB” (Accessed 11/10/12)
10 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Roger Ebert’s review in the Sun Times” article?AID=/20090623/REVIEWS/906239997
11 including Spiderman 3Shrek the ThirdPirates of the Carribbean: At World’s End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Source: (accessed 11/10/12)
12 In order from highest grossing to least: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2Transformers: Dark of the MoonTwilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1The Hangover Part IIPirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesFast FiveMission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolCars 2Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; Source: (accessed 11/10/12)
13 also, the golden age of documentary filmmaking
14 Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Box Office Mojo”