From Optimus Prime to the Battle of the Black Gate

Decepticus sauronicus

Decepticus sauronicus

Yesterday I did a relatively spoiler-free impressions post on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  This one is going to be chock-full of spoilers for both this movie and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  You’ve been warned, although with all the terrible reviews Revenge of the Fallen is getting you may not even want to watch it…  Anyway, the new Transformers flick plays with the same plot device (on a much smaller scale, of course) as the third volume of LOTR.  This coincidence is interesting in itself, and the device or trope is even more curious…

Let me start with LOTR’s climax.  By the time the third volume comes around, it’s been clear for a pretty long time that Sauron can only be defeated by destroying the One Ring, and that the only way to destroy that is to cast it into the flames of Mount Doom, in Mordor.  Frodo, Sam and Gollum are given this task.  But as Frodo nears the completion of this quest, the rest of the actors in the story aren’t idle.

The elves and the men of Gondor and Rohan form a coalition (the Army of the West under Aragorn) to battle the orcish troll-infested hordes of Sauron.  This is an epic battle, and Tolkien (and Peter Jackson) can and do use it to showcase valor and loyalty and all sorts of precious virtues, but ultimately its value is subordinate to Frodo’s quest.

I WANT YOU FOR ARMY OF THE WEST

I WANT YOU FOR ARMY OF THE WEST

The Battle of the Black Gate is (explicitly) a gigantic, costly diversion: Aragorn’s aim was to keep Sauron busy at the entrance to Mordor until the Ring was destroyed, thus ensuring victory for his side.  The deciding factor was always the fate of the ring.  I think it’s clear throughout that if it all came down to the Battle of the Black Gate, then Sauron would have won.  His forces outnumbered and surrounded Aragorn’s.  Logically, he should have won.  But the illogical heroism of the hobbits trumped this.

Same thing, mutando mutandis, happens in Transformers 2.   As the antagonist himself, The Fallen, tells us: only a Prime can defeat him.  But halfway through the movie Optimus, the last remaining Prime, dies.  This sets up the quest: Sam and friends must find the Matrix of Leadership as this is the only object that can revive Optimus and bring them victory.

As this is happening the U.S. military, which is as aware of Sam’s quest as Aragorn’s forces were of Frodo’s, brings Optimus to the Middle East where the Matrix is supposed to be located.  A coalition of Autobots, American and Jordanian forces is drawn against the Decepticon attackers.  The stated objective is to hold off the Decepticons until Sam can retrieve the Matrix and drive it into Prime’s chest, thus reactivating him.

This is where the action's at.

This is where the action's at.

The battle allows Michael Bay to display the bravery of the U.S. forces in a sort of mini-Battle of the Black Gate.  And oh, boy, here comes a…

DIGRESSION TANGENTIALLY DEALING WITH ANTI-AMERICANISM

Some of the reviews are complaining about Michael Bay’s idealization of the U.S. military in this movie.  The soldiers are certainly brave, handsome and honorable.  The incompetent ones turn out to be the civilian politicians.

I wonder how many people who squirm at these portrayal felt the same way about Tolkien’s Army of the West.  In both the books and the films, Aragorn’s forces are idealized just as much as Bay’s soldiers.  I guess some will say the in the Transformers’ case, there is a very real counterpart to the fictional “U.S. forces” and that we can and should compare both to understand Hollywood’s leanings, agenda, etc.

however cool, still secondary.

however cool, still secondary.

Isn’t this going on in Tolkien too, though?  After all, the Army of the West has its parallels and predecessors.  It’s called “Army of the West” for crying out loud!  And if you insist that influence and metaphor in LOTR are very different things from showing actual U.S. Army gear and GMC trucks, that LOTR is still fiction, well, I’d say Transformers is fiction too.

There are those who believe Tolkien was racist, and that the whole framework of LOTR is racialist from beginnning to end.  I think it’s a very interesting and potentially fruitful line of thought to follow when analyzing his work.  Similarly, it’s appropriate to investigate Hollywood’s take on the traditional pillars of American power, and even the notion that Hollywood itself might be one of these pillars.  What I would like to see less of is fans vomiting at the sight of nice, bronzed American soldiers on film while plastering their walls with heroic Aragorn’s face or calling themselves Legolas online.

METADIGRESSION OF HONESTY

Actually, I’ve never met anyone who had a poster of Aragorn on their wall, or who chose Legolas for a username, so I was kinda BSing just now.  Sorry.

END OF METADIGRESSION

Incidentally, I think anti-Americanism is really only a surface symptom of the real, overwhelming trend taking over the planet: anti-militarism.  Which I guess (and hope) is a good thing…

END OF DIGRESSION

Regardless of how heroic the battle is, the result will be nullified if Sam doesn’t get that Matrix and goes “stake into the vampire’s heart” on Optimus.  Thus, the plot situation is fundamentally equal to that of Frodo and the Ring in LOTR.

yup, secondary.

yup, secondary.

I have a love and hate relationship with this device.  On the one hand, it is easier and more thrilling to identify with the inner struggles of a few people than the ups and downs of massive formations of warriors.  So I definitely see the appeal in quests and their placement at the center of the story.  On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like the creator is abusing his creation in a way.  I pity the elves (and the orcs) who mindlessly hack and slash each other while the real deal is going on behind closed doors elsewhere.

Historically, many huge battles have been decided by combination of strategy and hard work.  We have here, ready-made, an alliance of the thoughts of a few powerful leaders (the strategists) with the effort of countless valiant troops.  I have to confess, though, I don’t enjoy this sort of story very much.   It’s so much more exciting when there are rings of power and matrices of leadership going around!

I also don’t really understand what this plot device tells us about the creator or the consumer of his products.  As I said before, Sauron’s troops should by rights have beaten the Armies of the West, except for the Ring.  In Transformers 2 I had a strong impression that the Decepticons, who kept comet-raining down from god knows where, would have eventually overwhelmed the Autobot coalition, except for the Matrix and Optimus.  What does this mean??  What does it mean to say that Evil logically triumphs over Good, except that Good can whip victory out with a gamechanger at the last second (a gyakuten, as they say in Japan?)  Is it just entertainment?  Or is there something deeper at work?

I don’t know.

This pic is relevant because she acts in this film (for 5 minutes).

This pic is relevant because she acts in this film (for 5 minutes).

~ by Haloed Bane on June 25, 2009.

7 Responses to “From Optimus Prime to the Battle of the Black Gate”

  1. Gamechangers (I keep thinking about Gyakuten Saiban) aren’t always on the side of the good……it’s just the final one usually is.

    The big difference for both LOTR and Transformers is the way the ‘good guys’ approach the final battle: “alright, we’re nothing but pawns but let’s get this shit done just for that SLIGHT chance we’ll all be saved and this really gives people the impression we’re heroic”. Meanwhile for the ‘bad guys’: “Let’s go fuck some motherfuckers up”.

    So in that sense, evil gets a point for thinking decisive and not ‘big gamble’. On the other hand, evil is always portrayed as dumbasses with infinite resources.

    In conclusion, good and evil need to get the fuck out because they make everything so simplistic. Ravages of Time, fuck yes.

  2. I think there might be some discrepancies between the Battle of the Black Gate and Revenge of the Fallen, and their respective Goods and Evils but I’m not sure I’m capable of unpicking them. So maybe there aren’t. Anyway, Ghostlightning should be all over this. And Cuchlann on the subject of Tolkien, allegory and applicability, if he reads your blog.

    I would say, though, that I don’t see why racism should control our poster-displaying habits. I’d quite happily put up a picture of a scene from The Song of Roland, if I had one, and saying that ‘the whole framework of the Song is racialist from beginnning to end’ is like saying water is wet. It’s still a great poem.

  3. I think it could be said that there is something in the way people think where it’s somehow better to believe that a higher power will save you instead of yourself. It’s like placing your faith in something greater to liberate you, because humans aren’t capable of it themselves. Though this is a statement I barely feel comfortable saying without research, and think only applies to stories from certain places in time, that I only kind of think these two fall into.

  4. @prettyprophet

    In some sense the way you put good and evil, which i agree is the pattern in many fantasy novels and hollywood movies, reminds me of Christianity. The Devil controls the world, God gives him pretty much full reign, but out of an obscure village in Galilee arises mankind’s hope etc…

    @The Animanachronism

    On your first point, I imagine ghostlightning will not go anywhere near this post until he has seen the film so we’ll have to wait. What’s good and what’s evil might be very different, but the American-Decepticon fight at the end of ROTF (makes it so grand when you use acronyms!) is pretty much a mini-Battle of the Black Gate, I think.

    The poster issue, that’s really complicated. For example, I had a friend of Japanese descent who liked to hang a Rising Sun flag on his wall. He wasn’t imperialist, and for him the flag had other meanings besides military expansionism, but he still had to take it down when other people (esp. of Asian descent) where going to visit.

    With the way things are going, one day Roland will be retroactively court-martialed and people will frown when they see that poster on your wall…

    @digiboy

    Totally, yes. We want to believe there is something bigger out there to help us, but at the same time we want to believe that we “earn” that help (this theme of earning is key in Transformers 2, as it is in American culture as a whole).

    In Japanese Buddhism there is the classic division between 1) jiriki (self-power) and tariki (other-power). Zen Buddhists go jiriki, Pure Land Buddhists go tariki. Some people believe you need a mix of both!

  5. Perhaps this might be an oversimplification, but another thought might be that it simply is a matter of viewer expectation.

    It may be that viewers are raging at the glorification of the United States Army because they paid for a ticket to go see giant robots kick the everliving daylights out of each other, not for a promotional recruitment video for the U.S. Armed Forces. Focusing on the incompetence of human politicians versus the competence of human soldiers is not what theatre-goers are looking for, they want to see the competence and incompetence of transforming robots.

    In Lord of the Rings, no one complains about the Army of the West because that’s what they’re paying to see – which I suppose in a way does prove the point you make – the usage of narrative metaphor is often much more effective at getting across a message.

  6. @vendredi

    Here’s the rub, though: 1) on the one hand, people criticize this huge role of the U.S. military in the film; 2) on the other hand, they complain that the CG robots were hogging all the screentime and that human characters didn’t even need to show up.

    Really, the robots were the centerpiece of the movie (and that’s fine by me, I mean, it’s Transformers, right?)

    Yeah, you’re right about the metaphor thing. I think people might not be upset at Michael Bay being Hollywood so much as at how blatantly he is Hollywood. Indoctrination is fine if it’s subtle?? hmm..

  7. Overall I’m glad you took away from the film the fun elements and enjoyed yourself. Megan Fox is sooo sexy 🙂

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