BOOK AND MOVIE REVIEW | Transformers Image

This is one of two book/movie reviews I had published in Fall 2007 issue of Prometheus, the quarterly newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society. See also my chapter in Transformers and Philosophy: “Freedom Is the Right of All Sentient Beings” (pdf).

DreamWorks SKG, 2007
Directed by Michael Bay
Screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, Rachael Taylor, John Turturro

Transformers: The Novel
By Alan Dean Foster
Paperback, 304 pages
Ballantine/Del Rey, 2007, $7.99

This summer saw a blockbuster movie remake of a classic animated television series and movie. Transformers retells the story of the millennia-long conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons – both factions within a race of sentient alien machine-life forms – but this time the story is told in live action and primarily from the human perspective. Die hard fans of the original television series and movie may not like some of the changes made to the characters and storyline, but the movie succeeds on its own merits. The novel by Alan Dean Foster, based on the screen play, however, is not so good.

As the story goes in the movie, the Energon Cube (also known as the Allspark) is the source of all machine life. But it has been lost. Both the Autobots and the Decepticons have come to Earth looking for it. Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons, started the civil war against the Autobots and is bent on universal domination. He is the first to track the Cube to Earth but crash lands in the process and ends up trapped in Arctic ice. The Decepticons and Autobots who follow are in a race to recover the Cube. It is interesting to note the differing methods by which each faction attempts to discover its location. The Autobots make use of the internet, namely E-Bay, while the Decepticons focus their efforts on hacking into the US government’s computer systems for a certain piece of classified information. As it turns out, one of the main human characters, the teenager Sam Witwicky, is unknowingly in possession of an item containing the location of the Cube. His grandfather was an explorer who accidentally discovered Megatron’s frozen body in the Arctic. The item in question is the deceased grandfather’s spectacles, on sale by Sam on E-Bay, with all proceeds going towards his first-car fund. The US government, of course, covered up the discovery of Megatron. The most glaring un-libertarian aspect of the movie is that key technological innovations of the past century are attributed to government efforts at reverse engineering Megatron’s techno-physiology.

There are many libertarian elements in the movie though. A few key government officials and agents, particularly the Bush-like president and a certain Sector Seven secret agent, are portrayed as un-intelligent, cocky and bumbling. For the most part, saving the day is up to an odd collection of civilians. Also of note is the fact that the Autobots all choose commercial vehicles as their alternate forms, whereas the Decepticons only mimic military and police vehicles. One of my favorite moments of the movie was seeing blazoned across the side of the Decepticon imitating a police cruiser the words “To Punish and Enslave” rather than “To Protect and Serve.” Several times throughout the movie Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, reminds his fellows that humans are not to be harmed, indeed, must be protected from the Decepticons, even at the expense of the Autobots’ lives and the mission of retrieving the Cube. In his final battle with Megatron, Prime argues that humans must be left free to choose their own fates. As the credits role, we are treated to an intentionally funny final scene involving Sam’s parents being interviewed and exhibiting a laughably naà¯ve trust in their government not to lie about and cover up anything like alien robots. Surely if the federal government knew of such beings, they would tell the American people! I mean, this is America.

I found Foster’s novel to be far inferior to the movie for a number of reasons. First, it lacks the energy, wit and charm of the movie. Perhaps my disappointment in the book was inevitable given that I read it after watching the movie. However, it is not simply that the fantastic special effects and compelling performances by the movie’s actors were able to breathe more life into the story than mere words could. I think I would have been disappointed in Foster’s novel even if I had read it before watching the movie or never watched the movie at all. Foster doesn’t simply flesh out the screen play as one might expect. He takes many liberties with it, leaving some scenes out, adding others in, changing dialogue, and so forth. None of the changes add much, if anything, of value to the story in comparison with the screen play. Quite the contrary. Foster’s novel is lacking in physical character and scene description. This is perhaps a necessary evil when writing the novelization of a movie prior to the latter’s completion and release. Yet Foster also delves very little into the deeper psychology of the characters that we don’t get to see on the big screen but expect in a novelization. Perhaps worst of all, his novel is more plagued by Hollywood stereotypes than the Hollywood movie itself! Two of the main characters, Sam and his love interest Mikaela, both come off as far weaker, less likeable and admirable, persons than they do in the movie, a testament both to the screen play and to the actors.

From a libertarian perspective, Foster’s novel is also disappointing. It either lacks or significantly mutes all of the aforementioned libertarian elements of the movie. Indeed, the only mention of freedom in the novel appears midway through it and is only a sadly corrupted version of a key phrase uttered by Optimus Prime. In the movie, Prime states that “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” Foster turns this into the New Deal-esque “Freedom from fear and all else is the right of all sentient beings.”

I highly recommend the movie on both aesthetic and political grounds. Save your money though and don’t bother with the novel. For those diehard fans who absolutely must see or read all things Transformers, Foster has also written a prequel novel, titled Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday, that may add something of value to the backstory of the movie.

(The rating below is for the movie; I rate the book 2 stars.)

[Originally posted at Is-Ought GAP.]

4 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

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