He has risen!

i-3d4f673e732766fcb933cd7c28f56745-transformers.jpgA few days ago I went to watch Transformers with my younger brother. A young man in his mid-teens he, doesn't remember the Clinton years with any great clarity, let alone the Reagan era in which the original cartoon series and toy line emerged as cultural forces. Let's cut to the chase. The special effects are amazing and awe inspiring. The characterization and plot are pedestrian. And of course the script isn't a work of poetry. Nevertheless, the article in Wired which makes much of Optimus Prime's Christ-like valence for a large group of young males who grew up with the original Transformers cartoon series points to a real dimension of the phenomenon. According to this story in Entertainment Weekly 1986's animated Transformers: the Movie was a flop. This was news to me, in my pre-teen circles this film was a major cultural event. The appearance of swearing in the Transformers Universe was extremely transgressive. The death of Optimus Prime was emotionally devastating.

Any perusal of the original cartoon series or an honest review of the current film won't return a verdict which implies any depth to the Transformers narrative. But checking Yahoo Movies reveals that critics gave the film an average B- rating, while viewers ("users") agreed upon an A-. A B- from critics isn't half bad (rule of thumb is that the critics will be "one grade" below the typical movie goer from what I can tell). There is something compelling about Transformers; but what exactly is that? My brother, who has seen the original cartoon series in syndication and its various reincarnations enjoyed the film but declared it "corny." The "moralism" in Transformers is metaphorically cartoonish, the Decepticons are unfathomably malevolent while the Autobots led by Optimus Prime are motivated by an ethical compass which is broadly reflective of the "best in our natures." The saintliness of the Autobots has practical consequences insofar as it handicaps them in making Machiavellian choices to arrive at victory. The Autobots must sacrifice to defeat their enemies. The Deceptions have at their disposal the full sample space of options; by any means necessary s their motto, though their aims are often as inscrutable as those of the Autobots are clear.

Some observers have suggested that the Autobots serve as proxies for the heroes which many of wish to believe in, but who no longer seem plausible in flesh in blood form. The emphasis on gritty realism, the innate understanding that man is flawed, means that our species concocts angels from our imaginations who are reflective purely of our godliness. To put into stark relief the pure motives and actions of these incarnations of the good we juxtapose them against an array of the armies of darkness, demons of pure malice; the Decepticons. I have often emphasized that religion co-opts natural human impulses, that it is not one thing by the interweaving together of myriad strands of our psychology. An analogy between the relationship between some adult humans and the Transformers world which exhibits a spiritual intensity is comprehensible via this model of religion; Transformers may intersect with a host of motifs and cognitive sentiments which are normally operant during moments of religious intensity. The original Optimus Prime died in the 1986 cartoon film, but he was subsequently resurrected. Prime's rebirth was inevitable, the anger at his death, the emotional anguish demanded it. The writers and marketers and creators had to cater to an audience with needs and compulsions. Transformers had gone from cartoon to cult.

But as my brother's statement suggests it is not a universal cult. Transformers flourished and emerged during the mid-1980s, and those of us who were elementary school age during that period look back to the series and its characters, to the figure of Prime, as touchstones. But today's youth don't have the same experience, the brand is relatively stale and uninspiring despite the flurry of activity surrounding the movie. A religious analogy can make this more understandable; Mormons often declare that the Book of Mormon is a literary masterpiece, while Muslims declare the Koran to be Muhammad's one and only miracle. But looking from the outside these religious masterpieces are often seen to be simplistic and lacking in elegance. The emotional valences which the believers imbue a divinely inspired work elevates its characteristics above other books, but for those whom a book is just a book it is interpreted as a work of man and so it often suffers. Similarly, the experience of today's teens and men around the age of 30 as they watch the film differs because for the former it is only an action movie with incredible special effects. Prime has no significance as a figure who looms over their childhood, he is not the gods come alive. For the older set there is no denial of the film's corniness and implausibility, but to some extent they believe because it is simply so absurd.


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How old are you guys? In 1986, I was 6, so maybe you had to be 8-10 at the time to have been into the cartoon enough to know about and go see the movie. It's not that I wasn't into Transformers either, but mostly just the action figures. When I was about 10, that's when the TMNT movie came out, and the Mario Brothers movie wasn't long after that.

In fact, I had no idea there was a first Transformers movie, nor a second, until yesterday when a co-worker told me about it. Weird how a couple years makes such a big diff. That could be why some who just missed the late '60s / early '70s don't seem quite as insane as you'd expect a Boomer to be...

I was around 30 when Transformers made their first trip around, and I remember the time as being one where cartoon humans couldn't hurt each other. Had to talk their problems out, or something like that. What Transformers did was allow robotic standins to beat the crap out of each other. That's the real reason Transformers were so popular among young boys, you could watch people beating the crap out of each other.

Small boys are rather basic creatures. They are not rational beasts, and they will act out when they get excited. This includes play fighting, no matter how much fuss-nannies complain about it. Young children cannot reason as adults do, and that is why the Transformer took off the way they did.

Your "religious analogy" to the Transformer story doesn't quite work.

"Mormons often declare that the Book of Mormon is a literary masterpiece, while Muslims declare the Koran to be Muhammad's one and only miracle. But looking from the outside these religious masterpieces are often seen to be simplistic and lacking in elegance."

I have no comment on the Koran, but I must point out the vast body of competent scholarly work that finds great depth and substance in the Book of Mormon.

Nor is this view limited to "insiders." Eminent literature critic Harold Bloom, not willing to apply "Occam's razor"> to the story of its origin, declared Joseph Smith to be
"an authentic religious genius"

But Joseph's own wife said he was unschooled, and was surprised, as he translated, "to learn that Jerusalem had walls."

For an introduction to what scholars have to say about the Book of Mormon, see http://www.jefflindsay.com/BMEvidences.shtml

By Tracy Hall Jr (not verified) on 07 Jul 2007 #permalink

I just saw the movie today, which i waited for almost all my life, and i have to say the movie was pretty good. They are making a collection of transformer movies (i cant wait), and in 1986 i was also 6 years old. I remember transformers and i remember tmnt, for the past 20 years transformers have been selling toys and video games and making a good profit, at the same time no one even bought tmnt toys or movies until recently when the show came on fox morning channel. the only reason people buy them is for the fact that they are only 6 dollars at walmart, and since star wars episode 3 came out transformers have been selling even more due to the merge of star wars and transformers. i just want to say since i was a little boy i always wanted to know what x men and transformers would be like if they were actual movies not cartoons and now i know. also i cant wait for more transformer movies and the big marvel movie, spider man, x men, captian america, ghost rider, fantastic four hulk and all the marvel good guys vs magneto, venom, doom, the brother hood, doc oc, sinister and the rise of Apocolyps. and cyclops and pheonix return.

My son is the same age as Agnostic and CP. Around 1986 and later, our home was inundated with Transformer action figures. I think he watched a cartoon series too - I didn't pay much attention. What I do remember is that my son AND his dad eagerly awaited the release of every new Transformer figure and a mad dash to Toys "R" Us ensued soon thereafter. After he left home, I have gradually cleaned out my son's room of much of his youthful possessions. The Transformers still remain.

I notice a trend here. I know most of you are brainy scientific types. But Ratatouille and Transformers? Take a break. Go see A Mighty Heart. Angelina Jolie is quite spectacular.

Your "religious analogy" to the Transformer story doesn't quite work.

yes, i know. 6-10 year old boys never really believed that the transformers existed. you on the other hand believe even more ludicrous things as fact, and so you prattle on about how great the book of mormon is. i've read it, it's clearly the product of a self-educated youngster from the early 19th century. deal.

To razib and any others who question my "prattling on" about the Book of Mormon:

I invite you to carefully read (or in the case of eminent religious scholar razib, re-read) just one chapter of the Book of Mormon: Alma 36. This is a record of Alma's last words to his son Helaman, recounting his conversion to Jesus Christ.

Outline it by topic. Note that the first topic (a) is echoed by the last topic (a'), the second topic (b) by the next-to-last, (b') etc. Continue until you come to the central topic of chapter. (For assistance, see Chiasmus: Alma 36)

Then consider the theme at the very center of the chapter -- the focus of Alma's message:

17. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

18. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

The focus of Alma's words to his son is that Jesus Christ, the son of God, who atoned for the sins of the world, became his personal Savior. (Note that his conversion occurred about a century before the birth of Christ!) It fulfils the very purpose of the Book of Mormon, stated on its title page:
"to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL God, manifesting himself unto all nations."

This authentic Hebrew poetic structure, called chiasmus after the shape of the Greek letter chi (X), was known only to a few scholars when the Book of Mormon was translated in 1829, over the course of 85 days, by a 24-year old farmer. Chiasmus occurs repeatedly and methodically throughout the Book of Mormon but was not recognized for 139 years! (J. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies, 10: 83 [1969])

"Product of a self-educated youngster" indeed!

"Prattling on," I sincerely believe that many similar treasures still lie sealed within its pages!

Tracy Hall Jr
Provo Canyon, Utah

By Tracy Hall Jr (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

I just saw the movie, and I have to say it was quite entertaining! My next car is going to be a Chevy Camaro!