Abroad in China, SAM GASKIN gains fresh insight into a Summer blockbuster, viewed under the conditions of the world’s most populous and rapidly changing nation.

MICHAEL BAY’s Transformers hit cinema screens in China a week after its international release. Why the delay? Well, for one, even sci-fi flicks with all the socio-political ambition of spray-cheese come under the Sauron-esque searching gaze of Chinese censorship.

Admittedly, Transformers didn’t require much censoring. Sam Witwicky’s own transformation from a gawky teen – who happens upon an eccentric black and yellow Chevrolet Camaro™? – into an Armageddon averting hero is a typical enough progression. And contemporary China has no qualms with the film’s audacious devotion to marketing, fortunately, since the film effectively stars General Motors. Indeed, the (no-doubt upwardly mobile) crowd at Shanghai’s Peace Cinema saved their loudest gasps not for the slick, intricate vehicle to robot transformations nor the face-chewingly speedy and impeccably drawn action sequences, but for the first, eroticised shots of the cars themselves.

In addition to going great lengths for GM, the film sets a new standard in self promotion. One of Optimus Prime’s more sententious lines, ‘Freedom is the ultimate right of all sentient beings’, was written by Carl from Norristown, Philadelphia, winner of a promotional competition.

Freedom is largely the right of sentient beings in China too. The one glitch in the Transformers matrix was a strange backwards-speech sound that non-English speakers reading the Mandarin subtitles would’ve missed. When speculating where an advanced, previously unknown ‘weapons system’ came from a US military man says something like “only [backwards speech] could have the technology” and recommends attacking them. Which powerful military rival he could’ve meant is anyone’s guess...

When Sam first meets a Transformer he guesses, absurdly, that the ultra-sophisticated robot came not from outer space (nor China) but Japan, a gag that went down surprisingly well at the Peace Cinema despite the disdain for all things Japanese you frequently hear here; my closest Chinese friend’s favourite movie is sadly another Michael Bay film, Pearl Harbour.

In actuality it is an ancient inter-robotic war that brings the Transformers to Earth. The Allspark, a powerful and contradictory cube that existed before time began (despite having spatial dimensions), is the first cause in Transformer Astrophysics, and is capable of spontaneously turning your cellphone into a machine-gun firing, missile launching menace. Megatron, freed from an icy prison by his Deceptikons, is determined to find the Allspark to expand his evil empire, a plot the altruistic Autobots, concerned for human welfare, try desperately to foil.

We can tell the Deceptikons are evil. They threaten freedom while assuming the form of official government vehicles (a police car and a US military jet, helicopter and tank) and, in one slick, shameless shot, the camera tracks Megatron in plane form as he drags Optimus Prime through the interior of a tall office building. The wicked Deceptikons seem responsible for both September 11 and the US response to it.

Despite the Autobots being created by the same evil-spawning Allspark, they love human beings. Unlike the ethically prehistoric iceman Megatron, the Autobots seem to have evolved their own moral system, making the creators of Transformers unwitting proponents of moral realism, the notion that we are gradually moving towards absolute agreement on what’s right and what’s wrong, a notion nudged along just a touch, it could be argued, by China’s opening itself and increasingly sharing its values and beliefs with the rest of the world.

In Transformers though, Optimus Prime’s altruism is so hyperbolical (or advanced?) that it’s hard to sympathise with him; the talking Tonka truck (it’s Hasbro, really) goes on about his willingness to die for the cause so often you wish he’d just get it over with. The good/evil divide in the film is so stark that the characters could never endear themselves to modern audiences; that would require the robots to transform into three dimensional characters, ones with flaws and senses of humour.

Transformers is one of many current films marketed at audiences’ accelerating powers of nostalgia, forever gaining on us, born of the same urge to review digital photos immediately after taking them: to mythologise and enrich our past experience as quickly as possible. When this nostalgia carries us back into our childhoods it inevitably references simpler ideas. In the Twenty-First Century, in Post-Cultural Revolution China as much as anywhere, simply asserting who is good and who is evil is dissatisfying, and it’s this that makes Transformers a children’s movie, a pop song, an airport novel. But, depending on how actively you choose to read into it, it can be a perfectly enjoyable one nevertheless.

Sam Gaskin is a Wellington writer currently living in Shanghai.