‘Transformers’ at 10

Why I stopped caring about a cinematic universe filled with boundless potential, and how I could again.

In 2004, when it was announced Steven Spielberg was producing a live-action Transformers film, I became excited by the concept in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been for any other film. I had grown up watching Beast Wars and Beast Machines, and was enchanted by the thought of these metallic gods on the big screen. I started reading the comics and visited websites, including producer Don Murphy’s forum, where the consensus emerged to bring back Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (and Frank Welker as Megatron, though it didn’t pan out at first). I became the primary editor of the film’s Wikipedia article, making sure it was a reliable sourced guide of what to expect from the film’s characters to the mythology.

The film was fine; coming out of it, I felt that much like Tim Burton’s Batman movies, it was not to be seen as an accurate translation of the comics, and that it would age somewhat. The cast and visual effects made up for Bay’s inability to let the camera sit still or give time for one-liners to land. It was interesting to listen to the director’s commentary and hear Bay’s reluctance to tackle the project, as well as his anxiety about making a kid’s movie. It was still a delight to see the film become a runaway success, instead of another Hulk or Thunderbirds.

However, the sequel was harmed by the Writers Guild of America going on strike, and the decision to not delay the film until 2010 left Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen an unintelligible mess to anyone without a PhD in the mythos. How could one piece of the AllSpark revive Megatron when absorbing most of it sent him into stasis lock, or how could Sam enter theTransformer afterlife? Unfortunately, the writers, locked in a hotel room after the writers’ strike with just three months to finish the script, didn’t have time to really think about any possible plot holes like the ones stated before. It’s unsurprising that the writer/producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman decided they couldn’t put up with Bay anymore, and jumped ship to oversee the cartoon Transformers Prime instead of returning for the third film.

For all its faults though, Revenge of the Fallen ambitiously delved into the mythology of the Primes, while Dark of the Moon felt lazy and bitter, a film made for contractual rather than creative reasons. Bay claimed on the first film’s DVD he would never shoot a freeway chase again, and yet there was another sequence of Decepticons chasing Autobots on a highway. It ended on a tellingly angry note, with Optimus ripping out Megatron’s spine (even after he helped him defeat Sentinel!) instead of the originally scripted ending, where he accepts the dejected Decepticon’s offer to return and rebuild their homeworld.

Optimus Prime, the wise and noble leader of the Autobots, tearing out Shockwave’s eye and yelling “You die!”

It was also depressing to watch Starscream, Soundwave, and Shockwave killed off in a spiteful and mean-spirited conclusion where Bay seemingly declared these characters were always stupid, not worth exploring, and that any successor who disagreed would have to reboot instead of building on his work. Yet Bay was there three years later for Age of Extinction, resurrecting Megatron again and introducing franchise mainstays like the Dinobots despitedespising them, so he could remain the beneficiary of 8% of toy sales.

We all know Bay isn’t interested in the Transformers, so let’s focus on who he apparently likes: the humans. The first movie apes classic Spielberg films, but fails to understand his protagonists were middle-class kids from broken homes. Sam lives in a huge house with both parents, and whose dad buys him a car — a rusty old car, but a car nonetheless. While in the first film he’s still the scrappy underdog at high school, in the sequel he’s a college elite and becomes less sympathetic from there. Sam becomes another annoying and useless comic relief character.

Bumblebee and Mikaela in the Titan Magazines comic. Art by Simon Williams.

Mikaela Banes was a genuinely more interesting character; so much so that Simon Furman killed Sam off and had her as the protagonist in Titan’s alternate reality comic book series that diverged from the first film. She comes from a broken home, possessing a juvenile record thanks to her car thief father, and puts on a front with jocks, hiding engineering skills she feels only able to share with Sam: she wasn’t sexy because of leering shots of her belly, she was sexy because she decapitated Frenzy with a drill and hotwired a truck to help a disabled Bumblebee reenter the climactic battle. It’s wrong Megan Fox compared her Jewish director to Hitler, but he evidently finds his cast of characters so disposable that he gave Sam a new girlfriend, instead of recasting the role.

I think the simple fact is, like any movie, Transformers needs a good director. That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Travis Knight, director of the majestic Kubo and the Two Strings, helming 2018’s Bumblebee spin-off film. However, animation veterans tend to transfer into live-action films with mixed results: for every Chris Lord and Phil Miller, who gave us Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, there’s Academy Award-winning Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of John Carter, or Jimmy Hayward, who went from Horton Hears A Who! to Jonah Hex.

There’s one area a director could almost immediately improve on and that’s the action. I’ve always found Bay’s supposed strong hand with action to be vastly overrated: the much heralded forest fight from Revenge of the Fallen, admittedly the best action sequence in the films, lasts only three minutes, shifting jarringly from Optimus beautifully bashing his enemies to abruptly dying. How hard would it have been to set battles in exotic locales like the side of a mountain, a volcano, burning forest, at sea or in space, in snow or in the rain? Instead we get repeatedly receive shots of buildings being demolished.

Optimus Prime and Megatron fighting by a volcano in ‘Transformers Prime’ season one

A really imaginative director could have looked up the superpowers of the original characters and crafted tense moments with:

Bombshell’s mind control

Soundwave’s hypersensitive hearing/telepathy

Skywarp’s teleportation

Mirage’s invisibility cloak

Trailcutter’s force fields

Rumble generating shockwaves

Hologram distractions in battle

Megatron’s ability to unleash antimatter

A large Transformer able to mass-shift into a small object

The films can do a lot better than having the Constructicons form Devastator to just hover some sand and climb a pyramid, or to portray fearsome warriors like the Pretenders as a hot college students. Transformers Prime gave us Optimus ramming Megatron in truck mode, and then spinning his tires to burn the Decepticon’s face, combat moves a thousand times more memorable than any fight in the films. But Bay has no interest in making these aliens distinct or present anything that could reflect their cultural diversity, instead, making them nothing more than murderous robots.

But what about the story? Some may skeptically argue one cannot make a good Transformers movie because it is a cynical film series designed to sell toys.

These people have not read Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye.

It feels more like the Guardians of the Galaxy films than the comic they were based on. (It even comes with its own indie music soundtrack, provided online by writer James Roberts every month.) It’s set after the war and follows an interstellar quest to find the Knights of Cybertron, filled with a bunch of outcasts struggling to get along and learning how to love again; it even introduced the first gay couple in the franchise. Flashbacks delve into the class struggles and institutional corruption that sparked the war, and it’s all stuffed with delightfully witty and metafictional dialogue.

Optimus Prime evoking Tony Benn. Art by Alex Milne.

I just want a good Transformers movie, I don’t care if in outer space like MTMTE, in Ancient Greece, or on prehistoric Earth. I’m tired of Transformers being a byword for the worst of Hollywood. We the fans deserve better. Comic book writers like Simon Furman and James Roberts deserve better than to be associated with it. Peter Cullen and Frank Welker deserve better. These beautiful and intricate toys they’re based on deserve better.

’Til all are one.

Author: Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Editor: Trianna Nguyen

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