Saga Review: Transformers

Despite what many might say, Transformers has not had the best of histories in terms of reception, even if you go right back to their humble beginnings.
Did you know that Hasbro bought the toys from Japanese toy company Takara Tomy, from lines called Diaclone and Microman toys, and that by 1985 these lines were discontinued?

Hasbro reinvented the toys that they bought off the Japanese, literally giving the toys names and personalities alone and producing a cartoon out of them. Vehicles such as trucks, sports cars and vans were the heroic Autobots while planes and weapons were to become their eternal rivals the Decepticons.
This fledgling franchise would eventually become one of Hasbro’s most memorable and successful toylines over the decades. “Generation 1” had its own movie event in 1986, and afterwards the series would go through multiple reinventions.

Personally, I adored the original Generation 1 cartoon but I did not go further than the 1986 movie. The cartoon should be remembered as a distinctly action packed and repetitive laser battle between the same robots again and again, frequently throwing in new “characters” without any introduction so they could sell more toys!
I love it dearly, but I know what it was and it was very good at it!

I did however lose sight of the Transformers for over a decade. I didn’t read the comics, I didn’t watch the Beast Wars series or future series. I didn’t even rewatch my old favourites until news of Michael Bay’s movie was announced! Then everything started again.

I bought toys, I followed the online forums and got all the concept art leaked about robot designs. I was hooked. I couldn’t imagine Transformers being brought into the real world through CGI, but here it was!

Of course, so far, Transformers has had a difficult time in Hollywood. I still defend it to the hilt as a good source of entertainment, but there are many, many people who somehow claim they are the worst films ever made.

No, the Bloodrayne movies are the worst films ever made. Get it right.

So let’s go through this. Let’s roll out!


Transformers
(2007)

I feel very sorry for those many people who jumped on the bandwagon of hatred towards this series and forget how outright enjoyable the first movie really is.

A simple story of a boy getting his first car, only to discover his car is an advanced alien robot in disguise! He finds himself caught in the middle of an intergalactic civil war between the noble Autobots and merciless Decepticons, and Earth becomes the battlefield.

When Michael Bay stepped up to direct the first live action interpretation of the 1980s cult cartoon Transformers (yes, I use the word “cult” specifically) there were some groans and doubts. But think about it, what does he do best? Explosions and cars. What does Transformers constitute of? Explosions and cars. Under the executive producer eyes of Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks Studios, Bay’s outright silliness is restrained and this film actually feels structured.
This comes from some decent acting from/direction of Shia LeBeouf as Sam, regular boy who wants to win the affection of Megan Fox’s Mikaela. It takes a good forty minutes before the action takes off and our planet is bombarded with thirty-foot tall talking robots. As a fan, my inner child was (and still does) itch with anticipation! This is the Transformers mandate, heck it is in their motto: Robots in Disguise! We see Bumblebee, Sam’s guardian, as a regular car… the film knowingly holds off showing us transformations for as long as possible.
This makes the reveal of all the others, especially childhood cartoon hero Optimus Prime, incredible to see!

You have to understand. As a kid this sort of thing, showing real life Transformers, was only a thing of dreams, the technology wasn’t here until this movie. This film glorifies the act of these regular vehicles changing shape and continuing on their way. I still get some chills as Starscream swings around, leaping into the air and transforms.

Another thing this film achieved is often overlooked now. It was a massive success. I mean a massive success. Not only was it nominated for Academy Awards for special effects (and was robbed in broad daylight, The Golden Compass, seriously?!?) but Transformers was always a geeky, disrespected cartoon even at its height (sorry fandom, but it was) and this film broadened the franchise’s influence tenfold. Everybody loved Bumblebee, for example, and learned how people like me respected Optimus Prime as a character. It was wonderful! So many new fans appearing everywhere. Even my sister enjoyed it!
If you are one of these people and in denial of your initial feelings towards this film, I feel very sorry for you. There is a huge number of fickle-minded people out there.

Is it perfect? No.
Michael Bay still has some influence, though not a great deal, and there are a handful of human characters who do not belong. The story takes unnecessary detours and bypasses just to include human characters who could have been cut completely to make a sharper film. Does it detract from the film as a whole? No.
Yes, there are suspensions of disbelief, yes it is silly and the climax is a myriad of explosions but honestly! This is Transformers! For a first try at making something so ridiculous as this cartoon a living, breathing film, this hits it out of the park and lays a good foundation for improvement. Sadly, for this film (not unlike The Matrix) its sequels do their best to avoid improvement…

It is a fun, entertaining action romp. Exactly what Transformers was and should forever be.

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Additional Marshmallows: On a personal note. When I used to watch the cartoon as a kid, I have the distinct memory of saying to my sister: “Hey, we always see Starscream fly off at the end of the episode!” Like this:

Now imagine, with that memory so persistent in your mind, that even after the riotous fun of the climax of Bay’s 2007 film (and with a cheering audience around you!) you see…. this as the final credit clip:

!!!!!!
I was gushing with so much childish joy! Once again, Starscream blasts off at the end of the episode!

(I made these GIFs specifically to deliver this point to all of you. Naturally these clips are copyright of Hasbro and Dreamworks)


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

What a way to shoot yourself in the foot. Dive bombing so much promise into an eternity of hatred; instantly switching a blooming franchise into a notorious cluster of nonsense.

With Decepticon leader Megatron disposed of, the Autobots receive reinforcements and team up with human soldiers to hunt down the remaining Decepticons. But little do they know that an ancient Decepticon, known as The Fallen, seeks to destroy Earth. Sam, a college freshman now, holds the key to The Fallen’s final plan.
Or something like that.

Okay, so I will be honest… this film is deplorable. A fine line divides what I consider good (the 2007 film) and this, and it mostly comes down to a tragically misaligned screenplay. Scenes come and go, no build up, no tension, no anticipation, no reason, and this mash lasts for over one-hundred and fifty minutes!
The reason for this is simple; during the film’s development and production there was a strike at the screenwriter’s guild. Lead writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman only had a premise before filming began (that’s right, no script) so a third writer, Ehren Kruger, was called in to start work on the film. Plus, Michael Bay himself worked on the script, story and even helped design some robots. They had no plans for a sequel to begin with, since Transformers ’07 was a bigger hit than expected, and were given a release date barely more than a year after conception was reckless and stupid.
Need I say more?

A lot of people don’t appreciate how Bay’s influence here is much greater than in the first film, or all of these production problems, and ultimate condemn all future films to be equal to this disaster. Most of the new fans the 2007 film brought in abandoned the franchise immediately.

This film should be the darker turn in the series: the Decepticons are here and want revenge, but no… RotF is packed with unnecessary characters, scenes and a surreal focus on all the wrong things. Terrible comedic turns, cool characters are ignored for unbearable racist stereotypes, character development that bears no emotional impact. The script is noisy and repetitive and the editing is ugly, a definite example of this film’s rushed development (outside of the terrible script) is how Bay actually re-uses footage, including footage from the first film!
You could argue, as I have in the past, that this is Transformers! It is silly and it is a cartoon for kids, it shouldn’t mean anything. But there’s being entertaining, and then there’s being lazy and obnoxious:

Do we need to see Sam enrolling in college and having his mum crying over his baby shoes? Do we need Sam’s mum getting high and making a fool of herself? Do we need Sam to have a roommate, who outside of making Kitten Calendars for an unknown reason, whines and cries constantly but never goes away? Do we need a leg-humping robot, followed by a line about “being faithful”?

Sigh.
The film still has good design work however, mostly. The opening battle in Shanghai is awesome and feels like a good continuation of the series, the robots are fifty-fifty of good and bad designs outside of the returning characters (some of them are very creative looking, others look like shattered panels of glass glued into humanoid form). It was wonderful to see Ravage in live action, and I am one of the few who liked Jetfire and Soundwave. A battle in the forest between Optimus and several Decepticons is probably the only action highlight.
Sadly though the climax of the movie is far too messily shot to feel rewarding, taking place in a desert, generic robots without personality, terrible fight choreography that uses shameful amounts of topography to hide the action and scale the animation budget down. But he worst crime of all: we barely see the Transformers actually transform. Unlike the first film, this sequel doesn’t glorify the transformations with any tailored scene choreography.

I was disappointed even upon the first viewing, and though I still say the Transformers themselves redeem some of its awfulness, the more I watch it… the more I get tired of the rife Bay-isms. At best this is a guilty pleasure, more than the other films in the series.

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Additional marshmallows: How on Earth can a film so badly constructed and narratively implemented include such an ironic line as: “Beginning, middle and end. Facts, details, condense, plot; tell it.”


Transformers: Dark of the Moon
(2011)

After their disastrous second outing, few people had faith in the third part, but Dark of the Moon rights a lot of the narrative faults and feels like the sequel the first film deserved.

A despondent Sam finds himself out of the limelight as the Decepticon threat appears to have lessened, Mikaela and Bumblebee have left him and he struggles to find a job and direction in life. But when Optimus Prime learns that humanity had found a vital Autobot ship crashed on the Moon, he rescues Sentinel Prime from the wreck, just when the Decepticons return with a plan to restore their homeworld of Cybertron.

Watching Dark of the Moon feels like an endurance test by the time it finishes, this is due to a ridiculously drawn out battle set in Chicago for the climax. While it makes up for Revenge of the Fallen’s terribly underwhelming finale, it does become a blur of insignificance after a while because there’s simply too much happening!
But if there is one thing done right this time is a correct use of characters. A lot of the ludicrous padding and fluff from RotF is completely missing; our human characters are involved but not excessively (ie. Sam’s parents hardly feature at all!) and let’s say this film provides us with humans who aren’t noble and just.
There’s a lot more of the Transformers too (you would hope so) and it feels like they have a lot more respect shown to them now. Decepticons genuinely appear threatening and the Autobots are shown to have personalities again, continuing from the first film’s groundwork (a scene with a silent, brooding Optimus-in-truck-mode is a favourite). The action is off the rails too. More in keeping with the original film we see them transform during battles.

There are some deeply unsettling scenes too. The setup involves assassinations against humans who knew about the mission to the Moon, executed by Decepticon Laserbeak (great to see him too), one where he infiltrates a family’s house by pretending to be a friendly Autobot playing with their daughter. Woah, woah! RotF was too cheesy, but this is really dark all of a sudden!

As a fan of the Transformer characters, this film sees a lot of deaths. Some are most unforgivable. We haven’t seen this many prominent robot deaths since the slaughter that was the 1986 Transformers: The Movie!
The only other gripe I mostly have about this film asides deaths and a bloated finale is Carly, Sam’s new love interest (the forgettable Rosie-Huntington Whitely) who is given things to do thanks to the plot, but is far less notable than Fox’s Mikaela (I cannot believe I just wrote that) but I do believe the film would be stronger without a love interest. But it is Michael Bay, we need a girl for all those slow-mo shots.

It is a vast, vast improvement and a faithful sequel to the 2007 film. It is too long, and it does make some unforgivable decisions regarding Transformer characters, so it feels less perfect in those regards. It is still a fun film though.

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Transformers: Age of Extinction (2013)

Having rewatched this for the second time, I find myself very torn. It has improvements made, but still struggles with screenplay.

Set a few years after the events of the third film, Dark of the Moon, this new film opens with the bleak reality that humans have had enough of the Autobot/Decepticon war destroying Earth, the devastation of Chicago made as a public reminder of their menace. But the CIA has gone a step further: allying themselves with a mercenary Transformer called Lockdown, they are hunting down and killing all robots, including Autobots.
Optimus Prime, who has been in hiding since Lockdown’s appearance, is discovered by inventor Cade Yeager (that’s quite the name) his daughter and her boyfriend. Optimus then vows never to defend Humanity again… The cost has become too high…

Let’s talk about what’s wrong with the film first. The robots have been given a new appearance, all except Bumblebee for the most part, and I don’t really like them. What I like about the first films (specifically 2007) is how you can see the vehicle (or alt) mode on the robot, here the characters are better and more distinctively “human”, but the vehicle they turn into is completely lost. Example: the Autobot character Crosshairs has a long coat, which is cool and all, but I have no idea how the coat fits into his car mode! Or the villain Lockdown, he has a Lamborghini alt mode, but before he transformed into one I had no clue.
There are also new Transformers. Sufficed to say, humans have acquired technology to make their own Transformers (more on that later) and they have a very, very different way of transforming. Basically the production values from the Academy nominated 2007 film have been completely abandoned; no time or effort, the robots just turn into weird cubic particles that whiz and fly around and reassemble into whatever vehicle it wants. It is lazy and hideous.

And tonnes of product placement. Good lord. As this film progresses it is like the money’s running out and they needed more and more sponsors to finish it.

But you could say these things are nitpicking, let’s get into the broader strokes.
You know all that dumb, childish, toilet humour of the first three films? You know: Sam’s Mom; robot fart and pissing jokes; “Deep Wang”; Wheelie humping Mikeala’s leg; basically all of RotF? None of that presents itself here, and I am not exaggerating. With the focus on Mark Wahlberg’s Cade (I think Wahlberg knows how to work for Michael Bay) the story takes a more mature, edgier feel. Although the daughter and her boyfriend are two completely pointless characters, not as bad as Leon from RotF, but no better than Carly from DotM. This film could have used a kickass female Autobot, because Tessa is a shameful definition of damsel-in-distress.
You know all that terrible rapid cutting and editing that plagued the first three films, or all the overpowering glorification of the US military? Gone. The military doesn’t even feature in this movie!
The robots take a more prominent role too. Lockdown is a vicious new villain who broadens the scope of the universe, he is probably the best thing in this film. The Autobots are lively too with very humanoid faces (something the fandom bemoaned about the first three films) and all very distinct from each other.

Of course, the third act becomes overlong and the film’s runtime is a barbaric two hours and forty-five minutes! Completely unnecessary. Along with the escalating product placement, there’s a whole divergent climax set in China (you can practically hear the screenwriters hurriedly rewriting to accommodate the growing Chinese investors) revolving around Stanley Tucci’s technology guru who made Transformers. Ugh.
Why didn’t this film simply focus on Lockdown’s hunt for Optimus and drop the stupid tech guru’s accidental resurrection of Megatron? With only changing approximately three lines of dialogue, everything about the tech company could have been cut, making for a faster, simpler and thematically coherent movie. Instead we get two different plots mashed together, twisting character motivations into obscurity, and a film that lasts forty-seven years.

However. It is a huge improvement on the likes of RotF. While it doesn’t have the sense of desperate escalation of the third film and has way too much obnoxious product placement, there is a through line of a Transformer centered story. Lockdown should have been the only villain; his presence invokes a bigger picture that doesn’t involve Earth for once.

Like I said, I am torn over this movie.

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Additional Marshmallows: Michael Bay was originally quoted saying this was the start of a new trilogy, yet 2017’s The Last Knight is supposedly his last Transformers film? There’s certainly references in AoE to The Last Knight, but what exactly is the future for the franchise?

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