(This article originally appeared in a less edited form on Mike The Pod, 7/11/11. Please note that since then, there has been a fourth Transformers, which grossed over a billion dollars, and there’s a fifth on the way in 2017. There is a schedule of yearly releases stretching a decade into the future, the same as Marvel, and Disney’s Star Wars.)
SPOILERS covers all three movies in the Michael Bay Transformers trilogy (until it becomes a quadrilogy, or quintology, which I wouldn’t complain about).
If this article becomes too insular for you, dear reader, may I heartily recommend you to tfwiki.com. Mostly because I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to link every whatsit on this page. If you’re a repeat visitor that doesn’t like it when I go off about robots, this is going to make you hate my guts.
Five years ago I felt so overwhelmed with like for the first Michael Bay Transformers movie that I was compelled to apologize to him, a total stranger, for any past insults or suchlike, in the form of a video (I will link that). I even apologized to Don Murphy, though as far as I recall I’ve never said a word against Don, outside of disliking the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film he produced. But sometime in the late 90s I’d cashed a check for writing a scorching review of Armageddon, a movie I detested so ferociously I believe I stopped being friends with everyone I saw it with. So after Bay did, in my opinion, so right by the overall Transformers property (despite protestations from some corners), I sincerely felt I had to stick a video message in a bottle and huck it onto the Internet. I didn’t care if people thought I was a dipshit, or if they hated me. Michael Bay was alright by me. Everyone needed to know.
There’s a term that doesn’t really exist anymore: “movie buff”. Picture Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert a couple decades back. Movie buffs were typically guys who craved that perfect balance of what I’m a corny bastard for calling “movie magic”; that joyous, popcorn-scented thrill in a darkened theater. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Empire Strikes Back; these were EVENT movies. Temple of Doom was such a joy to experience the first time in 1984, with a packed theater, people gagging and running out of the doors at the squeamy parts. I don’t have to lionize these moments; they are legitimately many of the most exciting moments of my life. I saw Die Hard at 16, when it came out; I probably wasn’t supposed to get in. Seeing Bruce Willis leap off the exploding roof of a skyscraper, in a theater with 100+ other people… you knew. It was only a movie, and yet you were going to have a relationship with it that spanned over 20 years.
I’ve never criticized Steven Spielberg for his misfires because his peaks in film are the definition of what a movie buff ultimately desires. I defend Indy 4 (the Crystal Skull one) so vehemently because people completely overlook the incredible directorial flourishes Spielberg packed into that movie. For crying out loud, it starts with a beautifully lensed CAR CHASE. Everyone got so caught up bitching about the prairie dogs rendered in CGI instead of Lucasfilm spending the requisite 4000 years to catch and train one, they missed the great stuff, which is actually in abundance. When Spielberg or Lucas get involved in some damn thing, I am invariably going to check it out. Hell, if there existed a cut of the 2005 War of the Worlds that wholly excised the lead cast, I’d buy it. I’d watch the shit out of it.
Spielberg saw in Bay the elements that could take Transformers to the next necessary level. There was no way in hell that audiences were gonna get behind something they’d seen before. The makers of the original 1986 movie knew it too; minds had to be totally freaking blown. It’s alien robots from outer space who are millions of years ahead of us technologically. Oh yeah- also they’re toys. So the potential for the “movie magic” I’ve been talking about is sky-high. Step one: Set the toys up. Step two: Fight. And yeah, toys get expensive.
One of Dark of the Moon’s payoffs came almost immediately; a simply jaw-dropping skirmish on Cybertron, the Transformers’ bonkers metallic home planet. The IMAX screen became a window. As this was the first 3D movie I’d seen since Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1990, I was astonished that the audience didn’t try to grab at the robots clearly fighting in the huge hole before us. The spectacle continued for two hours. The only relief I experienced at the film’s close was that I wouldn’t have to lie about it being worth the $19. I made a post on damnable Facebook that the experience was like a long, fantastic amusement park ride. I had literally never seen anything like it.
And that’s pretty much entirely because of Michael Bay.
It’s hard to laud someone legitimately on the Internet, where sincerity seems to entice ridicule. But the fact is, as it seems with Lucas and Spielberg, the man doesn’t get enough credit. A lot of people are confused about what constitutes a ‘bad movie’. I’ve seen comparisons on (damnable) Facebook that claim Bay’s worse than Uwe Boll, which is straight-up hyena shit- take it from someone who’s given both directors a chance, which was certainly more than Boll deserved. Scut Farkus seems to think Boll’s Postal was literally worth fighting over; that’s why Scorponok skewered him to death.
All three Bay films reward repeat viewings, critical savagings and Razzies aside, and they cater to the fandom more than they had to, or could have. Having Bay, a director most skilled in car chase scenes, direct not one, but THREE mega-budget toy movies is practically a privilege. This is most likely the first installment of a series wherein I will explain why. With SPOILERS.
1. TRANSFORMERS RARELY MOURN
A lot of folks were surprised by Optimus’s brief eulogizing of his KIA* comrade Jazz in the first film, his indifferent shucking of armor made of Jetfire in Revenge of the Fallen, and from what I’ve seen online, it’s also odd to some audiences that Ironhide is never brought up again after he’s murdered in cold blood (with cosmic rust), in DOTM. The thing is, Transformers never really go on about their dead buddies, unless it’s a motive for revenge, as in Beast Wars, with Depth Charge and his wiped-out colony. The body-count-heavy overtures of the classic 1986 animated film snuff nearly the entire original cast, and other than Optimus, you don’t hear peep one about it until a later episode of the TV series, when the previously- jettisoned mausoleum is discovered in deep space. And as tight as Arcee and Cliffjumper were in the beginning of Transformers: Prime, he doesn’t seem to come up in conversation much** since he was zombified and halved to deathMORE SPOILERS. They’re alien robots. They don’t mope. (Unless their character is based around moping, like Dead End, or Gears, or Huffer, or Scavenger, or Dirge, just off the top of my head.) Not to mention, in some cases, the dead don’t stay that way. Everyone knew Optimus was coming back in ROTF. They just had to get the formality of killing him out of the way. Since he first died in 1986 it’s practically become a tradition, if not an outright obligation.
*I mean Killed In Action; Jazz turned into a Pontiac.
** As of 7/31/11 I have been proven wrong on this.
2. TRANSFORMERS NEVER REALLY LEARN TO LAND
One of the things that most endears me to the Transformers is the fact that they simply cannot land shit. If they build a ship, they crash it. If they turn into a ship or a plane, they will crash, whether or not they were shot down, which they almost always are. The original TV series kicked off with an Ark full of Autobots plunging into the side of a volcano; that’s how they first arrived on Earth. Ramjet’s motto is even “If it flies, crash it.” The Mini-Cons of TF: Armada managed to crash a ship half on the moon, half on Earth, proving their determination bests even reality itself. Transformers are nearly Cronenbergian fetishists about crashing. I can recall two successful landings; Cyclonus landing at Starscream’s coronation in the 1986 movie just before Galvatron obliterates him, and live-action Starscream, on numerous occasions throughout the Bay trilogy.
If you think about it, it makes sense; imagine you’re an alien robot that can turn into a flying machine designed on a planet you pretty much understand, but you’re still one of the heavier chunks on this mudball regardless. You want to fly up in this and look all cool, turn into a robot and BOOM, land it on your big metal feet. I think you can see how this would go. This is why these guys use whats called the “transition form”, where they revert to protoform stage (a condensed, malleable body), wad up like a small comet in some space junk, and drop onto a planet’s surface as a plummeting meteor. It plays to their natural strengths, not to mention minimizes property damage. (By the way, that whole transition mode deal came from the Bay movies, and was clever enough to be absorbed into the great canon sponge that is the Transformers mythology.)
It’s easy to see why Starscream is the air commander in the Bay trilogy; he can not only fly, he can land, and with style and (for a Decepticon anyway) grace. Watch Jetfire land in Egypt before he kills Mixmaster in ROTF (with his axe!), and you’ve got a perfect example of the other side of the coin, which for this group of robo-lummoxes is the norm, as they plop around the galaxy like silicon-based sea lions.
And face it; if you could turn into a plane, you’d never get around to learning how to land either.
3. OPTIMUS PRIME: ZERO TOLERANCE
Does Optimus Prime’s dispatching of Decepticons seem particularly brutal to you? If so, maybe you aren’t considering all the facts.
What appears to be a minor ideological schism between tribes of Transformers can mean life or death for humans.
Imagine you found an old wreck of a car that could be valuable if restored, only it sits atop the biggest fire ant mound in the country. Those ants are a nuisance, right? They’ll just sting you, and who cares if it’s their home, or how intricate and fragile their ecosystem might be. They can’t drive or fix that car. Compared to us they don’t even live very long. Why not just wipe them out and take it?
This is the mindset Optimus battles every time a new doodad or sparkly gewgaw from his planet turns up on Earth.
He could spend all the time in the world flapping his huge metal gums about human rights, and it would make no difference. If there are Decepticons on Earth, they aren’t there to watch sunsets. There’s something they’re hunting, and that means one thing; loads of people are gonna die. Truth bears this out; the death toll in ROTF topped 3000, and Shockwave probably reduced the population of metro Chicago by a third when he showed up in DOTM.
As soon as Demolishor sensed the Autobots and NEST were on to him in ROTF, he dropped his disguise of the largest excavator on the planet and proceeded to steamroll over numerous roadways packed with Chinese commuters. Make no mistake, without Optimus Prime we’d all be wiped out, or polishing Decepticon tailpipes, and no one wants that. Decepticons don’t trick you with a flawless impersonation of your household appliance or car because they want to hang out. Well, hang YOU out a window, maybe. It works pretty nicely for DOTM‘s Laserbeak.
DOTM went a little deeper into the Transformers mythos by introducing a Prime whose attitude toward humans differed sharply from that of Optimus, in the form of Sentinel Prime. For Sentinel, human life is an obstacle toward the restoration of his people, whom he believes are superior and capable of far better things. Optimus, of course, has been around humans for years, and even though Bumblebee pretended to pee on one, and the kids all scream like they’ve had too much coffee, he sees them as a species on the cusp of realizing their true greatness. Plus Optimus is fairly mellow about how humans get screamy around giant clomping metal men from outer space.
But when it comes to dealing with bad guys like the ancient Megatronus Prime, a.k.a. The Fallen, Optimus is anything but mellow. Because in the real world, that’s how it would work. It looks brutal to us because we’re fleshy and moist, and we squish easily. But the war between Autobots and Decepticons has ALWAYS been brutal, all the way back to the old movie in 1986. Transformers fight hard and die hard. And if you’re on Earth and you claim the pointy purple badge, Optimus Prime is going to pull a Fatality on you. Even if you give him your face.
4. THAT OLD FUNNY FEELING
Okay, this is why I warned about SPOILERS at the top of the page. If you are entertaining even the FAINTEST idea of seeing DOTM and haven’t already, STOP READING NOW. I’m also assuming everyone here has seen the original 1986 TF:TM, because I’ll be kind of spoiling that a touch too (but not really, as it’s common knowledge about an older movie).
Seriously. SPOILERS. STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DOTM. SPOILERS. SPOILERS GODDAMNIT.
Oh, shit, I’m actually going to spoil a couple of Star Wars movies as well to make my point. GODDAMNIT.
SPOILERS. JUST STOP READING THIS.
Anyway. Most of us associate Star Wars with Darth Vader’s “I am your father” moment, an iconic plot-twist that came as a genuine surprise back in 1980. I very much hoped that Lucas would create a equivalent twist in the Prequels, but after the first two episodes, I was prepared to write it off as another of my wrong guesses. Then lo and behold, in Revenge of the Sith, the bomb is indirectly dropped that Palpatine used an arcane power to create Anakin Skywalker immaculately, inside his mother’s womb. In short, Palpatine is Anakin’s father. As hoped, I felt that intangible shudder again, just as I did in 1980.
Now, as I’ve stated, one of the reasons the 1986 TF:TM has endured in popularity for decades is that Optimus Prime and most of the Autobots bite the dust in battle, which was appealingly mature for a movie featuring toys our younger selves collected. One Autobot who gets it terribly is Ironhide, who at the time was the oldest one around. Megatron and company do what they do and invade an Autobot shuttle for a Trojan-horse maneuver, killing the entire crew. Ironhide is still holding on however, and as Megatron takes command of the shuttle and chides Starscream, he crawls up and makes a grab for Megatron’s leg. For this, he gets a faceful of fusion cannon on full blast, and that was the last of Ironhide.
This was heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, and I loved it. It didn’t couch things or soften the blow; it expected me to have the maturity to accept THAT ROBOT YOU LOVED IS DEAD. Robot death is to boys what pony drama is to girls. Watch The Iron Giant if you don’t believe me. That movie is like a 21st century Old Yeller.
Moving on to the Ironhide of the Bay trilogy. Like the rest of the cast, he was completely overhauled as a new iteration, this time as a gloss-black pickup truck instead of a bright red van. Whereas G1 Ironhide was a kind of stout, cranky grandfather type, Bay’s Ironhide is a hardcore soldier and weapons expert with a no-nonsense attitude. Instead of a camper that turns into a turret on treads, Ironhide sported massive weapon columns on each arm, which he once used to threaten a chihuahua that whizzed on his toe.
Needless to say this Ironhide became very popular, enough to receive his own expensive “Leader Class” toy, which I covet shamefully. Over the course of five short years, Ironhide became one of my favorite Bay Autobots. His incredible transformation sequence in ROTF and his slow-motion somersault over a screaming woman in the 2007 debut are scenes I replay again and again.
I never in my wildest dreams imagined that the third live-action Transformers movie would pack the same sucker-punch I felt in 1986, but that’s exactly what it does. In what has to be the first plot twist to legitimately surprise me in my adult life, Sentinel Prime straight-up turns on Ironhide, and doesn’t kill him- HE OBLITERATES HIM. What better way to get the audience to turn on Sentinel Prime, who up until that point we ASSUMED was a hero on our side, than to have him rob Ironhide of the warrior’s death he’s earned? Sentinel could be gunning down humans, and you wouldn’t care. But Ironhide? OH SHIT SON!!!
Over the course of three movies, Bay and company introduced us to a distinctive Transformer we learned to love, and they capped things with a send-off that people will talk about for ages, just as we’ve done (and I’m now doing) with the original Ironhide. When a movie does these kind of things for you and you don’t even realize it, that’s what it’s all about. This is why we’re still talking about a toyline from the 1980s in 2011. This is what I mean when I say Bay and Spielberg “got it”.
5. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SHIT
‘Shit’ is so much more than a word for excrement; for a lot of us, it’s the first cussword we let slip in front of an adult.
A lot of its seductive power comes from its almost sneeze-like sound; if you were a fast talker, maybe you could even make an argument that you said something else. It’s not as rough as the f-word, but it gets far more attention than a ‘damn’. ‘Shit’ and ‘damn’- two words that were originally spoken in 1986’s TF:TM.
When we were kids, this elevated the cartoon to indisputable adultitude. It made it as valid as Dad’s tape of Apocalypse Now. This was WAR, goddamnit, and war means coarse talk. War is downright ugly, which allows for a person to exclaim under great duress, “Oh, SHIT! What are we gonna do NOW?”
I heard it in the theater loud as a bullhorn. It was like a cry of liberation. My pre-teen brain struggled to process what I’d seen and heard. I know I’m watching Transformers- but Spike just said SUGAR HONEY ICED TEA!!
Until that moment, being treated like an adult and being treated like a child were mutually exclusive things. People talk about experiencing epiphanies watching films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine. But here was a movie about toys for kids, and it wasn’t acting like I was stupid, or as though the things I loved were worthless. And it completely flipped my shit, as they say. Spike said ‘shit’ because he was a grown-up now, and that’s what grown-ups do: they swear.
If you know about TF:TM, you know how this story goes; for years I had to make do with Family Home Entertainment’s VHS release, which excised the offending S-bomb for tender virgin ears. For some reason, during this time, the movie wasn’t even rated, even though it was released as PG (also an enticement) during the brief theater run. I had a sketchy bootleg that restored Spike’s epithet, but it looked even shittier than the FHE tape (no widescreen, no pan-scan, just chopped screen edges). Sometime in my late 20s a half-assed DVD came out, which of course I bought, then at last the 20th anniversary edition came out in 2006 and treated it like an actual movie, harsh language and all. That’s 20 years of bullshit I dealt with trying to own a decent copy of TF:TM.
The next year, against all odds, the live-action Transformers movie premieres, and proceeds to make unheard-of shittons of money. Notable in this excellent film is a scene where the scene-stealing Decepticon Barricade threatens Shia LeBeouf in the form of a police cruiser, before expanding into a terrifying giant robot. After Barricade tosses Shia around a bit, he starts to stomp after him, prompting Shia as Sam Witwicky to exclaim:
To a casual viewer, this seems like potty-mouth, but to a fan of Transformers from its dawn, it’s much more. It’s a defiant statement that puts the property squarely where it needs to be; in that perfect sweet spot of discovery and rebellious joy otherwise known as BEING THIRTEEN. You may recall it as the time when real life wasn’t endlessly fisting you with a handful of glass.
6.TRANSFORMERS ARE WEIRD ALIENS AFTER ALL
I’ve read comics with Transformers that were some of the greatest stories I’ve ever read, and I’ve read comics where stacks of cubes that were supposed to be Transformers spouted paragraphs of silly misspelled jargon. Sometimes a great story will completely forget that the titular cast can, you know, TRANSFORM into something else and take advantage of their distinctive abilities. I confess, I became so used to G1 Frenzy being the BLUEgoddamnit cassette minion of Soundwave, that when a Frenzy appeared in the 2007 movie and acted, well, frenzied, it was the first time I’d ever really thought about the name. Sometimes a truly fresh take on a character is necessary to unlock overlooked potential.
It’s a fine line between what makes the Transformers familiar and what makes them alien. For the benefit of the general audience doof, the Bay Transformers telegraph their allegiance through their face and body shape. Autobots tend to be colorful and humanoid; Decepticons are monochromatic and almost insectoid. The beauty of this is that 2000’s Transformers show and franchise, Beast Machines, featured the descendants of the Decepticons, whose body types hew very close to the Bay robots. I’m a stickler for aesthetic continuity, and the Bay trilogy offers tons of it. It may seem trivial to outsiders, but you can’t imagine the relief when news arrived that the Bay movies would feature the (ever-so-slightly altered) faction sigils. They had to figure out how the make the Transformers look better and different than anything else (how many transforming car commercials did you see leading up to 2007? Citroen was it?), while still being identifiable as Transformers. Then they had to work out how to logistically have a fighter plane fight a truck. Because they knew changing either one would mean blood and lots of it.*
*Which reminds me, there was only one Transformer sound in DOTM as far as I could tell and I wanted more. Truthfully, there can never be enough.
And here’s as good a place as any to stop for now. Of course there’s more. You know there is. I haven’t even started on the Wreckers. But perish any thought that I’m fetishizing these movies, or that I’m “geeking out” or some such.
I’m a goddamn MOVIE BUFF.