I recently wrote a blog defending the film The Incredible Hulk. It was intended as practice. My goal was to write another, similar blog regarding the 2007 film Transformers. I watched it last night and it turns out that it isn't nearly as defensible of a film as TIH. Instead, I would like to share my thoughts about the franchise with you, both good and bad. Please respond with your own thoughts below.
Let me first briefly relate my relationship with the films. I grew up watching Beast Wars and loved it. I've never seen any of the other shows. When a Transformers film was announced, I knew I needed to see it. I was also completely convinced that it would suck. I thought it would be laughably bad. I went to a midnight premier with a friend and his girlfriend. And I was blown away. About 2/3rds of the way through the film, I looked down and realized that I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat. I was grinning from ear to ear. I was having the best time. I went on to see it 2 more times in theaters. For many years after this, I listed it as my favorite movie of all time. But now it isn't even on my top 10 list. What happened?
The next film was Revenge of the Fallen. I don't hate it like many people do, but it's not a good movie. It has some redeeming qualities, but it's mostly nonsensical noise. Dark of the Moon came next and I really enjoyed it. Big step up from number 2. Bringing in Leonard Nimoy was brilliant. The final battle was epic. Very fun.
Then came the dark times. Also known as the Age of Extinction.
This film sucks ass. It is horrid. One of the worst films I've ever seen. I will concede that the last 45 minutes is balls-to-the-wall awesomeness. But the 2 hours prior to this are physically painful. I will never watch this movie again. It was so bad that I de-listed Transformers (2007) as my favorite film of all time. It was so bad that it's ancestors hurt. It soured my view of the entire film franchise.
I never bothered to see The Last Knight. It did have a sweet trailer, but the movie was widely considered to be terrible.
I haven't watched any of the films since Age of Extinction released. Until last night when I revisited the first film. Let's talk about it now. I'll bring up a few disparate points of discussion. I will say some things I like and some things I dislike. I'll end with some thoughts of what I'd like to see going forward with the franchise.
I'd like to start out my criticism by sharing an excellent video essay from a phenomenal youtube channel about director Michael Bay:
I highly recommend you watch it, but if you didn't, here's the short version of what I get out of it. Compare film to a piece of music. When Michael Bay writes his piece of music, he has the volume, rhythm, and intensity dialed to 11 at all times. There are no moments of contrast. No quiet moments. It's just screaming guitar riffs from beginning to end. There are times when the sick riffs work really well, but it doesn't work when the whole song is like that.
That's one of his biggest problems as a filmmaker. He makes beautiful, glorious, dynamic action scenes. But that's all he makes. He can't film any other type of scene.
Michael Bay is the biggest problem with the film franchise and I cannot wait to see other Transformers films made by better directors. The Bumblebee standalone film will have a different director, I've heard. And The Last Knight woefully underperformed in the box office, so hopefully Bay is out for good (I'm sure he'll still get Executive Producer credits).
The soundtrack is probably the greatest thing about the first film. It is wonderful. Any film would be lucky to have a soundtrack of this quality, let alone any summer popcorn flick. I invite you to listen to the entire soundtrack sometime. If you haven't heard the music in awhile, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Without the soundtrack, the first film would flat-out not work. I say this with 100% confidence. It elevates the entire film.
In the special features of the first film, Bay talks about how the United States military gives him incredible access to them for filming. One of the things he does very well is make the U.S. military look good. A really cool moment takes place about 1/3rd of the of the way through the first film. A military squad is combating Scorponok in a small desert village in Qatar.
Tyrese Gibson's character is based upon a real role in the military (I apologize for not knowing the title of the position). He is on the ground fighting and he relays instructions and requests to the Air Force. It allows these 2 branches of the military to coordinate their efforts and work together to defeat an opposing force. There is also an AWACS overhead. This functions like an airborne mission control for the fight. When they filmed in the AWACS, Bay essentially told them the situation that the film's characters were in and said "action." The airmen aboard the AWACS immediately jumped into action. They're flipping switches, checking monitors, communicating over headsets. They instantly knew what to do. The had to be given almost no direction at all. This is a great example of how well Bay portrays the military.
That is, until Age of Extinction. In this movie, the military and government agencies are the villians. They are hunting down and killing transformers left and right. Turns out that this isn't fun to watch in any way.
Poor Shia. His life has really gone to shit. And I'm sure much of that is his own fault. I'm not trying to excuse him or his behavior. Though I do appreciate that he is the only person who believes in me.
He works in this film. He is very relatable. Almost Peter Parker-esque. He is a nerd. He wants to be cool. He wants to date the hot girl that he's been ogling since 1st grade. He has no muscles. He's not a genius. He just happens to buy a car that turns out to be an alien robot. And while his relationship with Bumblebee is far from that of Hogarth and the Iron Giant, there is an emotional connection there. They do care for each other and it works pretty well. Shia's character Sam is really easy to root for in this film and he gives the film it's emotional core. Of course this leads to the next problem.
The 2007 film has a lot of named characters. Sam and Makayla. Five or so Autobots, five or so Decepticons. Two military guys. The Secretary of Defense. Two computer analysts. Two agents from Sector Seven. Mojo the adorable dog. The two parents (which, I must say, are hilarious and well-cast; they are so great in this movie). Then there's 2 or 3 dozen other speaking parts for unnamed characters. Then there are dozens, maybe hundreds of extras. So we have many characters. Which characters have actual arcs?
Sam, the main character, does. He grows from an unassuming, loser-ish teenager into a bit of a hero. He essentially becomes a soldier by the end of the film. He grows immensely.
Makayla (Megan Fox) grows a little bit. She starts out a bit shallow and stuck-up. She ends the film in love with a nerd. And she actually contributes meaningfully in the final battle.
Agent Simmons (John Turturro) grows a tiny bit. He becomes more willing to embrace help from sources outside of his own non-existent government agency.
Aaaaaand..... that's it. No other character grows. No one learns anything. No one changes their point of view. No one challenges a fear that they have. No one gains new fears or weaknesses. Characters appear, they do things, and then the movie ends. We don't get a sense of motivation for most of the characters beyond simple duty or need to survive.
This movie has some significant plot holes (the later films would blow this one away with the black holes in their plots). Simple example. In 1934, Herbert Hoover convenes Sector Seven. They transport Megatron from the Artic Circle to the Nevada Desert. And they keep him frozen the entire time. How? How the hell did they do that? Early in the film, a chopper appears in the Qatar desert. The military tells it that they will shoot it down unless it responds to their radio call. It doesn't. So they don't shoot it down. They let it land, then it kills everyone. Why? You said you'd shoot it down, so just do it. Blow it up. At another point there is a bit of exposition where Optimus Prime tells Sam about how his grandfather happened upon Megatron by accident. How does he know all of this information? Some of it he could have guessed, sure. But he seems pretty confident that he knows every last detail of the story. How? Also, the Allspark has been on earth for 12,000 years. How old are the transformers? It seems like they were all present on Cybertron before the Allspark disappeared. Are they all over 12,000 years old?
I will mention one plot hole that I think has a simple explanation. During the final battle, Sam is carrying the Allspark and he trips. The cube unleashes a wave of energy. An XBox 360, a Mt Dew Vending Machine, and a Cadillac Steering Wheel are all affected. They transform and immediately begin attacking the people around them. Why? Why aren't any of them good guys? The answer is given earlier in the film. Simmons reveals that all of modern technology is derived from studying Megatron. Laser's, microchips, cars. They're all reverse engineered from Megatron. But Megatron is pure evil. If we based our technology around him instead of a good robot, there is a logical thread to all of our technology being evil when transformed by the Allspark.
Transformers has a long and storied history. It also has some really cool characters. This film franchise has the potential to be something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are many stories that can be told with these characters and concepts. We need people with creative vision, that can see beyond the basic plot of the first Transformers film and view other stories. Think of the MCU. Captain America 2 could have been a carbon copy of the first film. But they saw the potential to tell a completely different type of story with the same character. This same approach can (and should) be taken with the Transformers film franchise.
I would also like to see a soft reboot. Bay's films have had such nonsenical stories that it could be considered challenging to work around them moving forward. I'd advise to use time travel shenanigans to rewrite the universe in a more coherent fashion. Think of the film X-Men: Days of Future Past. Use time travel to write-out the bad bits but keep the good bits. I don't want a hard reboot, personally. No need to completely obliterate everything that has come before.
I really want to see some other directors get a shot at the property. Give me someone surprising. Give me Brad Bird, Doug Liman, Brian Helgeland, Marc Forster, Patty Jenkins. Hell, give me Tim Burton. I don't care. Just mix it up. Find people that have a vision for the characters and enable them to bring that vision to life.
Give me better actors. Look, I like Mark Walhberg in the right role. I absolutely love The Other Guys. But he did not work in Age of Extinction. Get me someone likable. Someone that can bring a bit of humanity to a story about robots. Put Joseph Gordon Leavitt in a film. Chris Pine, David Tennant, Alan Tudyk. Somebody.
What I want most is character arcs. Especially with the Autobots. I would love to see an Autobot learn and grow over the course of a film. I would love for them to end in a different place than they began. I'd love to see them make meaninful, challenging choices.
I also want a Beast Wars movie.
What do you want to see going forward? What do you think the films have done well? What shortcomings do they have? Are you an Autobot or a Decepticon?