It’s crazy to look back on it now, but I actually liked Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie.
Hell, I still do. Not that the movie doesn’t have its issues, but there’s a touch of Spielbergian magic to the whole thing that made it shine; it’s a traditional, relatable rite of passage story about a boy getting his first car, a car that just happens to be an alien robot. The action was believable, the characters were likable and the Transformers themselves were wonderfully adapted from their toy/cartoon/comic versions with a surprising sense of affection, right down to the unexpected surprise of Peter Cullen returning to voice Optimus Prime. There were some annoying Bay-moments™, no doubt, but the strengths he does have as a director overcame them.
So yes, I liked the original.
And that’s exactly why the sequels have been so utterly disappointing.
See, the problem with the Transformers sequels hasn’t just been the weak, infantile character development (the entire narrative arc of our protagonist is based on the fact that he’s scared to say “I love you” to his girlfriend? Seriously?), the nonsensical storylines, or even the bastardization of the Transformers mythos. Yes, all of that is true. Yes, the movies are poor. But the reason that they’re so aggravating is because within each Transformers sequel – this newest entry, Age of Extinction, in particular – lies the seed of something that could actually be really, really good, and everyone involved in making the movie is too lazy to actually put the effort in. Why? Because they know they can get away with it.
The special effects and action scenes in these movies are, without a doubt, absolutely stunning. Beautiful, even. But every time these movies come close to developing a meaningful plot—
Look, it’s not that they fumble. It’s not that the writers, director, producers or whoever is in charge of this thing are stupid, because they clearly aren’t. No, the problem is that whoever is in charge of this mess, whether it’s Michael Bay or someone else, he/she just doesn’t care. And it shows. These movies put in just enough effort to create a popcorn blockbuster, but not the extra effort to make something meaningful out of it. Why make a good movie if you can make a bad one, and still be successful?
It’s pretty clear that these movies are enormously disrespectful to the Transformers mythos, even to those who know nothing about Transformers. But let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was no Transformers before Michael Bay came around. Let’s pretend, just for the hell of it, that the Autobot/Decepticon conflict didn’t exist before the movies. If that’s the case, the movies wouldn’t be any less frustrating, because they would still be using potentially interesting ideas and then throwing them away for the sake of lowbrow punchlines.
Here’s some food for thought: Age of Extinction is an overpacked, overlong movie. Okay, but you know why? Because believe it or not, it actually has four—count ‘em, four—separate storylines mashed into the same movie. All four of these plots have potential. And all four of them are wasted. Don’t believe me? Listen:
Plot 1: A broke, single, hard luck inventor dad (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to scrounge up the money for his unappreciative daughter to go to college – and when working on an old truck, finds out that it’s actually Optimus Prime.
This is the plot that they showed in the trailers, which was smart, because it got people into theaters. It’s relatable. It’s human. It has the same Spielbergian sense of magical reality as the “boy and his car” plot from the first movie. Personally, I think it would’ve been smarter for the dad to be a mechanic instead of an inventor – more realistic – but still, it works. One can imagine that, in a perfect script, the science fiction/Autobot plotline would somehow connect to this one in a way where a common, deeper theme is found – perhaps a theme about fatherhood, about what it’s like to support a child who doesn’t appreciate that support, whatever. There’s additional potential (that gets squandered) when Wahlberg and Optimus discuss the concept of a soul, a theme which (in a better movie) could have been an emotional high point. Either way, the working class father/daughter plot presents plenty of storyline options.
Except that the daughter is inconsistently characterized. Is she really unappreciative? Or is she actually kind, generous and supportive? Is she even interested in going to college—and if so, what for? Is she only in the movie because Michael Boy wants a “hot girl” character, and didn’t bother giving her a realistic personality (BINGO!)? And while we’re at it, who the hell is this annoying “best friend” character who supposedly works for the inventor?
Like I said, the plot has potential. Wahlberg is one of the highlights of the movie, and he does the best he can. But there’s little attempt to expand the dad/daughter story beyond its most basic elements, and once the daughter’s obnoxious twenty-something boyfriend is introduced, the script falls back on pretty standard clichés. But that’s okay, because we have plot number 2…
Plot 2: Oh boy, aliens killed the dinosaurs! And they created the Transformers…and now they’re ready to come back and collect their old toys!
Okay. Yes. So the idea of alien creators (in the Transformers universe, these are called Quintessons) isn’t the most original plot of all time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential—again, there’s that word—for some pretty epic, mind-bending plot developments. Right?
Except that this idea – possibly the biggest one in the movie, considering it basically pits a Godlike entity against the Autobots and Earth – is totally forgotten about for most of the runtime. Oh, it flickers on the screen every now and again, and it definitely is part of the movie’s climax, but it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing was thrown in more as a setup for the next movie than anything else. And with a storyline this big, it can’t be thrown in. It demands attention. It needs to be the focus.
But okay. I’ll accept it. They want to do a new trilogy, right? Got to plant some seeds. But if that’s the case, they could’ve planted them in a way that implied that they have some idea where they’re going. We’ve already seen the Egyptian pyramids being put together, a new take on the moon landing, and now the dinosaurs going extinct. How many historical events on Earth are we going to see reimagined? And furthermore, will this beaded string of hints and clues ever get tied together?
The “creators” are barely mentioned throughout the movie, and so much else is going on that the viewer mostly forgets about them. And when the classic Dinobots arrive on the scene, they seem to be thrown in with no setup and no explanation. Are they somehow connected to how the real dinosaurs went extinct? What’s the deal? The viewer wants to believe that the next movie might offer clear answers, emotional high notes and maybe even catharsis, but past experience demonstrates otherwise.
Plot 3: The evil, dark, corrupt United States government wants to kill off all of the remaining Transformers.
I get what they were going for here. I do. It’s an allegorical statement on illegal immigration, and a pretty clear one at that. It also brings to mind the terrible way that this country has often treated old war veterans. I just wish that if they were going to do a statement on something, they’d actually, you know, follow through on it.
And by that, I mean actually give it some depth. Examine the real issue, instead of just glancing at it and nodding. Kelsey Grammer does a good job in his role, though, and this plot is actually a pretty good way to follow up on all of the destruction that has been done in the previous movies. The main problem with this plot isn’t that it’s a bad storyline—it’s that with all of the other stories going on simultaneously, it has no room to breathe.
Plot 4: Steve Jobs creates his OWN Transformers
Okay, so it’s not actually Steve Jobs. But for all intents and purposes, that’s who Stanley Tucci is playing here. As usual, he does a great job.
Basically, the idea here is that a multimillion dollar technological corporation gets a hold of the metal that the Transformers are made of, copyrights it as “transformium,” and then creates their own Transformers for mass merchandising purposes. And these Transformers, being man-made, aren’t just the equals to their alien predecessors; they’re better, stronger and able to reshape themselves into literally anything. Unfortunately, when one of the man-made Transformers gains consciousness—Galvatron, the robot made from Megatron’s spare parts– let’s just say that the big guy has his own ideas about how to do things.
Now, putting aside the humorous fact that a Michael Bay movie (a movie inspired by a line of action figures) is making a statement about over-commercialized American society, this storyline is actually the best one in the movie. It inspires a number of the movie’s most intriguing moments. In particular, there’s one noteworthy sequence where the Autobots face off against Tucci’s character, who informs them that “they don’t matter anymore.”
There’s a sort of postmodern near-brilliance to this notion. The idea that the Autobots – who are, remember, inspired by a line of action figures—now have to face their own obsolescence in the presence of new, improved, brightly-colored toys, is clever. It makes the viewer consider the fate of all technology. Laptops, cars, microwaves, cell phones—every few years, every piece of technology that we cherish will be replaced by the new, more colorful model with brighter colors. As Optimus Prime stands there facing Stanley Tucci, essentially being informed that his hardware is out of date, the mighty Autobot leader suddenly seems small and helpless. He’s been turned into a dated old flip phone, rendered helpless before the new iPhone.
In addition, this is the first major storyline since the original movie to bring something new to the series. Every other movie has dealt with how these alien entities came to Earth in the past, influenced history and are now coming back with violent intentions. This plot, in contrast, shows how humans can become their own worst enemies. It shows how scientific progress can corrupt us if used incorrectly. It (potentially!) makes us question the way we casually dispose of outdated technology and childhood toys.
So yes, this storyline is good.
But then it’s crammed in with three other storylines, and it has no room to breathe.
Yes, I know. Christopher Nolan did it in all three Batman movies—but that’s because Nolan is a master storyteller who knows how to weave his storylines together, how to make each character arc resonate, how to have a purpose behind the whole thing. Michael Bay doesn’t care about story—he’s an overeager, hyperactive type who really cares about the big explosions—and as a result, whatever storyline he uses is really only a way to fill time between said explosions. That’s why he uses juvenile humor so much; he doesn’t know how else to keep you interested when he’s not blowing up alien spaceships.
That’s why this movie is so frustrating; not because it’s bad, but because it could be good. Every time there’s a hint of depth, it is quickly tossed aside for the sake of another throwaway joke. The movie’s conclusion is a long, dragged out mess, because by that point they’ve written themselves into a corner. While Steve Jobs is running through the city with a bomb, the Autobots have to stop Galvatron and his man-made robot army, while they simultaneously have to stop Lockdown from attacking the city with his giant evil UFO, while they also have to stop Kelsey Grammer from doing…something, and in the meantime (don’t forget!), these alien creators are out there somewhere, doing something. Oh yes, and here’s the Dinobots…
It doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t care to make sense.
And while we’re on the subject of other stupid things:
- The football. Yes, the football.
- The Autobots. Evidently, someone got the memo that much of the audience couldn’t tell the robots apart in the previous movies, and decided to respond by turning all of the new Autobots into exaggerated cartoon characters. Look, disbelief can only be stretched so far. I can accept the notions that the robots can speak English. But when they present a supposedly alien robot that, for one, smokes a cigar—with what lungs, and what happens when the cigar burns out?—and on top of that, has a prominent beer gut (how does a robot get overweight?), it suddenly becomes very difficult to take it seriously. Then we have an Autobot with a trenchcoat, made of…uh, metal? And finally, an Autobot that looks and behaves exactly like a samurai.
- The “boyfriend” character. Totally unlikeable, but for some reason the audience is expected to root for him in the end. I don’t know why.
- Inconsistent characterization for the Autobots, and a general lack of heroism. The general immorality of the “heroic” characters here genuinely bugs me, and honestly, that might even be my biggest issue with the film. How are we supposed to root for these guys? I’ve never seen Optimus Prime so grim, impulsive and antagonistic as Michael Bay portrays him. In Age of Extinction, his new tendency to flip out, break things and make constant death threats doesn’t ring true to the noble leader he’s normally portrayed as. Bumblebee is even worse; although everyone’s favorite yellow Autobot has always had a youthful energy about him, he’s never acted like a rampaging toddler before. And the three new “heroes” are even worse. Drift is a stereotype, Crosshairs seems to be the Autobot version of Starscream, and Hound, the John Goodman Autobot, is a violence-loving sociopath; there’s even a scene where Hound executes an innocent, caged alien creature just for being “ugly” (see Film Crit Hulk’s review for more on this). When the main heroes are so quick to violence, the viewer starts to wonder who they’re supposed to be cheering for.
- Possibly the stupidest, most disturbing scene in the film is the one where Optimus convinces the Dinobots to join him and take down Galvatron. How does he do it, you ask? Perhaps a stirring, monumental speech? Maybe the Dinobots see the great Autobot leader in danger, and they rise to the occasion? Nope. He just takes out a sword and fights them. And as he fights, going on and on about how if they fight for him they can have “freedom,” he suddenly takes a sword to Grimlock’s throat and threatens him that he must “fight for my freedom, or die.” You know what this means? That Optimus is a hypocrite, warning a fellow warrior (who has been imprisoned for God knows how long) that if he doesn’t fight for the freedom of the Autobots, then he will kill him. Freedom? Not quite.
- Optimus Prime just flies off into space, even doing the classic Christopher Reeve Superman spin around the world. If he could fly the whole movie, then why didn’t he–ahh, never mind. I give up.
It’s easy to make stupid jokes. It’s easy to film an explosion. But it’s damn hard to make people care about an imaginary world, or the characters that populate it. And that’s why these movies fail as worthwhile entertainment, box office success notwithstanding, because they don’t bother even trying to reach for more. The Bayformers movies are thoroughly content to be popcorn entertainment, with no deeper meaning.
Sure, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It has nice explosions. But it’s a film that falls apart moments after you finish viewing it, as a depressing realization sets in—that was it? And that’s the key to why these movies have been so financially successful, and yet why reactions continue to be so universally mixed and/or negative. Sure, they’re really entertaining, but they’re really lacking something, too. And that something is, simply enough, effort.
Honestly, these movies pale in comparison to the eighties cartoon that they draw so much inspiration from. Hell, it’s not even a comparison; the cartoon is a classic, and for good reason. The animated Transformers: The Movie, back in 1986, had more genuine emotion in one scene – and yes, you know exactly which scene I’m talking about – than this live action series has mustered out of four movies.
Looking back on the first Michael Bay Transformers movie, back in 2007, it’s really a shame to see where the series has gone. The first movie had its flaws, but the future seemed bright. Against all expectations, this was a series full of potential.
Well, that potential has officially been wasted. We’ll see what the next movie looks like, but I’m not getting my hopes up.