I love Transformers. I don’t mean the toys, the cartoons, the comics, any of that stuff. I mean the new Transformers, the Michael Bay Transformers. I know this is an unpopular opinion. But as far as I’m concerned, Transformers first came to life in Michael Bay’s series. And it is therefore the best Transformers until something better comes along to replace it.
Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett tried to convince me that pre-Michael Bay, Transformers was already basically Band of Brothers with giant killer robots. That sounds like an amazing show. We all know it’s not really Band of Brothers though. But hey, maybe HBO will get even more frisky now that Game of Thrones is so big.
I understand that mine is an ignorant notion, because I’ve refused to step back in time like so many who feel we all must honour the real Transformers, the classic Transformers, the one that was still pure and immune to the corruption of Hollywood despite being founded as a line of kids toys in the first place.
What really frustrates me about this stubborn nostaligia, however, is that it means the new Transformers never gets a chance to succeed on its own. It presupposes that there’s something at fault with Michael Bay’s Transformers in the first place.
Now, to be fair, a lot of people have come to that conclusion after dutifully watching several of Bay’s other Transformers movies. I know this, because I could not find a single person to go see the movie with me last night, even after buying my hypothetical guest their very own 3D IMAX ticket. Not one! Some were disgusted that I’d even suggest inviting them to see a $US25 movie on my dime.
Walking to the theatre from work last night, the dread of sitting through three hours of ultra-saturated explosions and bright flashing metallic colours on my own started to sink in. I even considered calling my mum, or an ex-girlfriend who lives nearby the theatre. But I stayed strong.
It’s weird being in a movie theatre like the ones you would go to to see Transformers on your own. It’s like going to Six Flags alone. This isn’t just a movie, see. It’s a ride, a theme park unto itself. You need someone else to hold onto sometimes. It feels like playing the most bombastic parts of Call of Duty or Titanfall without actually having to play them.
Honestly, it was the best time I could have had seeing a movie alone. That sounds far more defeatist than I mean it to, trust me.
But, man: people hate this movie right out of the gate. So much so that, judging by my social and professional circles, I’m genuinely curious how many people are actually going to go see it.
It’s easy to make fun of Michael Bay because of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but people make sure to hate Transformers on its own terms too. I don’t think I’m breaking anyone’s confidence by posting what happened when I stopped in at the late-night Kotaku campfire in the wee hours of the morning, still fresh off the adrenaline of seeing the masterpiece that is Age of Extinction.
Right before they started in on that three way alley oop of holding Michael Bay in extreme contempt, Luke acknowledged that this is how the generation that grew up on the original Transformers sees its new form. Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo said something similar to me this week, adding that what ticks people off about the director previously known for making The Rock and Bad Boys is that he turned a beloved franchise into “prototypical brainless blockbuster schlock” rather than doing something interesting with it like Christopher Nolan did with Batman.
The point I take away from these defenses is that directors like Bay and Nolan aren’t just handed any normal multimillion blockbuster film project. They’re given keys to the fate of something greater than them, or any one director for that matter. With this duty comes the responsibility to not just keep the sacred texts of Batman or Transformers or whatever alive and healthy, but to keep it relevant, which is a much harder task.
I’m not a Batman guy either, so I’m really out of my comfort zone here. But before I give up the talking pillow: seriously? The Batman who’s still prancing about in black spandex? The one growling under his breath for no good reason? The one who always takes himself so damn seriously?
Ok, one more nitpicky thing before you all realise that I’m stalling because I don’t want to talk about Age of Extinction yet. I just want to point out the posturing here seems to assume that going big in a movie is also going dumb. I don’t buy that. There’s Skrillex’s new album. But there’s also Yeezus.
Really though: does being dumb even matter? Are any superhero movies actually that smart? Be honest with yourself before you pick up the rock I see you eyeing over there. Captain America? Come on. Spider-Man? Maybe a little, but it’s every bit as preachy as Transformers. Superman? His name is a combination of the words “Super” and “Man.” Optimus Prime isn’t much more nuanced, but at least it sounds foreign, which is cool.
This isn’t really a question of smarts though. I think the issue is relevance, to go back to an earlier point. Fans want the people at the helm to use seemingly timeless characters to tell thoroughly modern stories in one way or another. And given how scarce a commodity that can be in nerd culture, it’s got us all fighting each other like it’s the last chunk of unobtanium!
Personally, I’ve always preferred the new Transformers to the Dark Knight saga because it cared more about explosions than trying to squeeze in any message more considered than “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”
But I would argue Transformers is culturally and politically relevant, and moreso than ever in Age of Extinction. It’s just topical in a strange, even unintended way. You might say that there’s more to it than…OK sorry.
I mean, just look at this:
That’s one of the Dinobots in Age of Extinction. Now compare it to this:
Remember this guy? He’s the terrifying prototype shown off in this video that blew up after its creator was acquired by Google:
Tell me with a straight face that you don’t see any similarity between these two. That, and the fact that this real-world robot that looks like it’s already planning to hunt you down after Skynet takes control is now owned by one of the most powerful and ubiquitous internet company in the world.
This all came together when I was walking down the street one night with my friend Henry. I don’t know how this came up, but he started ranting about how much he hated Fast and Furious from the sheer stupidity of its trailer.
“And then there was a car…bursting out of a plane…and I just remember one guy being like: “Yo, they got a tank…” he went on.
“It’s just…machinery happening at itself,” he said at one point during this tirade. I started cracking up. I hadn’t even seen the new Transformers yet, but I already knew that would be the perfect description for what I love about every part of this film series, and will probably keep loving as long as Michael Bay keeps making ’em.
Machinery happening at itself.
That’s it, I think. That’s exactly it. It describes every single part of Michael Bay’s Transformers, from the small army of people it took to make such a gorgeous monstrosity to the very literal one: two robots pounding each other on screen, over and over and over again for three hours.
It’s amazing, right? It’s like there’s some metanarrative compelling Michael Bay to never stop making these movies as long as people keep spending lots of money to see them. He’s a cog in the machine of corporate dealmaking that makes a movie like Age of Extinction possible. An integral one, but a cog all the same.
The movie can’t make pointed statements quite as clearly as The Dark Knight did when it invoked terrorism or the surveillance state. It can’t offer up crystal-clear social commentary about how we’re losing control of our already tenuous grip on the technologies that drive and support us. Transformers can’t do this because it’s a machine in and of itself, as powerful and potentially soulless as the ones it depicts. That’s what makes it so troubling, so artistically disturbing, to many jilted Transformers fans. But that’s also what makes it such a fascinating spectacle to behold, no matter how many times I’ve done so at this point.
There’s one incredible shot midway through Age of Extinction that drives this point home. Kelsey Grammer (yep), the bad guy in the movie, is laying out his nefarious plans with Stanley Tucci, the slightly less bad guy who still has a chance to redeem himself. They have harnessed something that makes the Transformers tick, and are using it to build a massive army for the United States. As Grammer monologues about securing American exceptionalism for another historical era with giant killer robots, the camera slides through different parts of the massive facilities producing the things.
A brief, passing moment: one that shows a row of utterly generic-looking Transformers behind carted off to another part of the facility with a ceiling hanger. It looks so convincing that you almost don’t realise at first that this could easily be a picture taken inside a toy factory making the real-life action figures.
That’s what’s so funny and oddly subversive about these movies. Despite what all the characters say and even show about robots being cold, inert machines primarily meant to save humanity, these are the characters that Bay has actually kept sacred in his own way. The human part of this cast, meanwhile, is unrecognizable from the one seen in Michael Bay’s first Transformers, released back in 2007.
Human actors — they’re the ones who are truly replaceable. Replaceable to the point where characters change or straight up vanish. And once they’re gone, nobody even mentions them again. Because why would they? They’re too busy searching for Optimus Prime with the rest of the cast. Well, what’s left of the cast.
That is who’s essential, irreplaceable in this movie. I guess it’s a heavy handed irony: that the robots in this fiction are far more human than the actual humans. But Bay knows you’re watching this movie just to see the next supremely badass way that Optimus prime executes the final villain while muttering some nonsense about honour and falling or standing up in one direction or another. We’re hungry for yet another money shot, and he knows just how to tease us along until the final face-rending climax.
I want to say more, but I actually, truly, sincerely, do not want to spoil anything. This thing might be an inchoate roller-coaster ride of a movie. But it’s one of the best-looking ones I’ve ever seen. Even Michael Bay had limitations when he started making Transformers. Do you think anyone tells Michael Bay he can’t afford something — at least when he’s working on Transformers and not Pain and Gain? This is a master at work, using his favourite tools.
I don’t really know how to review the new Transformers, because I’m not sure what discussion there is to be had about it yet. People have already made up their minds. Way, way too many people. Even the smart ones!
But this is where we have to start: on the same page. There’s been too much senseless hatred already. For those who’ve written Transformers off already: I implore you to see it. I want your honest opinion about this movie. Not Michael Bay, not his series, this movie. Meanwhile, those of us who are willing to give this a chance will be having fun ranking the most badass GIFs from the Dinobot fight.
Seriously, that scene is like the ride of Rohirrim, only with Optimus Prime wielding a sword and riding on top of a robotic Tyrannosaurus rex. How many times have you seen bearded white dudes riding into battle since Peter Jackson first made that epic scene? If you’ve made it this far in the article, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you’re up to date on Game of Thrones. So: a lot. And how many sword-wielding Optimus Primes have you seen riding t-rexes?
That’s what I thought.