Ricky Church revisits Michael Bay’s Transformers as it turns 15…
Throughout the nearly 40 years of the Transformers franchise, it has spanned many different forms of media from toylines, animated series, video games and comics. While the franchise hit the big screen early on with Transformers: The Movie, the animated tie-in to the original cartoon series, 15 years ago today it launched into the live-action era as Michael Bay’s Transformers was released. To see the likes of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee in live-action was a huge moment, but as surreal and enjoyable as it may have been Transformers is not without some complicated feelings regarding certain aspects of the film.
Transformers follows a civil war between the Autobots and Decepticons, two factions of an alien robotic race, who come to Earth in search of the Allspark, an ancient and powerful artifact from their world. The Allspark’s location has been unknowingly passed down through generations of the Witwicky family to teenaged Sam, played by Shia LaBeouf, and he is thrust into their war when the Autobots and their leader Optimus Prime arrive to prevent the Decepticons from getting their hands on it.
As a lifelong Transformers fan, the prospect of seeing Optimus Prime and other bots on the big screen was one of the largest appeals of the film. The franchise has been full of larger than life characters like Optimus and his archnemesis Megatron along with bots like Bumblebee, Starscream and others. Combine that with how advanced CGI had become to create more complex transformations, it’s little wonder such an action-oriented director like Michael Bay would be attracted to the idea of robots transforming at high speeds and battling in the heart of populated cities.
From that standpoint, Transformers achieved quite a visual spectacle as each and every transformation looked incredible. Bay and the legendary Steven Spielberg, who was an executive producer on the film, hired Industrial Light & Magic to help design and create the film’s special effects. As for each bot, they were designed with thousands of moving parts along their whole bodies. Each part and joint consisted of their own individual pieces that moved. One just needs to watch the detailed sequence of Optimus Prime’s first transformation to see just how many pieces move around concurrently – many of them close-up shots too – to transform him from truck to towering robot.
The sound design is significant too with how the bots sounded when they simply moved and spoke much less transformed. Spielberg even made a special note to Bay that aside from the transformers themselves, almost every effect should be done practically to give the film a more realistic look and feel. The mixture of practical and computerized effects was done extraordinarily well where the transformers and their actions blended in nearly seamlessly to the environment.
This was especially true for the action sequences and if there is one thing Michael Bay is good at, it is filming very well shot and intense action scenes. From The Rock, Armageddon and the Bad Boys films, Bay’s penchant for explosives and mayhem earned him a much deserved reputation for wanton destruction. This gave him the opportunity to really stretch out Transformers‘ action potential in a way that hadn’t been done since arguably the 1986 animated film dialled up the action to a graphic degree compared to the original series.
To that end, he really pushed Transformers‘ effects to the limit between scenes where a giant, robotic scorpion attacks a group of soldiers or how a Decepticon transforms at full velocity, smashes through a bus and tackles Optimus Prime off the highway. The action only got more intense in the climax with Bay utilizing quite a few of his action tropes like slow-motion, close-ups of people screaming and explosions, explosions, explosions galore.
However, those are the technical accomplishments of Transformers. When one looks at the film’s other aspects, they might view it more… unfavourably. For a film called Transformers about transformers warring with other transformers, it certainly takes a long time for the Transformers to actually become the focus. While the human element is an important one, and Spike Witwicky is the main human of the original Transformers series, Bay’s Transformers placed a little too much emphasis on the human aspect.
Having Sam, Megan Fox’s Mikaela and Sam’s family play prominent roles is one thing, but to also have a large ensemble that includes elite Army Rangers, analysts and hackers, shadowy government agents and the Secretary of Defence, it becomes too crammed even for the humans to make much of an impact. For the most part, the Autobots and Decepticons become bit players in their own movie.
Part of this may have to do with how costly it is to have so many of these transformers onscreen together, especially when their designs are as complex as they are. But it also shows a lack of understanding from Bay as to why exactly Transformers has been so beloved by fans. Aside from Optimus and Bumblebee, many of the other transformers don’t really stand out even as they attempted to give each Autobot their own personality.
This is especially true for the Decepticons who hardly have any lines and are just generic minions despite the presence of Starscream, one of the most well known traitorous second-in-commands who was always scheming to usurp Megatron as leader – often right to his face (even when a popular fan theory at the time hypothesized Starscream hid among the US fighter jets and was the first to strike a near-fatal blow to Megatron, none of the sequels picked up on Starscream’s number one characteristic). Even Megatron, the feared Decepticon leader, was relegated to an almost afterthought as he spent most of the film in stasis and didn’t have much a presence besides being apparently very evil. The one saving grace was just how afraid the Autobots grew as soon as Megatron entered the battlefield.
Even the designs of the transformers proved to be controversial before and after release with many fans stating how they looked too alien and unlike their original counterparts. Megatron in particular was singled out for having an insect-like head before he was subtly redesigned. It did make sense, though, to have the bots appear more alien and robotic compared to the original. After all, the original designs were based only on how the toys could be sculpted and transformed as well as what 80s animation would allow, but they still made the characters look too unrecognizable both in look and feel.
Just take the opening of 2018’s soft-reboot Bumblebee where the designs more accurately reflect the originals, yet are modernized and still reflect the alien and technological nature of their race. It was possible to achieve those visuals without drifting too far away from what made some of these characters unique.
Bay’s lack of understanding doesn’t just end with the designs or characterizations. For many fans, whether you’re old or young to the franchise, Peter Cullen isn’t just the voice of Optimus Prime, he is Optimus Prime. A prominent voice actor in the industry, Cullen’s Optimus Prime is perhaps just as iconic as James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Even when other Transformers series premiered long after the original series, voice actors for Optimus modelled their performance off Cullen’s. When the live-action film was announced, fans petitioned Bay, Spielberg and the filmmakers to bring back Cullen for the first time since the animated series ended, yet despite Cullen’s beloved standing in Transformers fandom he still had to audition for the role.
The same is for Frank Welker as Megatron, but unlike Cullen Welker was not hired to reprise Megatron because Bay felt his original voice did not fit the new design for Megatron – a fact that would be later disproven as Welker returned to voice Megatron for the Transformers Prime series with a similarly designed Megatron to the 2007 film. Instead, The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings actor Hugo Weaving voiced Megatron and it wouldn’t be until 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction that Welker returned to reprise the role of Megatron/Galvatron for it and Transformers: The Last Knight. Heck, Transformers‘ climactic showdown between Optimus and Megatron takes place mostly in the background and even Optimus’ classic “One shall stand, one shall fall” line is said offscreen!
These factors show how Bay didn’t really understand the full appeal of the Transformers franchise, initially thinking it as, in his own words, a “stupid toy movie.” While the battles are obviously a compelling sell for fans, what they really cared about was the characters and their interactions. Sam and Bumblebee do build a nice friendship and Optimus’ relationship with his team showcase why he is regarded as a great and compassionate leader, but they’re still too little for the film.
Even the human interactions grow tiresome as Shia LaBeouf’s occasional improvisation didn’t really improve the film’s humour, which was chalk full of gags that went on too long, dirty jokes (which include Bumblebee “lubricating” on Agent Simmons) and other cringey material like Sam’s father fist-bumping him on Mikaela’s attractiveness or the much older Simmons referring to Mikaela as hot in a very growly voice. Add to that Megan Fox’s story on her “audition” for Bay and those moments become even more questionable.
Despite these factors, however, Transformers is still an enjoyable film. The story may be formulaic, but so was the premise for the animated series and it was a good introduction for those unfamiliar with Transformers. Even if the cast was too crammed, some characters and relationships stood out along with the performances from their actors. The effects and action speak for themselves by showing what could be done with the franchise in live-action.
It is also very important to note 2007’s Transformers came at a time when the franchise seemed to be lagging after a resurgence in the mid-90s – early 00s. The film launched it back into popularity and several aspects from Transformers made their way into other media, such as the loss of Bumblebee’s voice, the Allspark and even some of the characters designs for Transformers Prime. Without the live-action film and its success at the box office, it may have taken longer for the Transformers franchise to return to prominence.
It’s just a shame what the live-action series devolved into as Michael Bay took more and more control over each film, what with each sequel retconning its own continuity, overly long action sequences, some racist caricatures and even more outlandish humans and cringey moments – such as a boyfriend brandishing his laminated card of a state’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ law to justify an underage relationship.
The live-action series has become something of a joke and source of embarrassment for fans, but thankfully Bumblebee – which was not directed by Bay but by Kubo and the Two Strings‘ Travis Knight – was much more indicative of what the Transformers franchise is and hopefully its follow up Transformers: Rise of the Beasts can be as well.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.