It’s been rough being a Transformers fan in the age of Michael Bay. The 33-year-old intellectual property, which began as a toy line from Hasbro in 1984, has seen countless TV shows, comic books, and even an animated feature film in 1986. But when Steven Spielberg announced that he was producing a live-action version of the Robots in Disguise, fans thought we had hit it big. Then came Michael Bay.
The commercial and music video director, who apparently got lucky in the 1990s with a few solid films (Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon), but had apparently cooled his creative jets in the late ’90s and early part of the new millennium (Pearl Harbor, The Island) could have been a solid choice to direct a TF film. What fans got were four films, and a fifth in the chamber, that were ridiculously nonsensical and so creatively up and down that long time fans have all but given up on Bay actually making a decent version of something that many of us hold dear.
Now, as the new film, Transformers: The Last Knight, threatens us once again, we are looking back at the films that came before it to remind ourselves where the series has gone — both good and bad — and to prepare ourselves for what might be to come in The Last Knight.
This is the film that started it all. Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox star as two teenagers in a world cast into the middle of an ancient war between two factions of a robotic alien race. The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), against the Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving, for some reason), with various other classic ‘bots and ‘cons along for the ride. The overall theme of this first film was the story of “a boy and his first car”; here, Sam Witwicky (LeBeouf) and his beat up Camaro, who happened to be the alt mode for Bumblebee, an autobot scout. The story in Transformers had something to do with Megatron crashing into Earth centuries ago chasing “the cube,” the most powerful artifact in Cybertronian lore, one which gives them their Spark (soul), so he could use the powerful artifact to make Earth’s technology come to life to serve him. Centuries ago. Where technology was limited to, say, the wheel. Great plan.
Michael Bay put a heavy emphasis on the U.S. military and while audiences could see the careful hand of Spielberg driving certain aspects of the production, it was very evident that the script by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman took some liberties with some of the more iconic aspects of the Transformers mythos, and whatever was left, Bay himself tried his best to make his own.
Out-of-place comedic turns by John Turturro as Sector 7 agent Seymour Simmons, and Sam’s annoying parents, Ron and Judy (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), and some terrible robotic slapstick (at one point, Bumblebee pulls something from his crotch region and proceeds to urinate anti-freeze on Simmons) left a bad taste in the mouths of fans. I’m still wondering why the players in this farce would decide to take the one thing a towering, destructive, human-hating robot Megatron wants — the cube — and move it from an isolated location like the Hoover Dam to “hide” it in a very populated city (here called Mission City, later retconned to Los Angeles). As with most aspects of this film, it made no sense.
The first Transformers film was a mess, sure, but it was a somewhat fun mess and it had some heart — again, the influence of Spielberg — and it set the foundation for where the franchise could go in the future, whether we liked it or not.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
It would be so easy to blame this film on the writer’s strike that locked down Hollywood for most of 2007-08. Regardless of who’s to blame, this one is a mess from beginning to end. In what would become a series staple, most of the previous film is retconned to fit the “story” of RotF. The Transformers are a secret kept by the government, somehow. Optimus and his Autobots are working with the U.S. military to hunt down and kill all the remaining Decepticons on Earth. But there is something evil hiding, planning, waiting to strike. Something that worries even the great Optimus Prime.
The theme here, building from the first film, is “a boy leaving home,” in this case, Sam (LeBeouf) going away to college. Mikaela (Fox) is left behind, as are the annoying parents, but the Decepticons are up to something. An ancient being, one of the first Primes, who fell from grace, is back and leading the Decepticons since Megatron is “dead” at the bottom of the ocean. This Fallen (Tony Todd) is organizing the hidden ‘Cons, looking for a way to kill the last Prime, Optimus, so the Fallen can return to power. Or something like that. Using a shard of the cube, the Decepticons revive Megatron and he and his troops end up killing Optimus using trees — I kid you not — setting off a series of ridiculous events that has Sam and Mikaela warping all over the world with the help of Simmons (Turturro), looking for something important.
Revenge of the Fallen plays even looser with the TF mythos, and purports that the Cybertronians had come to Earth in prehistoric times, and left a device of great importance hidden somewhere. Also, the Autobot Matrix of Leadership is introduced, only to be reduced to dust and carried around in a sock for most of the film. Seriously. Fans were introduced to the first live-action Combiner/Gestalt in Devastator, but then Michael Bay gave him a literal set of balls and ruined it.
And for the sake of not beating a dead horse, two Autobots have vaguely racist personalities, which many found offensive (but would have been comedy gold in the 1990s. Just look at the career of Jamie Kennedy).
Revenge of the Fallen is all over the place in its story, and it truly felt like the writing room had way too many voices and no one capable of directing them into a solid, cohesive vision. And when a sloppy script is giving to a hack director like Bay, this is what happens.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Something amazing and profound happened in the third Transformers film. Michael Bay, forced to use the bigger IMAX cameras by the studio, actually had to set up shots and block his actors, and frame them, and it made him better for it. Ehren Kruger took over from Orci and Kurtzman for the script, and Megan Fox was replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Sam’s (LeBeouf) love interest. Also, the story is really solid, and this is as close to a decent live-action Transformers film we have, or will ever come. The theme here is the “boy getting his first job,” completing Sam’s march to adulthood, I guess.
An Autobot ship carrying something that could have won the war against the Decepticons crash landed on the dark side of the moon decades ago, and the entire U.S. space program was created so that we could get there first to see what it is. When Optimus Prime learns of this, he and the Autobots go investigate, only to discover the body of Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy), Optimus’ mentor, in stasis, along with a handful of mysterious devices. The Autobots bring Sentinel to Earth and revive him, but there’s more than meets the eye at play here. Two hours later, the Autobots are dead and then alive again, Chicago is in ruins, long time Decepticons are introduced and then killed, and Sam is instrumental in somehow saving the day, again.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the high watermark for all of these films. The action — and destruction — on-screen was epic, the main characters were actually developed, and even though Bay still infused as many wacky human characters as he could (I’m still trying to figure out why Ken Jeong’s character was even in this thing), the script somehow made up for Bay’s failures as a filmmaker. This should have been the template for every Transformers film going forward, but alas, it wasn’t, and whatever bit of magic that Bay and Krueger and the cast found in this production, it was sadly washed away in the fourth film.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
The big draw here was the inclusion of the Dinobots into the live action universe. It dominated the advertising and the toy shelves, and the images of Optimus Prime riding Grimlock made every Transformer fan excited. Then the film hit theaters and all of that quickly went away.
Age of Extinction picks up some time after the events of Chicago. Humans are now hunting all Transformers, and a mysterious group called Cemetery Wind, headed by an ex-CIA operative named Attinger (Kelsey Grammar), is collecting the non-functioning Cybertronian bodies and giving them to Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), and his company KSI, who is working on creating our own transformers, robots that humans can control. Working with Cemetary Wind is a mercenary Cybertronian named Lockdown, who is hunting for Optimus for his mysterious benefactor — the creator of all Cybertronians.
In Texas, an inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) finds an old box-style semi-truck and quickly learns that it is Optimus Prime in hiding. This sucks Cade, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) into the conflict. On the run with Prime and the Autobots, the Yeagers discover that KSI has built a new transformer from the remains of Megatron and named him Galvatron (voiced by Frank Welker, finally!). But Galvatron has been playing Joyce and KSI with the goal of setting off a bomb that will wipe out the human race and turn Earth into a metal planet — or new Cybertron.
Chaos ensues, and the end of the film takes place in Hong Kong, where Prime frees Grimlock and the Dinobots from Lockdown’s collection, and they team up to save the day. All that advertising for seven minutes of screen time. And speaking of advertising, the entire production seems to be the end result of a marketing deal struck between Paramount and China. In three separate instances, three different characters stop what they are doing to take a drink of a branded beverage. One character, Su Yueming (Bingbing Li), actually turns the bottle while drinking so the label is facing the camera. That tells you all you need to know about this film.
Age of Extinction is a forgettable mess that hints at the things to come in The Last Knight. Lockdown makes many references to the Knights and the creator, and at the end of the film, Optimus decides to leave earth and he flies up into space, which is apparently something he can do, to confront his maker once and for all.
The Transformers films have been a sore spot for longtime fans of the property. While most despise the films, Dark of the Moon at least found some balance between OG fans and live action film fans (and yes, there are people who absolutely love these films). All in all, the series has been one giant steaming pile of cogs after another, and the franchise is desperately in need of a wide spread reboot, independent of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg and robots with testicles. Hopefully, now that Bay has sworn that this is his last Transformers film, maybe that will come to fruition. The Last Knight could very well be the beginning of something new and exciting, one way or another.