Friday, December 2, 2022

How the First in the Franchise Got It Right

When transformers opened in 2007, it was the ultimate in fan service. The toys and animated series had enchanted pre-teens (and, let’s be honest, a swack of adults as well), and the chance to see the Transformers in live action was not to be missed. The timing was perfect: the 1980s were beginning to be looked at more favorably; cultural geek was taking off, with the beginning of The Big Bang Theory its call to arms; and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a stunning example of what could be done with CGI in the present day. The movie itself accepted and embraced its history without a cynical, sardonic spin. It delivered a CGI spectacle that literally brought the toys of moviegoers’ youth to life. It was big, it was bombastic, and it had heart.

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The premise of the film is simple. Cybertron was the battleground between two groups of sentient, giant robots: Autobots versus Decepticons. Both factions were looking for the All Spark, the source of Cybertronian life. The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), wanted to use it for benevolent purposes, rebuilding Cybertron and enter a time of peace. The Decepticons, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving), wanted it so they could destroy the Autobots and conquer the universe.

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The All Spark is located on Earth by Megatron in the late 1800s, who crash lands with the All Spark into the Arctic Circle, where he becomes frozen. In the present day, Decepticons land on Earth, take the guise of Earth vehicles, and begin their search for Megatron. Autobot Bumblebee (mark ryan) is also on Earth, disguised as Sam Witwicky’s (Shia Labeouf) 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, and sends a homing signal to his fellow Autobots, who soon land on Earth, also disguising themselves as various vehicles. The battle resumes on Earth, and with the help of Witwicky and the Air Force the Autobots defeat the Decepticons. In doing so, the All Spark is destroyed, and as a result Optimus sends a signal to any other Autobot survivors to come to their welcoming new home, Earth.


To the point: good versus evil over a MacGuffin, good wins, and Witwicky gets the girl, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox).

transformers was never going to win any big awards, but it was never meant to. Apart from a plot device where the coordinates of the All Spark and Megatron are imprinted on the eyeglasses of Witwicky’s ancestor, there isn’t some big reveal about how the history of man is inextricably tied to Cybertron (at least not yet… we’ll get there). Giant robots fought on a different planet, now they’re fighting on ours. End of story. The animation that brought the Transformers to life was amazingly detailed, with cogs and wheels twisting and turning to make the transformation not only realistic but plausible. They brought back the voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, from the original animated series, a move that was highly praised by the fanbase. Small changes from the source material worked overall, like how Megatron historically transformed into a Walther P38 pistol, of varying sizes depending on what the story required), but transforms into a Cybertronian jet in the film (a conscious decision by director Michael Bay to avoid sizing changes, likening it to Darth Vader transforming into his own lightsaber to be used by someone else). The very definition of giving the people what they want.


The success of the film made an inevitable sequel, and when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen arrived in 2009 the critical response was pretty much the same across the board: not good. The comforting simplicity of the first film was lost immediately, bringing in a plotline about how, in 17,000 BC, the Primes (original Autobots) got their energy from sun harvesters, but vowed never to harvest energy from a star that sustains life. One Prime ignored this vow and placed a sun harvester on Earth, but was caught and imprisoned on Earth by the remaining Primes, becoming the original Decepticon, The Fallen (Tony Todd). Now in the present day, Sam Witwicky is seeing Cybertronian symbols thanks to having held a small piece of the All Spark, making him the target of a revived Megatron. The unnecessary backstory of a pre-existing link between Earth and Cybertron, the ridiculousness of Witwicky overwhelmed by visions of symbols, the pyramids of Giza home to the sun harvester and a big Decepticon with testicles added to the film’s poor reviews. transformers was ridiculous, but at least it played in its own preexisting sandbox.


The franchise would continue to try and create a history between Earth and Cybertron, as if to justify its existence rather than allowing Earth to simply be a sanctuary. Transformers: Dark of the Moon tied the Moon landings of 1969 to the franchise, a recon mission of a Cybertronian spacecraft that crashed on the dark side of the moon. Witwicky had a new girlfriend, Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who had earned no emotional investment. Optimus Prime was far from the noble warrior of the previous films, having developed a nasty side that took no issue with decapitating Megatron, for example. But at least the Autobots and humans were still working together. Transformers: Age of Extinction took that relationship and tossed it aside, claiming that humans now viewed the Autobots as hostile, ended all working relations with them and turned them into fugitives, hunted and killed by a CIA black ops division. Transformers: The Last Knight not only kept the fugitive Autobots, but now hunted by an international task force. It was the franchise’s most inane attempt at shared history, linking King Arthur and Merlin to the Transformers, among mankind for centuries, and protected by the Order of Witwiccans. It was the last slap in the face of a franchise that had once hailed the Autobots as heroes and friends of humanity, as they had been intended to be.


It wasn’t until 2018’s Bumblebee that faith in the franchise would be restored. A critical and financial success, Bumblebee brought the heart back to the franchise, ditching the ridiculous history and heartless action to a simpler tale of a good Autobot, Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien), his warming relationship with an 18-year old girl, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), and his fight against two evil Decepticons that have arrived on Earth — and arguably the best line out of any film in the franchise: “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?” from Agent Burns (John Cena).

A franchise that looked lifeless finds success and a brighter future by reaching back 15 years to transformers and delivering on its promise.

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