Welcome to a new sub-series of ‘How to Fix’, a series in which we take a look at the story of a particular film, game or episode of a TV show and see how things could have been improved with hindsight, had the production of the project turned out differently. As the task of actually creating a film, game or TV show is a huge undertaking involving input from a wide variety of sources, often things do not turn out the way they were originally planned, and this is never more evident than with the case of the Transformers franchise and its bizarre, convoluted and oddly fascinating story. This series is infamous for its production issues, and problems with production behind-the-scenes range from sudden last-minute main cast changes, writers strikes, and the all-pervasive influence of the great Michael Bay himself.
Starting in 2007 with Transformers and continuing with Revenge of the Fallen in 2009, Dark of the Moon in 2011, Age of Extinction in 2014 and The Last Knight in 2017, the mainline Transformers series have become infamous in popular culture for their paper-thin character development, over-dependence on CGI and racist characters, both human and robot. Since ‘fixing’ such an infamous franchise can hardly be done in just over one thousand words, this ‘How to Fix’ feature has been broken down into parts, and each part has been broken down into segments, starting with what is arguably the biggest misstep in the Bay universe:
Arguably the most glaring problem with the Transformers movies is Optimus Prime and how he is depicted. Gone is the wise and principled Prime from the original cartoon series and in his place we are given an imposter who wears the voice and outward personality of his namesake as a mask to disguise his violent tendencies. We see these traits come out when this Optimus has any combat scene following Revenge of the Fallen, but to give credit where it is due, the way in which Optimus Prime is depicted in the first Transformers movie is a fairly accurate representation of the original G1 Optimus, as he is self-sacrificing, noble and wary of endangering Human life. His most violent act in the film is his brutal decapitation of Bonecrusher on the highway, which in the context of the film was seemingly justified as the Decepticon was slaughtering innocent people on the highway by the coach-load.
However, in just about every combat situation from the second film onward, Optimus Prime is a savage, psychopathic brawler who seems to delight in mutilating his victims to death in a variety of grisly fashions. Gone is the wise mantra of ‘freedom is the right of all sentient beings’ that the original Optimus Prime stood by, as the Michael Bay version of Optimus has ripped people’s faces off, torn someone’s spine out with an axe, and shot a defenseless prisoner in the head with a double-barreled shotgun at point blank range. The fourth film in the franchise, Age of Extinction, emphasises the fact that the Transformers have souls, but this notion does not sit well with the fact that the main Autobot protagonist slaughters his enemies in the most brutal ways. However, as all of these acts are committed against Decepticons, the films act like there is no moral baggage on Optimus’ shoulders whatsoever, a strange message for a series that is supposed to be depicting a catastrophic war.
To add insult to injury, Optimus seems to be almost callously indifferent to the deaths of not only the vast majority of his species, but even his fellow comrades. Although he briefly laments Jazz’s death in the first film, not a tear is shed for Ironhide, Wheeljack or Arcee, and although he does seem appalled by the death of Ratchet in the fourth film, he uses that as an excuse to go on yet another violent rampage – this time against the Humans he had previously pledged to protect. Whilst Megatron has consistently voiced his desire to ensure the survival of the Transformers species throughout all five films, Optimus is insistent on stopping the Decepticons at all costs, despite having no plan of his own of how to actually go about restoring Cybertron. This brings us to the next biggest problem with the film series:
The Autobots in the Michael Bay Transformers films are very strange indeed. One would assume, given what is at this point common knowledge about the Transformers series, that the Autobots would take the place of main characters and primary heroes of the series – but this is not true. The Autobots play little more than an assisting role to the heroes for all five films – and even that is arguably giving their role in the film too much credit. Whilst Bumblebee and Optimus are given more screen time as the main ‘representatives’ for the Autobots in the films, Bumblebee is treated more like a pet and Optimus is a maniac, so overall it doesn’t really paint a very good picture for the Autobots generally. In the original cartoon series, characters like Ironhide, Ratchet, Jazz and Wheeljack were developed characters with their own relationships, personalities and roles within the team. In the Michael Bay movies, the Autobots are cardboard cutouts with silly voices that are in the film because the branding requires that they are there.
Throughout the entire franchise no attempt is made to develop any of the Autobot characters in any way, and eventually the surviving two Autobots from the first film (Ironhide and Ratchet) ended up being wasted in the exact same way that they had been in the original G1 movie – for cheap shock value deaths when the writers couldn’t think of any other way of making the villains threatening. Whilst killing main characters is a good way of making the audience hate a villain, a prerequisite of this is that the character killed is actually known to the audience, and not a faceless drone. The same logic can be applied to Star Wars’s Order 66 scene – it is only emotive to superfans who know the characters from wider lore, but to the average viewer it is practically meaningless.
There are also several consistency issues with the Autobots – some appear and disappear between films with no explanation, and others appear for the first time but act as if they have been around since the beginning – the Autobots themselves also don’t seem to care that much for the Humans they protect, rather they go along with protecting them because Optimus tells them to. Either way, it is safe to say that there is a reason that Bumblebee and Optimus are the only Autobots that the audience remotely cares about – they are the only two that the film bothers to do anything interesting with, despite their potential. A reboot of the Transformers movie series should definitely focus more on the Autobots and less on the Human characters. Speaking of which:
Though it has been said many times, the Transformers movies focus far too much on the Human characters. At the end of the day, however, this was an inevitability – when making this kind of cartoon series into a live action film there are dozens of things that need to be taken into account, like how the average moviegoer is going to be able to relate to the film and how much money would have to be spent on CGI to animate a full cast of main-character Autobots. However, just because there are logical reasons why the Humans have to be at least one of the main focuses of the franchise, that doesn’t mean that the Humans that are featured have to be completely insane, immature social outcasts.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of the human characters depicted in this franchise are unhinged – they are either prone to constant inane chatter, buffoonish bumbling, or continuous yelps of fear – and Sam Witwicky is arguably the worst, being guilty of all three. The vast majority of characters get so little time for development that they are presented as obvious stereotypes, and though the Humans get far more screen time than the Autobots this is squandered on pointless awkward scenes – one of the worst being the scenes of Sam at his job in the third film – that completely undermine the point of the movies (Transformers). It would hardly be an issue of the majority of the run time was dedicated to the Humans if the time that was spent on the Autobots wasn’t so wasted, but the final nail in this series’ coffin is that the time spent with the Humans is wasted too, so the whole thing comes across as a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.
Next in this series of completely objective and constructive articles is Part 2 of How to Fix – Transformers, in which we shall discuss Megatron, the Decepticons and the ‘Big Baddie’ syndrome that the films grew to suffer from over five long instalments.