Welcome to the next piece in a new sub-series of ‘How to Fix’, revolving around the monumental task of fixing the Transformers movies, which started in 2007 with Transformers and have since become infamous for their paper-thin character development, over-dependence on CGI and racist or otherwise offensive content. Since fixing such an infamously bad 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. Part Two focused on the mishandling of many of the series’ villains, particularly relating to continuity, and this carries over into this piece focusing on the various plot devices, MacGuffins, and other contrivances used in the series.
The Allspark and the Matrix
As MacGuffins go, the Allspark isn’t half bad – it is basically the lifegiver for Transformers, at least that is how it is depicted, and for the first two films it is a very important factor in the stories even after its destruction. If the films has continued to revolve specifically around the Allspark or the knowledge it contains, then the series would be much more cohesive. For all its flaws, Revenge of the Fallen does at least try to continue the importance of the Allspark by having the plot kick off by the discovery of two surviving shards of the cube, but by Dark of the Moon the Allspark is all but forgotten, replaced by the Matrix of Leadership which Optimus acquires in the second film. Had it been better explained that the Allspark power had been somehow transferred to the Matrix then this would explain how it can be used to revive the dead, but this still does not explain why Optimus does not use the Matrix to create more Autobots, or revive dead ones like Jazz and Jetfire. The later films decide to simply write out the Matrix altogether, which although servicing the plot does little to expand the continuity.
Ultimately, this is a symptom of poor pre-planning – undoubtedly the Transformers films were not planned in advance, and each one was essentially a standalone project – this explains other discrepancies between films, such as the designs of the Transformers changing or the physics of the universe fundamentally shifting – for example, do Transformers bleed blood or Energon? Had the films been better planned, undoubtedly the Allspark would have made a return as implied in dialogue from Revenge of the Fallen, and Cybertron would be remade allowing the Decepticons to return home with the Autobots fortifying Earth, in a similar fashion to the cartoon series. However, the lack of continuity means that this never transpired, and unfortunately the mainline Transformers movie series suffered as a result.
Another fault that many later Transformers films suffered from was the repeated attempts to rewrite history, by either incorporating Transformers into Human mythology and lore (which is nonsense) or implying that Transformers either created, relocated or at the very least interacted with ancient humans. Although having Transformers exist as an ancient race that were once active on Earth as a plot device would work for the plot of one film, perhaps for justifying the unearthing of a hidden Decepticon army or the Matrix as in the original film. However, each and every film uses this motif in some form for each of their MacGuffins. The Allspark is buried in Hoover Dam, the Matrix is entombed in Egypt, the Pillars are buried with Sentinel on the moon and the fourth and fifth films go so far as to imply that the Earth itself is either a creation of or the host for an ancient race of Transformers. The effect is dulled by the fact that each and every major event in Earth’s history is connected in some way to Transformers – the extinction of the dinosaurs, stonehenge, the pyramids – even the moon landing – so by Transformers 6 the audience would not be surprised if it was revealed that the Transformers were somehow responsible for Brexit.
The ‘Chosen One’
As if a constant use of different plot devices wasn’t bad enough, many of the films also try to imply a ‘Chosen One’ prophecy either with Sam, Cade, or Bumblebee – but again, like the MacGuffin complaint, this trope becomes far less effective the more it is used. However, the first film does a good job of veering away from this and opting instead for the ‘coming of age’ story for Sam. This is maintained in the third film too with his arc of being ‘the Messenger’, a role he eventually decides he fills perfectly. Overall, though he is a strange character indeed, Sam is possibly one of the best things about the series, as he is well acted by Shia LaBeouf and is generally a likeable character. Unfortunately, one of his central arcs – his relationship with Mikaela – was dashed when Megan Fox was dropped from Dark of the Moon, and although Shia is at his best in the third film, the character of Sam was dropped in favour of Cade. In an ideal world, both characters would exist simultaneously in the films and fill similar roles to Sparkplug and Spike from the original cartoon series.
If a ‘Chosen One’ prophecy concerning Optimus was fully fleshed out, that would perhaps be the only version of this trope that audiences would accept – the idea that, as a Prime, Optimus has a specific duty or role to fill that he is destined or otherwise obliged to fulfil. This idea is ham-fistedly shoved into Revenge of the Fallen with the idea that ‘only a Prime can defeat the Fallen’, but that plot thread is immediately concluded at the end of that film, and by Dark of the Moon the importance of Optimus’ rank is diminished somewhat by the inclusion of Sentinel Prime. Again, it comes down to poor planning – had all five films been planned out in advance, the series might have carried a Chosen One plot concerning Optimus with some degree of effectiveness. As it is, due to the mishandling of the franchise and a lack of basic cohesion, each attempt to use a ‘Chosen One’ plotline involving destiny or a prophecy came across as a feeble attempt to give the series a deep backstory when in reality, the audience is well aware that each new film is essentially a cash-grab, and at this point and any attempt to effective translate the heart and soul of the original Transformers cartoon into movie form has long since been squandered. Narratively, the series lies in ruins – and although commercially the franchise has been a huge success, particularly in China, for most fans the series has been a total disappointment, and no amount of sequels can fix an inherently broken backstory or inspire any kind of optimism in a generation of jaded fans.
For for those fans who were initially invested in the Transformers movies, however, all hope is not lost. With the recent release of Bumblebee, the series seems to have initiated a form of ‘soft reboot’, with reshoots to the film including a redesigned Cybertron and various classic G1-inspired characters that seems to effective ‘re-write’ the backstory of the first Transformers film. Overall, though it was fun while it lasted, it seems Michael Bay’s disjointed Transformers series has come to an end, with five movies each as bizarre as the last, but from it seems to have sprung a glimmer of hope for Transformers fans that a new movie series spearheaded by people who appreciate the classic series and want to bring the nostalgic iconography to a new generation. We can only hope that new films in the series learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, and improve the quality of the films to rival high-quality cinematic universes like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At the end of the day, attempting to fix the Michael Bay Transformers series was always going to be an impossible task. But by breaking down the flaws into these individual sections, hopefully fans can read this review and agree that, in the future, any Transformers cinematic endeavour should be pre-planned, staffed by people who appreciate the series and able to tell a unique story to the same quality of other shows and games in the Transformers franchise.