How to Fix Michael Bay’s Transformers Films – Part Three: Good Plots in Disguise

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.

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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.

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Rewriting History

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.

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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.

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Conclusion

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.

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How to Fix Michael Bay’s Transformers Films – Part Two: Decepticontinuity

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 One dealt with several missed opportunities of the series’ basic foundation, including the odd characterisation of Optimus Prime and the use of classic characters for cheap shock value deaths in later sequels. This piece opens with another great missed opportunity that could have made the Transformers movies great:

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Megatron

Although there is very little wrong with Megatron as he is presented in the first film, gradually, like Optimus, his original character begins to fall away and is replaced with an aimless idiot. For a start, it has to be asked – what was the actual reason for Megatron being on Earth? Each film gives a different reason. Initially he’s there because he was hunting the Allspark, but it is later implied that he was there at the behest of the Fallen, and then later, to meet Sentinel Prime. Overall it seems Megatron is treated as whatever the film needs him to be as the cackling villain, and rather than have him come up with a devious scheme in each film in a similar fashion to G1, instead the Decepticon leader often plays second fiddle to other evil Transformers, to the extent that he has less than ten minutes of screen time in the entire of Dark of the Moon.

Ultimately, like so many other things in this iteration of the iconic franchise, Megatron was wasted. The greatest tragedy was that Hugo Weaving was great as Megatron, and he steals every scene he is in and clearly had a great time recording his lines, which enhances his performance. In fact, it is safe to say that Megatron is one of the best things about the series as a whole. The issue with him is that he barely features, and when he is featured, he is usually playing the Starscream role to some other generic villain, which as a knock-on effect damages Starscream’s character as he is given very little to do in these movies and the audience has to be outright told by Megatron that Starscream is ‘traitorous’ because that’s what he was like in G1, but the film spends absolutely no time establishing this.

Still, back to Megatron, the concept of another Cybertronian villain working alongside Megatron only to be betrayed or otherwise undone by the leader of a faction that literally define themselves around their abilities of deception would have been fantastic, and we see an inkling of this in Dark of the Moon, in which Megatron eventually backstabs Sentinel Prime in a final moment of glory before being unceremoniously beheaded by the power-mad Optimus. However, Megatron’s overall motives and even basic character lose even more focus in the final two movies, as the character becomes Galvatron in Transformers 4 only to the revert back to Megatron in Transformers 5, and by that point it was clear that the writers held no regard for even basic continuity between films.

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The Decepticons

In the original Transformers cartoon, the Decepticons were as diverse and recognisable as the Autobots, which was essential as the series was designed to sell as many toys as possible, and it stood to reason that kids would want a diverse and recognisable cast of villains in their favourite franchise. However, Michael Bay didn’t seem to think so, as when producing the new Transformers films he not only limited the Decepticons in terms of their character but also their visual design. The original film does, to its credit, attempt to make each Decepticon distinctive from one another, but even as early as the second film any hope of Decepticon characters beyond Megatron, Starscream and Soundwave getting any development at all were dashed as the producers opted to make the Decepticons a faceless generic army of evil-looking robots – most of the Decepticons in the second film don’t even possess vehicle modes.

In similar fashion to the shortcomings of having a new villain depose Megatron in each film, the movies also suffer from ‘trailer syndrome’ – the idea that each film has to have a bigger and more powerful Decepticon than the last in order to put something explosive in the trailer. The second Transformers film started this with a combination of ‘Wheelbot’ and Devastator – both of whom share a combined screen time of about eight minutes in the actual film, yet make up the majority of the trailers. Transformers 3 had Shockwave and the Driller, which again appeared very briefly in the film and were easily dispatched. Unfortunately, in a fashion similar to how the films used the Autobots for cheap emotive deaths, the iconic Decepticon characters were also squandered for cheap action sequences. Transformers 3 is particularly bad for this, as Shockwave, Soundwave, Starscream and Megatron are all dispatched too soon for the sake of an action sequence.

But it isn’t just the main Decepticons that suffer the wrath of Michael Bay’s total disregard for character – as the films progressed the once threatening Decepticon forces were reduced to mindless fodder. In the first Transformers film, total of six Decepticons are featured with each having a unique body type and vehicle form. Most take part in the final battle, during which a lot of time is dedicated to the humans and what remains of the Autobots figuring out each individual Decepticon’s weakness and taking it out. However, by Transformers 3 the Decepticons have inexplicably obtained an army of soldiers despite Transformers 2 asserting that they are running short of energon and that the ‘hatchlings’ keep dying. Again, note that the Decepticons seem to be driven by desperation in these films – rather than by a lust for conquest as in the original series. The fact that Optimus seems completely indifferent to the fact that his race is nearing extinction and Megatron just wants to do something about it makes the audience question the basic foundations of the story.

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Each New Bot on the Block

As previously discussed, this franchise suffers badly from the repeated use of the ‘bigger baddie’ – the idea that the villain you thought was the strongest and most powerful villain in the series is surpassed by an even bigger villain. The problem with re-using this idea is that it quickly becomes cheapened – to recap, Megatron is upstaged by the Fallen in Transformers 2, Sentinel Prime in Transformers 3, Lockdown in Transformers 4 and Quintessa in Transformers 5 with no explanation given as to why, after four attempts at working with another evil Transformer, Megatron doesn’t decide to just go it alone for once. The series even went to the trouble of reformatting Megatron into Galvatron for the fourth film, which would have been the prime opportunity to bring him back as the main villain for the series, except his role is reduced to a lackey for Attinger and eventually a minor threat compared to Lockdown.

The repeated sidelining of Megatron coupled with the films lack of basic continuity not only makes Megatron’s true motives for being on Earth unclear but also contributes massively to the decay of the threat posed by each film’s newest Decepticon army. Despite the loss of fan-favourites like Ironhide and Ratchet to the new big bad of Transformers 3 and 4, respectably, the true irony is that even with Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime and the inherently interesting idea of a faction-less villain in Lockdown the films fall short of realising the potential that Megatron himself had as a villain. In many ways, the character could have stayed dead at the end of the first film and it would have made very little difference to later films.

Though it cannot be said that Sentinel Prime and Lockdown weren’t good villains, others like The Fallen were less than impressive, and Shockwave may as well have not even been in Dark of the Moon since he did absolutely nothing and then died. If it wasn’t for the less effective usurper villains, the few good ones would be far more effective.

Next in this series is Part 3 of How to Fix – Transformers, in which we shall discuss the continual re-use of another lazy writing trope, the ‘chosen one’ prophecy, as well as several others, with the recurring theme of each film starting with a ‘reset’ of sorts.

Next: Part Three – Good Plots in Disguise

 

How to Fix Michael Bay’s Transformers Films – Part One: More Than Meets the CGI

Welcome to 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, starting with what is arguably the biggest misstep in the Bay universe.

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Optimus Prime

The most glaring problem with the movies is Optimus Prime and how he is depicted. Gone is the wise and principled Prime from the cartoon series and in his place we are given an imposter wearing the voice and outward personality of his namesake as a mask to disguise his violent and sociopathic tendencies. We see these traits come out when this Optimus has any combat scene following Revenge of the Fallen, but in fairness, Optimus Prime in the first Transformers movie is a fairly accurate representation of the character, even down to his brutal decapitation of Bonecrusher on the highway – which in the context of the film was entirely justified, as Optimus had to prioritise saving the people on the highway.

However, in just about every combat situation from the second film onwards, 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. However, as all of these acts are committed against Decepticons, the films act like there is no moral baggage on Optimus’ shoulders whatsoever.

In fact, Optimus seems to be almost callously indifferent to the deaths of not only the vast majority of his species, but even his fellow comrades, as 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. Whilst Megatron has consistently voiced his desire to ensure the survival of their species throughout all five films, Optimus is insistent on stopping him, despite having no plan of his own of how to actually go about restoring Cybertron. But this brings us to the next biggest problem with the film series:

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The Autobots

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 whilst Bumblebee and Optimus are given more screen time, Bumblebee is treated more like a pet and, as previously discussed, Optimus is a maniac. 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 so far, aside from the cases of Optimus and Bumblebee, 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 film’s 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 is 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 – 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:

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The Humans

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 the Autobots, if they were the main focus. However, just because there are logical reasons why the Humans have to be at least one of the main focuses of the franchise, 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 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. 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.

Next: Part Two: Decepticontinuity