State of the Franchise - Transformers Films
With all four movies reviewed (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE), and the fifth film, The Last Knight, on its way, we now take a step back and take a look at the Transformers franchise as a whole. If you recall my Star Wars: The Force Awakens review, I went all sentimental and likened the film to a particular moment one could have in a relationship with their significant other. I’m going to do the same for the Transformers franchise…but not exactly in a positive manner.
Have you ever reached the point in a relationship where you realize that you’ve done all you can together and it’s time to move on? Or, in fact, you probably should’ve moved on about 6 months to a year ago. You can bring in BB King to say “The Thrill is Gone,” or The Righteous Brothers to croon “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” [Or, if you’re a child of the 80’s you can swap out for Hall and Oates. – Ed.] None of this takes away from the past and everything you’ve done together…but in order for each of you to grow further and face the future, it has to be separately.
Such is the case with Michael Bay and the Transformers franchise.
Contrary to what so many reviewers have said, I’m not going to sit here and Bay-bash. I’ll agree with Steven Spielberg and say that there’s no way this franchise gets to be as popular as it is without Michael Bay. His eye for action and how to shoot cars combined with the unflinching determination he used to get these movies made were a perfect match for the material. The visuals we saw on screen were consistent and of a pretty high quality. Sure, Transformers fans might have bitched about story, casting, bot-design and explosions…but no one could say these films didn’t look pretty.
So…was it all style over substance then? That was one of the largest complaints…and I’m gonna answer ‘no’. At their cores, each Transformers film is built around an interesting concept: a Mars rover tipping NASA and the military off to an alien invasion that seeks an artifact that has been here on Earth for centuries, the race for an ancient alien weapon housed within the Great Pyramid, the betrayal of an Autobot leader for the sake of restoring Cybertron and lastly, humans manipulated into declaring a covert war on all Transformers playing right into Decepticon hands. Sure, those are just simple one-phrase descriptions of each of the plots…each one becoming more complicated as the movie progresses…but, I think that if you stuck to the writers’ version of the stories, these probably would’ve made for decent films. Where the series has always run into trouble was…well…Michael Bay. The thing is…Bay’s a great visionary…or at least I think so. And I’m not using ‘visionary’ in the sense of someone that sees things before they come to pass or become popular…I guess I’m using it more in the sense of a visual stylist. [So why didn’t you use ‘visual stylist’ to begin with? – Ed.] Where every single one of these movies starts to fall apart is when Mike sticks his head into the writers’ arena…whether to insert humor or a character or a stereotype or whatever. Bay is not a comedian. Bay is not a writer…the perfect display for that is Transformers 2, thanks to the Writers’ Strike occurring at the time of production. Bay’s a visual storyteller. The thing, I feel, that keeps him from reaching greatness and more serious recognition is his ego. He can’t simply take a script and break it down visually…then put that up on the screen. No…he’s gotta bust out a pencil and start putting things in. Look, there are directors that are gifted at that…it’s just that Bay isn’t one of them. At all. Kinda the opposite, really. I’m not saying that he should sit down and shut up the minute he gets a script from the writers…of course not, there needs to be some back and forth…but it’s very clear in watching any of the movies to catch segments or characters that are ‘his’. Take the characters of Brains or Que from the third movie, Lucas from the fourth or the scene of Glen’s arrest in the first film…those are all total Bay…and all really fall flat. I guess we could squeeze in here his predilection for casting hot girls/women in roles that…just…no. Let’s take the first movie, with Rachael Taylor as the hacker Maggie. Look, I’m not going to say that an attractive woman can in no way be a hacker…of course one can! I’m sure there are quite a few out there. Very simply, your attractiveness has zero impact on what your brain is interested in or good at. But to see Ms. Taylor in the role was just…ugh. Just how she says “Fourier transforms” (which, I’m pretty sure she says “Fourier Transfers”…so there’s that)…it’s like she’s been asked to just phonetically say something in, like, Japanese. [Let’s turn this around to how this ties into visual storytelling, yes? – Ed.] Well, I guess the way to bring these seemingly two separate issues and tie them together is to say that this type of casting further illustrates Bay’s Achilles Heel, he just simply doesn’t have an ear. He’s got a hell of an eye…but whether it’s in casting or it’s in the story, you have to have an ear. Does this sound right? Does this work? Can this hot girl act? Mike’s not too good at getting those answers right.
To resume my initial analogy, well, just like any relationship that’s past its prime, you can take a look back and see exactly where the window was where you should’ve jumped ship. The first film was proof of concept as well as shifting the focus to make it more welcoming to those that weren’t fans of the toys that had been around for so long. [So, the ‘we first met and starting dating stage’. – Ed.] While the second film attempted to grow from that, it’s not really fair to judge it, again, given the fact that a vital component of the filmmaking process, the writers, were taken off the board at a pivotal moment of production. [Maybe the ‘Oops, I had sex with my ex’ stage? – Ed.] The third film, while certainly not perfect, for me continues to be the high point of the series. The flaws that were present were flaws that the audience was pretty much accustomed to from the first two films, so we knew that they weren’t going to go away any time soon…but the story and action really zeroed in on what the series had done best in its previous two outings. [The ‘Okay, I’m not changing you and you’re not changing me and we’re comfortable with our flaws…wanna get hitched?’ phase. – Ed.] And then the fourth film happened….where it almost seemed to zero in on all the flaws or what hadn’t worked on each of the films. [The ‘I thought we’d agreed we were moving forward…not backward’ phase. – Ed.] The movie is still enjoyable in spite of that (to me at least), but another big issue that hinders the fourth film is the current dependency of motion picture studios depending on franchises and shared universes. While Paramount used to have Marvel, well, Disney changed all that…and needing to fill that void, they doubled down on Transformers and Hasbro. That’s fine in the big picture, but where this flaw really comes on display is that, as I said in my review for the film, Age of Extinction doesn’t stand alone. Much of the movie feels like build-up for what’s to come in The Last Knight. Let’s look at Marvel for a moment as a lesson…their best films are those that manage to do both, stand on their own but offer a glimpse as to what’s ahead. Their first phase did that AMAZINGLY well. [The second? We’ve got mixed feelings about that…we’ll talk about it later. – Ed.] You can’t rely on future installments though. A sequel should never have to make the movie before it retroactively good. Hell, you’ve got Spielberg as an executive producer, look to his Indiana Jones trilogy (IGNORE Crystal Skull. I don’t hate it as much as most…but it’s very obviously the weakest of the 4 films) for guidance. [The relationship counselling phase? – Ed.]
In some ways, I want to point to Star Wars…but it doesn’t really parallel ideally. In the Original Trilogy, sure Lucas was always there…but he wasn’t the one writing. He gave an outline of what he envisioned for the story and then handed it off to actual writers who did some amazing things. By the time the Prequel Trilogy happened, Lucas did everything himself…and it showed. Boy did it show. Once he left the picture and the Sequel Trilogy came around…well, if The Force Awakens is any indication, Star Wars will be redeemed as a franchise. This kinda lines up with Bay and the Transformers films. Sorta. What I mean is that for the first three films, yeah, he was totally the right guy for this franchise. But if we as moviegoers want to see this franchise grow and remain fresh…well, it’s time to move on and start seeing other people. The writers’ room dynamic that Hasbro and Paramount have set up to determine the path for the franchise going forward is a step in the right direction…and where Age of Extinction leaves us story-wise is certainly an indication of bigger things both thematically and within the Transformers mythos. The possibility in seeing Quintessons or Primus or Unicron is there…where it certainly wasn’t during the first three films…and that has me incredibly optimistic. Then news leaked out of a new Transformer named Sqweeks that turns into a moped and…well…Bay just has to go and turn the future into the present, doesn’t he? And not in a flying cars/futurist sort of way…but in a dead relationship sort of way: there was such hope for the future…and yet that hope always fades, only to reveal that nothing’s going to change. Not unless we break up.
I’m sorry Mike. It’s not you, it’s not us…it’s just time. And ours together has passed.
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