June 2009. A month that will be forever branded into Michael Bay’s memory — the month in which his reputation as a director was crippled by the critical reception to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, sequel to 2007’s hugely successful Transformers. Written during the ill-timed WGA strike, Revenge was thrown together with a haste that no doubt found its root in Bay’s wallet. Scorned by even the most dedicated Optimus Prime fanatics, the film was nothing short of a critical cataclysm. “Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen is beyond bad,” said Rolling Stone. “It carves out its own category of godawfulness.”
You can’t blame Bay for trying. Transformers was a lucrative franchise even as a humble toy line in 1984 — and despite being critically panned, Revenge still made a whopping worldwide. That is one profitable pile of godawfulness. The most recent release, Dark of the Moon, is already among the top 100 highest grossing films of all time. Together the films have made over quadrupling their combined budget. Let’s face it, Bay has done a pretty good job of taking an eighties cartoon about cars that transform into robots — not the most inspiring premise — and turning it into a sensuous saturnalia of pulse-pounding action, comedy and sex appeal.
But is that what we wanted from a franchise called Transformers? Or did we want what it said on the tin: cars that transform into robots?
Bayisms have been a terminal cancer on this franchise. There is toilet humour. There are random dogs. There is always a red-hot love interest (just in case your testosterone hadn’t already been blown through the roof by the car chases, or the gunfights, or the hour-long decimation of one helpless city or another). And in spite of the universally hated Skids and Mudflap being axed from the franchise, there is always a token racial stereotype, be it the creepy black salesman in the first film, or the equally creepy Asian guy in the third. Bay just can’t resist having a good old poke at one non-Caucasian community or another. Then we have the robot testicles (yes, that happened), the screaming teenage sidekicks, and the sleazy close-ups of semi-naked supermodels.
The basis of the films is simple: the Autobots protect, the Decepticons destroy, and human beings are caught in the crossfire. So why did Bay think it necessary to ruin it with bad humour and sex? Was Transformers ever meant to be funny? And surely cars that transform into robots are already loaded with masculinity. Hummers, Camaros, a Ferrari . . . No wonder female Autobots are all but extinct. Did we really need a love interest on top of that? Remember, this is a franchise primarily aimed at kids — kids who have no doubt been left bewildered by scene after scene of a scantily clad Megan Fox, when all they really wanted was Bumblebee. The human characters are as useless, one-dimensional and grating as their cartoon predecessors, yet Bay chooses to filter the entire trilogy through their eyes, devoting hours of his attention to their various woes (“I’m a normal kid with normal problems,” Sam grumbles in Revenge). John Torturro is funny, I’ll grant you, but his scenes detract from the point: the Transformers. They are reduced to nothing more than background characters, a peanut gallery for Sam to shake his fist at. Personally I paid to see giant alien robots kicking each other to pieces, not Shia LaBeouf brown-nosing John Malkovich and stalking yet another gormless model.
This franchise could have been spectacular. It’s not every day you see a car eject its passenger, transform in mid-air, flip over a lorry and turn back into a car. What the franchise lacks is heart. When Jazz died in the first movie, I didn’t care. When Ironhide died in the third, I didn’t care. Not even Ratchet, the medical officer, cared (but we didn’t care about him, either, so it doesn’t matter). The worst thing is that we should have cared — both characters were fan favourites — but we didn’t. We genuinely do not care about the Transformers. We’re too busy having our senses overloaded by two billion dollars worth of absolutely awesome. And that, for me, is very sad.
Fortunately, Bay and LaBeouf have officially left giant alien robots behind them. “I’m sure they’ll make more of them — it’s still a very hot franchise,” LaBeouf said, “[but] I’m not sure I have anything more to contribute.”
I can’t help but agree. According to the grapevine, however, there may be another director waiting in the wings: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced all three Transformers films, and although his possible direction could just be hopeful fanboy hearsay, it’s not entirely out of the question. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a Transformers 4 that actually lives up to its title.