Where can the Transformers franchise go next?

News Ryan Lambie 19 Feb 2012 - 19:33

As Michael Bay signs up to make yet another Transformers movie, Ryan looks back at the franchise’s history, and wonders where it has left to go in the future...

Cast your mind back to 2007 - a more gentle, innocent time in cinema history. 3D movies were still a novelty, and the memory of the Indiana Jones name had yet to be sullied by The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. And before the summer of that year, I was genuinely looking forward to the release of Transformers.

This was a time, remember, before Shia LaBeouf had business cards made up with the words “Franchise Killer” printed in italics under his name in 11 point type. This was a time when I still associated Michael Bay’s name with The Rock - one of my favourite big dumb action movies of the 1990s.

And then there was the Transformers franchise itself - a property positively brimming with possibilities. Not dramatic possibilities, admittedly, but at least the promise of seeing huge transforming robots beat the rivets out of each other. Like so many people, I’d grown up with Transformers. I’d slept beneath the bed spread, purchased and gradually snapped bits off the toys. I’d bought the Panini sticker albums, read the comics and watched the cartoons.

I remember when Transformers: The Movie came out in 1986. Waiting for it to actually arrive in the cinemas was like waiting for the rapture - I knew it was coming, but the anticipated day never seemed to arrive. When I finally got to the cinema to watch it, I was absolutely beside myself with excitement (though that may have been partially due to the number of sugary drinks I’d imbibed in the queue) - the movie was more than worth the wait. The soundtrack was perfect (and still is, in an overblown, poodle-hair rock 80s sort of way), the animation was better than the TV series, and most importantly of all, it was really violent.

It was fair to say, then, that my inner child was extremely enthusiastic about the chances of a live-action Transformers movie. I was optimistic about a computer-generated Optimus Prime. Peter Cullen, who’d voiced Prime in the animated series and feature, was returning for Bay’s film. Hugo Weaving was providing his distinctive vocals as arch-nemesis Megatron. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. The huge disappointment that Star Wars fans felt after they’d sat through hours of tax discussions and comedy pratfalls in The Phantom Menace is well documented. The overwhelming sense of loss I felt in the wake of Transformers was not. “That could have been the best film ever,” I remember whining to anyone who’d listen in the pub afterwards.

Its story was ridiculous, even for an expensive special effects movie (whose idea was it to have a pair of Victorian pince-nez as a plot device?) its action muddled and difficult to follow, and its characterisation poor, with the Transformers themselves reduced to a series of ill-advised stereotypes. Worse still, it was far too long.

Compared to the sequel, though, Transformers was a masterpiece. From a viewer’s perspective, it seemed as though Revenge Of The Fallen’s makers had taken everything that was most obnoxious about the first film - the awful comedy moments, the crass characterisation and interminable run-time - and magnified them sevenfold in an act of sheer bloody mindedness. But in spite of the critical drubbing the second Transformers movie received, lots of people went to see it, making it the second most financially successful movie of 2009 (though if Internet message boards are anything to go by, everyone who saw it immediately rushed back home to complain about it online afterwards).

Viewed against the staggering awfulness of Revenge Of The Fallen, last year’s Dark Of The Moon marked something of an improvement. Sure, it was far, far too long (at 154 minutes, it was even more aimlessly rambling than the previous two films), its comedy was terrible (watching John Malkovich and Frances McDormand embarrass themselves for the mighty dollar was no fun at all) but the film at least succeeded in one area: its final hour provided was big, daft, and full of action. There were mechanical tentacles, a gigantic skyscraper that turned into a 45-degree slide, and Optimus Prime pulled another robot’s head off (you can probably guess whose).

What I’m still waiting for, though, is a truly great Transformers movie. One that doesn’t feature robots fighting in the background while Shia LaBeouf holds hands with an underwear model. One that doesn’t feature otherwise respectable Hollywood character actors falling over and screaming. Where the robots don’t have gigantic clanging metal testicles, comedy stereotype accents and an annoying habit of tickling people.

Over the past few days, Michael Bay has announced that he’s making a fourth Transformers movie - not a reboot, as originally suggested, but a sequel that will, it’s said, introduce a significant shift in tone from the last three. Sources have said that Transformers IV will feature “more action” - though how that’ll actually possible I’ve no idea, unless it’s one long explosion slowed down to a full three hours. What’s more heartening, though, is that Bay wants to excise what have been politely described as the “goofy, tone-deaf comedy bits” - bad news for Ken Jeong’s bank balance, perhaps, but great news for the rest of us.

On Friday, actor Josh Duhamel claimed that none of the major players from the previous Transformers movies would be returning for the fourth one. "I don’t think anybody’s doing it,” Duhamel said. “I know Shia [LaBoeuf]‘s not doing it. I don’t think Tyrese or Rosie [Huntington-Whiteley] or anybody else is doing it.”

This is, at least for this writer, a Good Thing. If nothing else, it suggests that the franchise may be finally ready to head off in an interesting new direction, even if the news that Bay's still at the helm hasn't filled every Transformers fan's heart with joy.

Although the Transformers comics and animated series always had human characters thrown in there, they were never so numerous or distracting as they are in Bay’s franchise. Having flesh-and-blood protagonists makes sense from a dramatic perspective - robots the size of houses aren’t necessarily the easiest things to connect with on an emotional level for anyone but the most hardened Transformers geek - but we certainly don’t need mugging government operatives, screaming corporate executives and tepid teen romance.

The apocalyptic scale of the devastation brought to the screen in Dark Of The Moon may lead some to wonder where the franchise can go next, but there are so many aspects of the Transformers universe that have yet to be touched upon. The Dinobots were once considered for an appearance in an earlier Transformers flick, but were dropped when its writers couldn’t think of a reason why our favourite giant robots would disguise themselves as extinct reptiles (a bit odd, really, given the insane leaps of logic displayed in the movies so far).

The Insecticons - surely some of the coolest toys Hasbro ever designed - have never been used, to the best of my recollection. And if Bay is indeed considering a darker route for the series, what better way than have Earth attacked by a locust-like plague of these monstrosities?

And then we come to what was the finest robot in Transformers: The Movie - the vast, planet-eating Unicron. If Bay wants a truly show-stopping threat to Earth’s existence, this impossibly huge entity has true potential.

There are, of course, hundreds of other weird and wonderful plotlines and characters elsewhere in the Transformers universe, spread out across its numerous ranges of toys, comics and animated shows.

So far, Bay and his team of filmmaking tricksters have only picked on a relatively tiny portion of the Transformers universe for inspiration - mostly their ground-based vehicles, with the occasional guest appearance from more exotic Transformers, such as Scorponok.

There is, in short, lots of life left in the Transformers series, at least potentially. If it can finally put away the worst excesses of the previous movies, and look again at what makes the property great - not least the opportunities for huge transforming robots to shoot the hell out of each other - maybe then we’ll get a Transformers movie that’s truly worth watching.

Dark Horizons

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