The Inherent Weirdness of Michael Bay’s Transformers Movies

Among all the explosions and chases, the Transformers franchise is one of the weirdest in Hollywood. Ryan takes a closer look...

This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK

NB: The following contains spoilers for earlier Transformers, and rumors about next year’s Transformers: The Last Knight.

The rumors sounded crazy, but it now seems they were true. You may have read the stories from earlier this year—the forthcoming Transformers: The Last Knight, will take in elements of Arthurian legend, including Excalibur, horses, dragons, and wizards in pointy hats. That’s pretty outlandish stuff, even for a franchise about alien robots from space who specialize in punching each other and disguising themselves as vehicles and household objects.

The Arthurian rumors recently received a corroboration of sorts when the BBC reported that the Transformers sequel—currently filming on the Isle of Skye—has horses and extras in shining armor standing around on its set. It now seems fairly certain that at least a few scenes in The Last Knight will take place in medieval times, which, now that we think about it, is par for the course in a franchise which has been pretty strange from the very beginning.

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It all began when director Michael Bay started the franchise in 2007. On the surface, it seemed true in spirit to Hasbro’s toys and the various stories it spawned: car-loving teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that his broken-down old Camaro is actually a Robot in Disguise—one of several gigantic refugees from the planet Cybertron. Witwicky is dragged into an ancient war between the heroic Autobots and Decepticons, and Bay gets the chance to stage some of his trademark orange action set-pieces. 

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But just like the robots themselves, there’s more to Transformers’ story than meets the eye. It’s understandable that, like most big summer movies, Transformers has a MacGuffin. But why did it have to be a pair of Victorian spectacles which had somehow become engraved with vital info about something called the AllSpark? Why did screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman think that the movie had to rope in old wooden ships trapped in the Arctic and Sam Witwicky’s great, great grandfather?

Transformers was so stuffed with explosions and screaming that plot points like these could be easily overlooked. But the weird character points affixed to familiar Transformers characters like Jazz became harder to ignore in the 2009 sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. Whose idea was it to make the jive-talking Mudflap and Skids such hideous racial stereotypes? Who signed off on the scene where Devastator’s robot testicles clack together like a pair of giant metal conkers? Or Sam’s pot smoking mother? Or the fornicating dogs? Also, was Revenge of the Fallens wanton destruction of the Egyptian pyramids a conscious homage to Team America?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon wasn’t without its eccentricities, either. Playing to the lucrative giant robots and conspiracy theory loving demographic, the third film suggested that, yes, NASA really has been hiding the truth about the lunar landings from us. Not that they didn’t take place, but that Neil Armstrong and his pioneering astronauts went to the Moon purely to investigate a crashed alien space ship. And just to tie the movie into real-world events more convincingly, Bay somehow talked Apollo 11 veteran Buzz Aldrin into making a cameo.

Rather than riff on other internet conspiracy theories (Megatron shot JFK, Bumblebee was Elvis), 2013’s Transformers: Age of Extinction introduced dinosaurs and blew up China. Although the Dinobots have been a much-loved part of the Transformers family since the toy line’s beginning in the 1980s, in continuing a running theme in Bay’s movie franchise, there appeared to be little interest in presenting Grimlock or any of the other Transformers characters as they were imagined in the comics or animated TV shows. Grimlock really was basically just a big metal T-Rex, who willingly let Optimus Prime ride him into battle like a big, toothsome horse.

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The Grimlock most of us remember from the comics would never let anyone turn him into a beast of burden, but then, the live-action Transformers movies have played fast and loose with these characters for over a decade. In Age of Extinction, the Autobot Hound wears a long coat like an 80s rock guitarist, a ZZ Top-style beard, and smokes empty shell casings for some reason. Why would a robot smoke? Does Hound pack tobacco into the casings, or something more exotic? 

We’ve got this far, and we still haven’t covered the comic relief characters that have been a mainstay of the Transformers movies from the beginning. In film after film, Bay and his team have manage to persuade some of America’s finest actors to appear in a string of increasingly bizarre roles. It all began, we guess, with the late Bernie Mac, who made an early cameo in the first film as a shouting, eye-rolling used car salesman who sells a disguised Bumblebee to Sam. John Turturro then took up the baton as a shouting, eye rolling FBI government agent, while Revenge of the Fallen introduced Frances McDormand as shouting, eye-rolling National Intelligence director Charlotte Mearing.

The star casting reached its zenith in Age of Extinction, which cast Stanley Tucci as a shrieking, eye-rolling corporate boss. Now, we all know actors need to make a living, and we don’t blame Turturro, MacDormand, Tucci, or anyone else for agreeing to spend a few days on the set of a Transformers movie. But once you’ve seen Tucci’s wonderful performances in such things as The Lovely Bones or Margin Call, there’s something really odd about seeing the great actor sitting in the back of a car driven by Mark Wahlberg and screaming. And screaming. And screaming a bit more. 

Other curious moments in Age of Extinction include: casting Mark Wahlberg as a genius inventor named Cade Yeager, the mystery of why a dormant Optimus Prime wound up in an abandoned cinema, the creepy scene where Jack Raynor’s character explains at length why he’s allowed to have an underage girlfriend, and the bit where Optimus Prime flies off into space, apparently on a mission to kill the almighty himself.

All of this brings us back round to Transformers: The Dark Knight, due out in next year, which continues to follow the pattern established by the earlier films. The plot already sounds bonkers, the robots are strange (there’s a new one called Sqweeks, who transforms into a scooter), and this time Anthony Hopkins is the distinguished actor in a supporting role—the word is that he plays a character named the Creator. 

Michael Bay says this is his final bow in the franchise, but then again, even this aspect of the series has been a bit strange. Bay said Dark of the Moon would be his last, and then said the same thing again when he made Age of Extinction. Of course, it could be that it’s the mighty dollar that keeps Bay coming back. But we also like to think that he’s become hypnotized by the franchise’s Rasputin-like ability to shrug off bad reviews and become more financially successful with each movie.

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No matter how weird the plots and characters become, audiences keep flocking back to the Transformers movies—and Bay, like some Merlin-like wizard with a megaphone and a director’s chair instead of a pointy hat, keeps adding more strange and outlandish ideas to each sequel, fascinated and maybe even a little intoxicated by his ability to make loud and increasingly idiosyncratic films such a success.

There are lots of writers and directors who can make mediocre movies that turn a profit and then vanish. To make a film series as consistently unhinged as Transformers and still have audiences keen to see their sequels? That really is akin to movie-making black magic.