We’ve long maintained that Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise isn’t so much a series of films as a kind of audio-visual all-you-can-eat buffet. Each installment piled our plate high with visual spectacle, slow-motion punch-ups, screaming, conspiracy theories, explosions, ill-advised humor and yet more screaming.
It was inevitable, then, that audiences would start to feel over-stuffed eventually. We just didn’t expect ten years to pass before the Transformers franchise began to give us all indigestion. But with 2017’s The Last Knight, the fifth entry in Bay’s chaotic series, the bloat finally began to tell: where previous movies had reliably brought in over $1 billion at the global box office, The Last Knight made $600 million – a huge amount of money by most people’s standards, but in this context, clear evidence of a franchise in decline.
In many respects, The Last Knight brought its (relative) failure on itself. When the movie was announced in 2015, it had all the hallmarks of a soft reboot: the trailers seemed to imply that the film would largely be seen from the viewpoint of a teenage tomboy named Izabella and her robot sidekick, a scooter named Sqweeks. In other words, the film would skew slightly younger, feature less leering camerawork, and be less squarely aimed at teenage boys.
Meanwhile, Paramount was talking publically about its desire for a Transformers cinematic universe – one that could take in spin-offs as well as sequels. To this end, a writers’ room was set up, with its personnel including Akiva Goldsman, The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman and X2 co-writer Zak Penn. In 2017, Michael Bay even said the writers’ room had “14 stories written” – enough fodder to potentially keep the Transformers pot bubbling for years.
Bizarrely, The Last Knight wound up as another over-long, overstuffed action disaster film that looked much like all the other Transformers movies. Izabella, played by Isabela Moner, was but one face in a huge ensemble that took in a returning Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, John Turturro and, bizarrely, Stanley Tucci in awful makeup as Merlin.
If The Last Knight changed things up at all, it was by pandering to its audience’s perceived tastes in quite bewildering fashion. Oh, you like Downton Abbey? Well, here are some upper-crust British people and their robot butler. You enjoy fantasy shows like Game Of Thrones? Here are some extraneous scenes set in a fantastical medieval England. You wanted Unicron? Well, Earth was Unicron all along. How do you like that?
When The Last Knight‘s box office data started to roll in, Paramount clearly began to think twice about its Transformers universe. Producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura started to claim that the writers’ room was “set up to explore the mythology more” for The Last Night rather than come up with future movies – an odd assertion, when you consider how many expensive screenwriters were brought in. Whatever the truth was, Akiva Goldsman soon announced that he was no longer heading up the writing team – a sure sign of trouble behind the scenes.
By February this year, reports began to circulate that Paramount was pushing the reset button on its live-action Transformers films. As a result, the Bumblebee movie due out this Christmas – directed by Travis Knight and once intended as an early step in Paramount’s growing cinematic universe, will be left dangling on its own. Presumably, its characters were modelled after the ones in Bay’s mainline series – Optimus Prime is even said to be making an appearance – which means it’ll theoretically serve as the capstone on an old continuity rather than a continuation. The sixth Transformers film, once slated for 2019, has now reportedly been pulled from the schedules.
For the first time since 2007, when Michael Bay unleashed his first Transformers movie, the franchise therefore finds itself at a crossroads. Although the films’ reviews have never been particularly kind, the notices that greeted The Last Knight were especially savage – a sure sign that critics and audiences alike were growing weary of Bay’s maximalist, dialed-up approach.
This leads to the inevitable question that Paramount has probably been asking itself for a while now: where does Transformers go from here?
The irony here is that, although Travis Knight’s Bumblebee is a part of what is likely the outgoing Transformers universe, it could also hold the key to the series’ future. The founder of the American animation studio Laika, Knight has been behind some stop-motion movies that are full of craft, attention to detail and engaging characters: Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls.
Knight’s debut as a director was Kubo And The Two Strings – a delightful fantasy adventure that garnered two Oscar nominations. About a 12 year-old boy with the power to manipulate paper, Kubo was told with warmth and refreshing clarity – two things frustratingly missing from the live-action Transformers movies.
Bumblebee will be Knight’s own live-action debut, and it sounds as though he’s carrying some of the Laika humanism over with him to Paramount: the movie stars Hailee Steinfeld as a kid growing up in an ’80s junkyard who stumbles on the titular robot – here in his old Generation One guise as a Volkswagen Beetle.
The setting alone sounds ripe for plenty of ’80s nostalgia, but the plot also has the opportunity to take the franchise back to basics: one thing the live-action Transformers films were sorely lacking was a proper sense of personality among the robots, who in Bay’s film’s were mostly defined by their stereotypes and whatever vehicle they happened to turn into.
Instead, Knight sounds as though he’s making something a little more personal with Bumblebee, if his interview quotes are anything to go by.
“I wanted to approach this massive, expansive franchise and really focus in on a tiny corner of the canvas,” Knight told Empire late last year. “Everything I’ve tried to do at Laika, searching for an artful blend of darkness and light, intensity and warmth, humor, and heart, I wanted to bring to the Transformers franchise.”
While your opinions may vary on Bay’s Transformers movies, warmth, humour and heart is arguably what the franchise needs right now. Even if you were a fan of the director’s particular style of high-gloss action, it’s still fair to say that the Transformers themselves were frequently crowded out of their own movies by the sheer number of action sequences and human characters.
While the Transformers of the old comics and animated TV shows often had human sidekicks, it was Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the other robot characters who were the true stars; seemingly nervous that audiences wouldn’t connect with a bunch of 20-foot-tall mechanical aliens, the makers of the live-action movies repeatedly packed their stories out with human heroes, villains and an increasingly distracting roster of comic bit-players. Anyone who’s seen Transformers: Age Of Extinction may remember the scene where Stanley Tucci – an otherwise superb actor – sat in the back of a car and screamed at the special effects outside his window. He screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
Ironically, Paramount could’ve sidestepped the need for all these expensive character actors – Tucci, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, and on and on – had they simply found a way to make the robots more expressive and human. Instead, Bay and his colleagues tended to confuse racial stereotyping with personality, which left us with the horrendous Skids and Mudflap in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.
As any long-time Transformers fan will tell you, the comics and cartoons of the past contain no shortage of great stories that could be mined and reworked for the silver screen. We’ve written about the dramatic possibilities of the old British Marvel Transformers comics, and their superb writer Simon Furman in the past.
Beyond the stories, though, the most urgent thing the Transformers franchise needs to get back to right now is character; we’ve seen in the past 10 years of movies that Paramount has the money to throw some pretty impressive special effects at the screen. We know it’s theoretically possible to make a robot transforming into a fighter jet look convincing. Now we just need a group of filmmakers to come forward and make us believe there are real personalities at play beneath those shiny metal surfaces.