The following contains spoilers for Transformers: The Knight. You have been warned.
Rick: So, being that the first live-action Transformers film was released nearly 10 years ago and we’ve gotten five in total, what’s your overall experience with these films?
Ben: When I saw the first one, I thought it was alright. Something of a guilty pleasure in its profanity and over the top action scenes. By the second and third movies, however, I began to notice all the “Bayisms” – as in director Michael Bay. The overabundance of explosions, juvenile and overly-sexualized humor, product placement and a rather extreme form of militaristic patriotism. There were still some moments of “cool” in those films, but the cracks were beginning to show. Then we got the fourth film (Age of Extinction) and…well at that point Bay was no longer shy about his faults as a director.
Austin: I saw the first one at the perfect age of 13 and enjoyed it quite a bit. The second (Revenge of the Fallen) and third (Dark of the Moon) movies blew me away when I first saw them. I have a pretty unique experience with these films compared to my cinephile contemporaries. I legitimately really enjoy the first three movies for the most part. The fourth one lost me.
Rick: When the first film was released, I did not have much hope for it. Sure, I grew up with the animated series when I was a kid, but upon seeing the trailer, I had my concerns. When I saw the film, I will admit that I was impressed. The action was chaotic yet captivating and some of the characters I came to enjoy. As the films progressed, I grew bored. Sure, the level of action was great, but the storylines became weaker and weaker. Michael Bay is good at what he does and for that I can say that these films were “guilty pleasures.” I was even somewhat impressed with the fourth entry. Mark Wahlberg’s boarding of the franchise was quite a surprise, and while the story wasn’t that great, it did keep me entertained. At what point was it for you when this franchise started to go downhill?
Ben: Probably somewhere between Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon. You could tell that attempts at fleshing out the story of the Autobots, Decepticons and Cybertron were beginning to contradict one another and half of the films were mostly exposition. The action itself went from somewhat fun in Revenge to “what the hell is going” on in Dark of the Moon. But the main issue I had between those films was a lack of care for the characters. Not Optimus Prime, but the human characters that Bay, for some reason, felt would make for more interesting protagonists than the Transformers themselves.
Austin: For me, the drop off point for my enjoyment of the franchise was the fourth movie. Even though Shia LaBeouf was gone – who many people disliked in those movies – but I enjoyed him among the human cast, the new cast and the transition into it being their story was not as smooth or natural as it needed to be. That and the effects of the fourth movie were really weak, surprising since it was more expensive than the first movie and was made years later. There was also some really weird moments in the fourth one. Scenes like the ones that were made appeal to the Chinese market and the infamous “Romeo and Juliet” scene took me out of the movie far more than Sam’s mom eating pot brownies or the “enemy scrotum.”
Rick: The franchise started to go bad right in the second film, Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy felt so forced and while the action was good, it just didn’t have the punch that the first one did. It was over-sexualized for one thing and tried to be better than the first film in many ways than one. Bigger explosions, gorgeous women, and again more and more product placement. Truth be told, product placement doesn’t really bother me, but as the series continued everything was just in our face. The lack of creativity was missing and everything seemed unoriginal and thrown together much too quickly. In terms of the Sam Witwicky character, I really enjoyed him. Shia LeBeouf did a good job in the films and was a character that I was rooting for. With the entry of the fourth films, “Romeo and Juliet” was not only creepy, but it actually felt a little dirty too. Personally, I enjoyed the special effects in all the films, but once again, the story goes nowhere, and only a basic one is created to further the plot in these films. It was nice to see the home Planet of Cybertron only to be taken back to Earth again, it’s almost like a tease. After the four films and how they each made more money than the other, what are your thoughts to this latest installment that was released?
Ben: Honestly, it was pretty bad. This film carries with it all of the issues that were becoming more prominent with each new entry in the franchise and seems to escalate it a bit more. The plot becomes even more confusing in detailing the Autobot’s relationship with Earth and even contradicted previous installments in the franchise. The abundance of side plots gets overly complicated and a handful of them feel like they could have been cut out completely. The humor still seems to land extremely flat and still thinks the audience are laughing at it. I will admit I found some of the characters more likable than before, notably the girl character, Anthony Hopkins and his robot butler, so that is a plus. But when your film starts out with something intriguing like King Arthur fighting alongside a Transformers dragon, why do they need to ruin it with Merlin acting like something out of a Monty Python sketch?
Austin: After I got out of seeing the fourth one, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t see the next one because the fourth one was such a burn to a franchise I once really enjoyed. And from what I’ve heard about the fifth one, I made the right choice. It apparently not only starts to scorn fans of the original property, but also fans of this very series by contradicting pivotal character moments from previous films and outright dropping major exposition bombs of characters that we were once invested in two movies ago. Not going to spoil what I know, but it sounds weak. I also hear they take an aesthetic page from last year’s Suicide Squad. Also, I backed out because I was starting to feel the franchise fatigue after what felt like a pretty solid trilogy. My YouTube friend PinedaPhoenix just finished doing a video on the series and a great point that the series doesn’t grow up with its audience the way other notable series do, like Star Wars or Harry Potter. Sure, the effects and faces may change, and the title is different, but there isn’t an emotional investment that comes from staying with a story through so many years. The first three had a hint of that, but with the fourth one and beyond, it starts to feel more and more repetitive and the films themselves don’t care about their own mythology.
Ben: I’m glad you mentioned how the franchise never feels like it’s growing or maturing alongside its audience. I remember watching the latest Fast and the Furious film this year and, while I admit the franchise has gotten so insane in recent years, I still was invested in it to some degree. Even if the boldness of connecting previous plots together in Fate of the Furious felt strange, seeing as how plot was never a big factor of their appeal, I cared enough about the characters of that franchise. They clearly developed stronger bonds with one another since 2001 and that shows as much progression as the franchise does in discovering their unique tone and feel. By contrast, the plot of the Transformers films feel minimal and unimportant, existing long enough to justify what takes place in the latest entry. The Last Knight had a number of references to past films, but when seeing them, I just shrugged it off because, in all honesty, I really didn’t care about what was happening.
Rick: Going in to see The Last Knight, I found that I wasn’t excited or even joyous to see the film as I had with the others. The most awful thing for me was when they ignore the other films in favor for the Cade Yeager story! Wahlberg does his best with what he has but Witwicky was a more thoughtful and creative character. The Last Knight also failed to answer any questions about the Autobots and Decepticons. Each Transformer feels underused and hardly part of the story, it’s really an adventure film, just subtract the robots, and nothing changes. I wonder what went wrong in the writing process of these films. Do the writers just not care about the fans? Do we really go to see a film for explosions and robots fighting? Well, some of us do and some of us are looking for something more. The Dinobots are also nearly missing from this film and what happened to the Transforium, the idea from the fourth film where we could create our own Transformers? Yep, that’s gone too because all Transformers are now bad. These central characters are literally backdrops in their own film and I think that is really a nail in the coffin, sure the humans always took center stage in all the films, but at least we had Optimus and Megatron, in this latest film, they are sadly missing for the most part. Say what you will about these films, were there any positives that we liked? If any?
Ben: Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime. You really cannot go wrong with that vocal performance of his. He was the voice of Optimus in the 80’s cartoons and thus reminds the older fans of what the franchise once meant to them. Even in the Transformers Prime animated series, which actually does the characters and storylines justice, his voice remains as commanding as ever. So even when the films go wrong, Cullen still gives the character the gravitas that we’ve come to associate with Optimus’ character. Or you know, when the movies make Optimus act OUT of character.
Austin: I was just thinking of that. Cullen as Prime is one of my favorite pairings of performance to character ever. I got to meet Peter Cullen at a convention and hearing him do his voice made me want to pass out. But another reason that the fourth movie lost me was how they treated Prime. In the past movies, he’d say things like “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” or that “We will never forsake this planet or its people”. Come the very next movie, he does exactly that and up and kills Kelsey Grammer. Optimus killing a human may fit some catharsis to the type of movie you’re telling, but it is incredibly out of character for the noble leader. Something that I praise the films for above everything else is the spectacle of it all. The effects, the sound work, the action, and the crowd-pleasing moments of either Bumblebee doing something cool (like ripping out a Decepticon spine) or Optimus Prime being a bad-ass (mowing down ROBOT enemies left and right) are why I stand by those movies even to this day.
Rick: I’ve always heard that at times that the studio can interfere with a film, sometimes to their detriment. I just wonder why Hasbro didn’t do anything to make this franchise as good as it could’ve been. After seeing these films, it feels to me that Michael Bay was obliged by contract to make these films. While they look cool on the screen and someone is approving these scripts (they must not be reading them), the films lack heart with exception to the first film. It’s nice to hear that Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg are leaving the franchise, I just wonder why Bay stuck with it for so long. Sure, the profits are there, but the heart of good filmmaking is not, and fans are not happy. Transformers started out well and well-intended but in the end, it felt like an exercise that was too much to bear. There weren’t many people seeing the fifth installment but the ones that were, several were leaving and that’s sad to see a franchise sink that low. I can only hope that whoever takes over this series can really focus on what the fans want and stick to a cohesive story.
Austin: I hear that the next movie is a Bumblebee spin-off directed by Laika CEO Travis Knight (behind the fantastic Kubo and the Two Strings) and that the 80’s setting and tone will distance itself enough from the Bay movies to hopefully give us something new. One of the producer’s said they were aiming to match the feel of The Iron Giant, which, you know, is ALWAYS a plus.
Ben: Hopefully this latest film represents the Rock Bottom point for the Transformers franchise. This should be the cue to pick themselves off the ground and go back to the drawing board so that a better narrative can be constructed. One that will work with critics and casual audience members alike so that the producers can appeal beyond the target pre-pubescent demographic. I know Bay CAN make decent films when he wants to, and last year’s 13 Hours could actually qualify as a decently written and directed film. Hopefully whoever they get on board for the next film will do the franchise justice, because right now it needs to either be saved or put to rest.
Rick: Only time will tell and I hope that a day will arrive where I’ll be excited to see a Transformers film. It’s been 10 years and 5 films, was there a moment in any of the films that you will remember as being awesome or memorable?
Ben: Probably in the first film where Optimus and all the Autobots transformed for the first time. Whatever gripes I have about the franchise, and I have PLENTY of them, that scene was really cool to watch. Probably because there really wasn’t anything like it at the time.
Austin: The forest battle from Revenge of the Fallen is one of my favorite movie fights. Aside from it NOT taking place in a city or a desert like virtually all the others, it felt the most brutal and triumphant. It wasn’t as choreographed or explosive as the other battles and was Optimus versus three other Decepticons. When he says “I’ll take you all on!” and the music turns to his favor, it gives me goosebumps every time. That scene was also shot in IMAX, which alone made it worth seeing again. It is embarrassing to say, but Revenge of the Fallen was the most times I’ve seen a movie in the theater. Keep in mind, I was 14 at the time so it was to be expected.
Ben: This one might have gone under most people’s radars, but I did really like the fight in the first Transformers between Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson’s squad and that giant scorpion Transformer. I don’t know, but that battle actually felt like it had set up some stakes for the soldiers and put them in a situation in which they were outgunned against an unknown threat. Even more so than some of the other fights, I definitely looked at that scene in a much higher regard. Make of that what you will.
Rick: While the battle scenes are cool and an awesome spectacle and seeing the robots transform for the first time was very cool, one scene will always stick out with me. I love the scene where Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) are looking for the shard in his bedroom with the Autobots assisting in the search. There is a lot of chaos around the house and the news is talking about fireballs falling from the sky. Sure enough, the Autobots cause havoc and mess up Sam’s house and his mother’s garden, not to mention the neatly manicured lawn. It’s also soon after when Agent Simmons from Sector 7 arrives. The entire scenes was entertaining and funny. It was something that was confusing to everyone except us because we are the ones that are laughing.
Ben: So basically all the good stuff happened in the early films. That’s very reassuring….
Austin: Not so much the whole scene I like, but a single shot from Revenge of the Fallen where the characters are sitting around a campfire reacting to Prime’s death and their dire situation. There’s a shot where it zooms in on Bumblebee’s face as he is reassuring Sam that they will press on. The expression on his face, his eyes, and the clips for Bee’s voice they used made it a very memorable moment for me.
Rick: For me, the first film is the most memorable and the best in the franchise. It was the first live-action Transformers film and was surprisingly entertaining. While the others were decent, it was nothing compared to the original. Bay was still doing the best with what he had, except that the writing was weak and uninspired. The plot holes are got larger and larger, but still it was a “guilty pleasure” that made me return to the theater. The first film felt risky because it was a big step to bring this awesome animated series to the big screen. I can remember people wondering, “Really, a Transformers movie? Will that be any good?” I left the theater smiling and knowing that I had a good time. At least I can say that Michael Bay made a good robot movie in his career, but it’s no Pacific Rim.
Ben: Or Iron Giant. Unfortunately the post-2007 films felt like they lack in heart and, especially after the third entry, were driven more by profit and Michael Bay’s ego. I’m really not asking for much in these kind of films, as you shouldn’t expect philosophical or scholarly articles from Transformers. But I do expect them to be fun, and unfortunately fun is not what I have received from this film franchise.
Rick: Just for fun, which director should make the sixth entry in the series? Who can bring the heart and fun back for the fans?
Ben: Well, since you mentioned Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro could definitely be listed as a primary contender. He excels at visual effects and films like the Hellboy franchise and Blade 2 knew how to be self-aware enough in their narratives to be fun.
Rick: I completely agree with you. For me, Neill Blomkamp could be an interesting choice. The way he mixes media attention along with compelling stories and visual splendor could be one choice that could make an impact. All we saw from these films was the fighting, explosions, military shouting orders and freaking and complete chaos. Sure it was fun, but wouldn’t it be nice to know how everyone feels including the enemy? Blomkamp’s District 9 and Chappie brought forth ideas that showed cool action but also made us question what was happening insteading of saying, “What is happening?”
Austin: I was recently talking to my friend, who made the aforementioned YouTube video regarding the serious, and although unlikely at this point, I think a completely reboot would be the best movie. I don’t really have a director in mind, but I was thinking that the thing a reboot of Transformers should do is make it a more personal story, much like how the first movie was, and keep the military presence to a minimum. The ideal reboot would combine the best elements of some of the most popular incarnations, such as G1, Transformers: Animated, and Transformers: Prime. Something with a bit more camp and personality than the bombastic grandeur of the Bay films. Although keeping the franchise in animated form is what ultimately makes it memorable, a live-action series that doesn’t take itself so seriously would be welcoming.