By C.J. Thomson
As many box office analysts predicted, Transformers: Age of Extinction rolled into theatres and destroyed the box office, much to the chagrin of critics and filmophiles around the world. I recently wrote an article focusing on how Michael Bay’s Transformers movies act as the perfect Hollywood blueprint (see here); that the franchise functions as a critic proof mega franchise, which delivers at the box office. I saw a criticism from one film critic (see here) who claimed that:
‘The loyal fans — and they are legion — will trot out clichés like, “Leave your brain at the door,” and defend Age Of Extinction’s right to be nothing but a succession of varoom! and kersmash! Sequences. For those who aren’t still blindly faithful to something they liked when they were nine, despite the colossal scale, there’s little to see here.’
It is not hard to detect a thin, sneering vein of arrogance in this reviewers tone; a criticism levelled at many Transformers fans from an obviously bitter journalist. After all, I’m sure there are many that dislike what Bay has done with their franchise. Although I agree with the criticisms in general, the pompus tone used belies a writer that never understood nor cared to understand the source material. It got me to thinking, could this ever change? Could the Transformers movies ever move past being simply box office draws and actually become something that pleases both audiences and critics.
By this point the whole: ‘it’s a movie based on toys, what do you expect?’ argument has been obliterated by the success of recent ‘low culture’ comic book movies such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers. In a postmodern world, where superheroes can please audiences and critics alike with their thematic content, writing, effects and characters; could a similar standard be set for Hasbro’s beloved robots in disguise?
Listed below are several suggestions as to how Paramount could (ahem) refuel their franchise and create something that not only attracts an audience but also brings the critics back on board.
A Changing of the Guard
Michael Bay has always attracted distain from critics. One exemption to this rule was In the first Transformers movie, where Bay stood constrained under the watchful eye of Steven Spielberg, partly due to his failure with The Island. With this guidance, Bay constructed an effective blockbuster that allowed the director to become known as a box office force again due to its success. As Spielberg’s influence lessened, Bay became much more in control. With that came a reduction in story and character, with a focus more on action, questionable, at times objectifying, humour and more special effects.
By replacing Bay with a new or perhaps younger director; then maybe the Transformers movies could be extended a new lease of life. Bay himself has said that Transformers 4: Age of Extinction would be his last foray into the universe and that he will pass the torch on after. I’m sure there are many young directors in Hollywood who would jump at the chance to be in control of the large budgets associated with Paramount’s tent pole franchise, as well as use it to make a name for themselves. Yes, there may be issues regarding artistic integrity or license, particularly with names like Bay and Spielberg attached to the project, but good directorial choices for the next Transformers movie could come with: Neil Blomkamp (District 9 & Elysium), Gareth Evans (The Raid), Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or even the original front runner for the gig, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who framed Roger Rabbit).
The role of director is not the only position that is in need of refreshment. Since Revenge of the Fallen, screenwriting duties have been largely taken up by Ehren Kruger, something that coincides with the rot in the franchise. My advice would be to bring in a new screenwriter, one that not only understands the robot characters, but can create an engaging story from the previous 30 years of Transformers lore. Too many of these movies focus on an ancient Macguffin from the past, which always seems to land or be hidden on earth. Age of Extinction tried to bring in a new plot; with the Autobots being hunted and human created Transformers, but then sidestepped this by linking it to Lockdown and his crew’s use of the seed. Let the new writer bring the Transformers franchise into the present. Bring threats that don’t rely on a lazily written tie to earth. Make sequels that move the story on, rather than remain static in the past.
A Soul in the Machine?
Since the first Transformers movie, one suggestion has been to focus and add more characterisation to the series robot heroes and villains. As many note, nobody goes to a Transformers film to see either Mark Wahlberg or Shia Labeouf, no matter how much the film’s producers try to convince us. One of the main selling points of Hasbro’s toyline throughout its existence has been that it created individual characters for each of its Autobots and Deceptions. In doing so, it gave kids heroes they could follow and villains they could loath; something that evokes an interest and makes them so much more than the simple robots that transform and fight each other.
The need to develop and improve the Autobots and Decepticons as characters has been a large point of contestation for many fans and film goers. In the first film, Optimus and his men come across as a rag tag family of soldiers, brought together as the last of their kind. This is something that becomes increasingly lost as the movies series progresses. In Age of Extinction, the movie almost does something brilliant. It attempts to create a ‘magnificent seven’ styled group of Autobot heroes. A set of warriors designed to be obviously different from one another (some, as in the case of the Samurai inspired Drift, questionable) with a dysfunctional dynamic. But as the movie continues, not only is their dialogue scattorshot and difficult to hear over Bay’s constant use of sound effects, their characters become indicative of Bay’s previous sequels. Optimus and his Autobot followers come across as violent, foul mouthed, psychotics; more focused on killing and property damage than preserving innocent life. They are increasingly robbed of the heroism that so defined the characters for generations of children. When Optimus shouts “I kill you, I kill you,” several times, and the Autobots call other alien organisms ‘Bitch’, you know the director has no grasp of the Autobots proud, virtuous and noble characters.
The audience deserves a film that focus on our robot heroes, or at least make them more like the heroes they’re supposed to be. Allow the audience to get involved in their struggle; make them relatable or at least understandable. Most of all, they need to bring back the noble compassion, which is so prominent within the character of Optimus Prime. Give the audience characters they can cheer for and then the action will become all the more engaging.
A New Threat
Since Megatron’s representation in the first movie, there hasn’t been a decent Transformers baddie that really brings the fear to the Autobots and their human allies. We’ve had movie representations of The Fallen, Soundwave, Shockwave and now Lockdown; all characters that feature prominently in the TV and comic series but have been largely wasted by Bay and Kruger. Although Galvatron still remains loose as the series newest ‘big bad’, he was largely reduced to a supporting player in Age of Extinction, rejected in favour of Lockdown and Frasier…I mean Kelsey Grammer.
Unless something interesting can be done with Galvatron (hopefully something that includes a newer, deadlier alternate form) and the tease of mentioning the creators (which could mean an introduction to the Quintessons) there is increasingly little left to choose from. Aside from the famous, planet sized major villain Unicron; there are only a few villains that could be upgraded to big bad status such as: Bludgeon, Thunderwing, Predaking and Liege Maximo, but if that is to happen then there needs to be an exciting story behind it.
One choice of action could be a storyline that threads the Quintessons plotline with Predaking in a similar way to the recent Transformers: Prime cartoon. Here, the Predacons could be used as a kind of hunting squad by their Quintesson overlords, built and bred to search the galaxy to bring the remaining Autobots and Dinobots on earth back to their Quintesson masters. This could then be further linked to Unicron in a later film, something that brings the devourer of worlds to earth and would raise the stakes in a way that has never been seen yet.
What do you think? Is the Transformers franchise salvageable? Who do you think should direct the next installment?