I’ve been told that there’s a new robots-in-disguise movie out today in the U.S., directed by explosion-meister Michael Bay. It’s heralded as the Next Great Vehicle For Toy Sales (no pun intended), and has so far been universally panned by critics, in no uncertain terms. In fact, I hear tell that it’s a sequel to 2007’s very successful summer blockbuster “robot movie event,” which I desisted from watching in the theater… and only got around to watching last year… and only because I was at a friend’s house, and he insisted on renting it (out of a sense of morbid curiosity, and at no expense to yours truly, thanks much). As you may have noticed, I’ve not been able to bring myself to call this movie series by its given name, as I think it’s a gross misnomer—when I saw the first installment, I came to the only possible conclusion my poor brain could muster: Michael Bay has made a fantastic GoBots movie, ’cause that sure as hell isn’t the Transformers I know and love, no matter how many times I’m told that Peter Cullen is doing Optimus Prime’s voice.
Am I being too stubborn? Too set in my ways? Possibly. Get off my lawn and all that. But the Transformers hold a very special place in my heart, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let some two-bit, summer-action-movie assplosion-peddler soil my memories of the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Michael Bay, go stand in the corner with Uwe Boll and Brett Ratner. Yes, the corner with the spinning, whirling pieces of sharp metal. You may or may not deserve much worse, but my imagination fails me right now because you’ve shat on my childhood. For the second time, no less.
I’m not usually one to second-guess an adaptation—I’m well aware that these things don’t need to hew as closely to the original source material as I would probably like them to in order to be good. But as I said, the Transformers hold a special place in my heart, so I’ll make an exception this time and bust out the snark. Putting aside Beast Wars and all the other perfectly acceptable permutations and evolutions of Takara/Hasbro’s original line of transforming robot toys, the initial, or “Generation 1,” Transformers still hold up to scrutiny in all the ways that count:
Endearing characters (Bumblebee! Jazz! “Me Grimlock!”)
Unbelievably well-crafted toys that actually behaved as advertised (the transforming mechanisms of the original cast-iron Takara/Hasbro toys were nothing short of a marvel of engineering, in my six-year-old opinion. They also made great blunt objects with which to try to bash your little brother’s head in—but I digress)
A very simple premise which lent itself to endless plots from here to Cybertron and back again
But enough hate. I cringe at my own snark, and lament that so far I’ve not added anything positive to the conversation. I’ve long been an advocate for a live-action Transformers movie done right, and I’m now going to show you how great it could be. Hollywood: pay attention. Michael Bay: you stay in your damn corner, and don’t say a word. Don’t make me come over there and bust some Decepti-chops.
So, the following is what I’ve come to refer to as:
Pablo’s Unified Transformers Theory, or, A Master Plan for the Transformers Live Action Movies, Done Right
First, some aesthetic ground rules:
—Above all else, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t reinvent just to assuage your own spiky, explodey ego. There’s no reason to mess with classic designs, especially designs that can work so well with today’s very convincing CGI. Case in point, this kickass proof-of-concept that’s been floating around the internet for a few years:
Now that’s a hell of an Optimus Prime (well, Ultra Magnus if you want to get technical, but everyone knows Ultra Magnus was just a repainted, lame version of Optimus Prime).
— Respect your source material. While I can understand updating the cars and jets to look like their modern iterations in the real world, I find the awkward shoehorning of General Motors product placement into the franchise to be in incredibly bad taste. Bumblebee transforms into a VW bug, dude, not a Camaro—it’s right there in his name: Bumblebee, or, if you prefer his “adult” incarnation, Goldbug. Jazz is a Porsche sports car. Anything less is an affront to the hip and freewheeling spirit of the character. The arbitrary re-jiggering of the robots’ designs into H.R. Giger-crossed-with-the-Terminator atrocities makes for confusing visuals and—frankly—ugly robots. The one bone I’ll throw Michael Bay is that he got rid of Megatron’s gun-mode—I always found it rather hard to believe that a giant robot would transform into a small handgun. But then again, this is a problem that was solved in the animated series as well, once Megatron was turned into Galvatron (who transforms into a big ol’ plasma canon. Shiny).
— Round up as many of the voice actors from the original 1986 animated movie as you can. After all, it’s hard to improve on such iconic voices as Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Casey Casem, John Moschitta, Jr. (the fast-talking Micro Machines guy, remember him?), and of course, Peter Cullen as the Big Guy. Orson Welles and Scatman Cruthers are sadly deceased, but they played Unicron and Jazz, respectively, two characters who speak mostly in sound bites—maybe the old recordings can be remixed and re-used, or similar voice talent can be found.
Now, as to the plot of the movies, well, half the work has already been done, actually. It’s just a question of updating and fleshing out some areas. For starters, this should be a trilogy, which I’ve tentatively named as follows: Transformers 1: The Arrival, Transformers 2: The Movie, and Transformers 3: Origins.
Movie number one would be Transformers: The Arrival. The planet Cybertron, home of the Transformers, is wracked by civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and depleted resources. An Autobot task force led by General Optimus Prime leaves the planet in search of energon, the Transformers’ energy source, followed closely by the Decepticons, led by Megatron. The Decepticons board the Autobots’ spaceship, the Ark, and the ensuing battle causes energon stores to be depleted to their minimum. This causes the Transformers to go into “sleep mode” and the Ark to crash land on Earth:
Sure it’s a bit cheesy, but the skeleton’s good!
The “sleeping” Transformers are buried under the Earth for four million years, until modern times, when a small earthquake/oil dig/hurricane/whatever brings the Ark back online, and it reformats and reactivates the Transformers. Megatron and his Decepticons decide that Earth is ripe for conquest as an energon source, and the Autobots befriend Spike Witwicky and his dad, and fight to stop Megatron from conquering the Earth. The first movie ends with the Decepticons defeated (but not destroyed!), and the Autobots establish a relationship with the human race, while reaching back for contact with their native Cybertron.
After the credits, you can perhaps tease with the Decepticons regrouping in their old spaceship, Nemesis, which has conveniently crashed and settled on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Movie number two is a very simple matter: adapt the 1986 animated feature, Transformers: The Movie. Period. You can try to rewrite, reinvent, or reimagine all you want, but that movie is a knockout. It’s a solid action movie, with a slightly darker tone than the show, and it’s got an awesome soundtrack. It’s got a relatively solid plot (ok, so maybe some nips and tucks here and there would be a good thing—we can probably do without Wheelie, for instance), and it shuffles up the status quo in a nice way.
In case you haven’t seen it, the movie opens with the creepy-ass giant Transformer Unicron devouring a planet of peace-loving scientists. Cut to Cybertron: Years have passed since the events of the first movie, and the Decepticons control the planet, but the Autobots control two of its moons. They’ve also established Autobot City back on Earth. During a supply run from one of the moons to Earth, the Decepticons attack, and a bunch of Autobots die. The attack force then mounts a surprise attack on Autobot City using the supply shuttle as a ruse, and in the ensuing battle, after a dramatic face-off, Megatron kills Optimus Prime, but not before taking on some lethal damage himself. Let’s take a break here and watch one of my favorite/saddest scenes from the movie:
Yes, a cartoon can make a grown man cry. Good stuff.
After the attack, Ultra Magnus ineptly takes over leadership of the Autobots (remember, he’s the repainted, lame version of Optimus Prime), despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing of Hot Rod’s impending leadership role, and the ever-treacherous Starscream jettisons a dying Megatron, along with some other weakened Decepticons, as he beats a hasty retreat into space. Starscream declares himself leader of the Decepticons.
Unicron finds Megatron and remakes him into the batshit-insane Galvatron, in return for a promise to destroy the Autobot Matrix of leadership. Galvatron promptly returns to the Decepticons to reclaim his rightful role as leader, literally vaporizing a newly-crowned Starscream in the process. Witness the birth of Galvatron and the death of Starscream:
That was cold, Starscream. Ice-cold. But I guess you got yours in the end, huh? Bad comedy, indeed.
The movie builds to a climax and a showdown as the Autobots fight to destroy Unicron when he threatens to devour Cybertron, defeating the Decepticons decisively in the process, and reclaiming Cybertron for themselves. In the process Hot Rod claims the Matrix of leadership for himself and becomes Rodimus Prime, the new leader of the Autobots:
‘Nuff said. Roll credits.
The third movie, Transformers: Origins, would delve deeper into the mythology of the Transformers by bringing in elements—if not necessarily full plots—from the third and short-lived fourth season of the animated TV show, particularly the five-part “The Five Faces of Darkness.”
In this final installment, the Autobots have reclaimed Cybertron, and the Decepticons are reduced to hiding out in the nether-regions of space while they lick their wounds after the events of the previous movie. They forge an uneasy alliance with a mysterious race of bio-organic creatures called the Quintessons, who were introduced briefly in the previous movie.
The Quintessons turn out to be the creators of the original generation of Transformers, many eons before. They used Cybertron as a factory world to build two lines of robots: one for consumer goods and one for military hardware. After millions of years of torturous abuse by their Quintesson masters, the Cybertronians rebelled and drove the Quintessons off Cybertron. Afterwards, the Cybertronians split into Autobot and Decepticon factions and warred with each other for control of the planet, leading to the situation at the beginning of the first movie.
The Quintessons figure that they can use the Decepticons to defeat the much stronger Autobots and destroy the Matrix of leadership, which turns out to hold the Transformers’ primal genetic code which allows for sentience in fully robotic, silicon-based life-forms. Once the Quintessons have destroyed the Matrix and undone their work, they plan to turn on the Decepticons in order to complete their revenge and retake the planet Cybertron.
Galvatron stages a final assault on Cybertron, with the aid of Quintesson ships and firepower. Their plan, of course, falls short of victory, since they failed to account for the added military strength of the Autobots’ Human allies. By this time, humans command their own space navy, and ride in like the cavalry to aid the Autobots in the defense of their home planet in a nice counterpoint to the climax of the first movie. Galvatron and the Decepticons are decisively defeated for good, and the Quintessons are made to retreat back to the far reaches of the galaxy, where they’re from.
And there you have it: an approach to a live-action Transformers movie trilogy which respects the source material, does away with the ridiculous Michael Bay-helmed spiky robots and plotless explosion movie, and expands into a majestic space opera which touches on themes like the energy crisis, the ethics of creating artificial intelligence, and slavery. And big-ass robots beating the ever-loving crap out of each other, of course.