Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Heath Holland On...Adapting Transformers

Something evil is watching over you…

With Transformers: Age of Extinction just weeks away, I’ve had Autobot-fever: I’ve been re-watching all the old Generation 1 cartoons and reading Transformers comic books and looking at the toys longingly in Target. But more than anything, I’ve been thinking about how the upcoming movie will work as an adaptation of an existing line of stuff that I love.

Not coincidentally, adaptation has been on my mind since I appeared on the podcast to discuss The Amazing Spider-Man 2  and I’ve been thinking a lot about how major studios are approaching the properties that I love. Are they doing them respectfully and maintaining the essence of the characters or are they missing the forest for the trees? With Amazing Spider-Man 2 a success in adaptation for me (and apparently ONLY to me), I’m now turning my attention to the next franchise that I’m really worried about: Transformers (my investment in Jersey Boys is minimal).

Being a kid who grew up in the heyday of the ‘80s (when toys were marketed to kids via weekday cartoons and comic books), I was an easy target for Hasbro. The G.I. Joe and Transformers shows were on in my house Monday through Friday. I liked that Stan Bush song “You’ve Got the Touch” before it became ironically cool to do so because of Boogie Nights; that song and the Lion hair metal cover of the Transformers theme song that appeared on the 1986 animated film soundtrack are still on my iPod.
So when Patrick and I were discussing Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s screenplay for Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the podcast, I knew what I had to do. I had to re-watch the first three Michael Bay Transformers movies to see how they held up as adaptations of a well-established and ongoing saga.

Before you read any further, Patrick wrote about the first and third films in the Transformers franchise a few years ago. His observations are, as always, perfect. You should read those first and then read this with the understanding that what I’m doing is purely for my own satisfaction as a dedicated Transformers fan, comic and cartoon nerd, and as an experiment in geek culture.

That culture to which which I’m referring seems to encourage the dismissal of plot holes and questions in favor of blind faith that at some point all lapses in logic will be corrected and all plot holes will someday be answered.

Fans of all things geeky like comics and video games and serialized animation tend to gloss over things that don’t work in the belief that eventually everything will slot together perfectly. We’re also trained to not ask too many questions and just go with the flow, accepting that every piece of a story is essential and that we must have it. I’ve bought hundreds of comics over the years in the belief that things would one day get better and make more sense to me. The downside of this is a character like Wolverine, who has been led in so many different continuity directions that his story is now a convoluted mess and will never, ever make total sense. As cool as that character is, he’s the worst example of what the culture I’m referring to can do.

My point is simply that when I love something, such as Spider-Man or Han Solo or Doctor Who, it can be tempting to dismiss things that don’t work simply because I love that thing and am happy just to be getting it. I don’t think that’s why I enjoyed Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I have been questioning if that logic is popping up in other areas of my fandom.

So it was with this love of all things Transformers and the intention of challenging myself that I did what I don’t recommend to ANYONE else: I watched all three existing Michael Bay Transformers movies in one sitting, recording my thoughts during and between each film.

Buckle up and secure all loose objects -- this is going to be a long, bumpy ride.


I’m not particularly familiar with any of these movies. I saw Michael Bay’s original 2007 film once in theaters, and maybe once or twice in the years since. My memory was that it was a pretty fun time at the movies.

I have no idea what I was thinking back then. This movie doesn’t just hate all the human characters and hate the audience, it even seems to hate the Transformers themselves. Almost none of the original Transformers mythology and spirit is in this movie. I don’t get the impression that anyone, from the writers to the director to the stars themselves, has ANY history or love of the franchise that they brought to the big screen. It almost seems like Hasbro handed over a book of designs and a studio made a movie from that.
Humans were always a weak point of the classic cartoon series for me, yet here they are given all the heavy lifting, which is a problem. Every human character in these movies deserves to die. They’re deplorable, selfish, crude, and behave like someone on Mars might think humans acted like. Furthermore, every trope and cliché is in full use.

There’s a scene where a soldier played by Josh Duhamel talks to his wife back home (via a video chat) while she holds their newborn child. Here we have a father about to head into battle -- and possibly death -- talking to his wife through a screen about their child. These writers liked that moment so much that they reused it in Star Trek with Chris Hemsworth on the bridge of the USS Kelvin.

Once the Transformers themselves arrive on screen, I feel like I can breathe a little easier. Nope. The problem with the Transformers themselves is that they are few in number and exist as nothing more than soulless robots. This is why I think no one involved in this movie ever watched the show or read the comics or even played with the toys. These characters have personalities! They are not interchangeable. Some Transformers are loyal, some are humble, some are ambitious, and some are arrogant. They are just like people. Almost nothing resembling characterization has been injected into this script.

Nitpick: I also don’t dig the character design at all. Everything looks super-mechanical and strangely veiny and sinewy. I’m okay with the switch to more modern (and exclusively General Motors) vehicles, but they just look WEIRD. I guess I should be thankful that Optimus Prime is still a big truck and not a transforming bidet. Uh-oh, now I’ve given Michael Bay an idea.

For a franchise that had (in 2007) thrived across hundreds of cartoon episodes, an animated movie, and countless comics, you’d think Orci and Kurtzman would have stuck to a variation on the established and beloved Transformers mythos. Maybe something to do with the toll that civil war had taken on the Transformers and how bitterness and rivalry had destroyed their planet because they couldn’t get along with each other? Maybe something about the depletion of their natural resources because they put all their efforts into war and not into conservation? Or how about less complicated themes, such as how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how those who seek to conquer and destroy must be deposed, even at great personal cost? Nope. We get ebay and antique glasses. This plot is an INSULT to Transformers fans. Either THEY are stupid for writing it or they think WE are stupid. I believe it’s both.

The saving grace of this first film comes during the third act. The table has been sloppily set for some robot carnage (even though they’ve done a piss-poor job of giving us any real motivation for Megatron and his Decepticons, who really only show up in any force right before the third act) and thankfully the script allows Michael Bay to do what he does best: shoot slow-motion action from interesting angles, set to rock music.
The final fight between the Autobots and Decepticons ALMOST redeems the previous two hours of hatefulness. This final twenty minutes has some of the most iconic imagery in the entire franchise, film or otherwise. This is Transformers porn. This is stuff to put on your wall and jerk off to. And I’m okay with that.

I now know that the affection I thought I had for this movie comes from those final 20 minutes. Transformers sticks the landing and provides what we came to see. Unfortunately, it is all for nothing because it does this without giving us a compelling story or characters that we can immerse ourselves into. As a spectacle, it’s a success; as a good film or a film that accurately represents ANY aspect of the Transformers that I know and love, it’s a failure. Maybe a failure that has watchable moments, but a failure nonetheless.

But that failure is nothing compared to…

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

This is not a movie. Oh sure, it has actors in it and it was, theoretically, written at a computer screen by Orci and Kurtzman and now also Ehren Kruger (who, to be fair, is not in the same dungeon of ugliness as his co-conspirators) of Reindeer Games and Scream 3 notoriety. But this is not a movie. Nothing that makes a movie a movie is present here. There don’t even seem to be any acts or structure. This is one of the most cynical films I’ve ever seen. There is no attempt to mask the fact that it exists purely to make money. No artistic integrity is present. There is no humanity or kindness or struggle whatsoever. It exists purely to show you things you’ve already seen in the quickest, laziest way and make money from your affection of what you think you want.

Twelve minutes into the film we have animals humping each other and kitchen appliances coming to life and attacking people. And I don’t mean kitchen appliances attacking people in a fun way, like Joe Dante would be able to pull off, I mean the ugliest possible way.

I’m tempted to say that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an attempt at adolescent fantasy, but that can’t be. I’m down with adolescent fantasy: I love the cartoon series that this bastardized film was inspired by. No, this is a corporation’s idea of adolescent fantasy. This is three screenwriters and a director who think their audience is stupid; who HATE their audience and who think that giving the peasants bread and circuses will entertain them in lieu of anything of substance.
There’s less to talk about with this film than the last one (which looks like Shakespeare by comparison) because there’s less of a movie here. There’s really not even a discernable plot. The characters (har har) have to get from point A to point B. Why and how is really of no concern to anyone.

Screen time is wasted. Characters are wasted. The one legitimate moment that could have been written to mean something (the temporary death of Optimus Prime at the hands of Megatron) is a call back to something that happened in the 1986 animated movie and had far more weight and impact than it does here. Once again Orci and Kurtzman have attempted to remind us of something that had a huge effect on us in the past, but they replicate it without understanding what made that moment so meaningful. They want all the reward without doing any of the work. When Optimus Prime was killed in 1986, fans had watched him struggle against Megatron for 65 episodes spread across two years. It had been building to that confrontation for a long time. In this movie’s continuity, Prime and Megatron had fought for roughly 45 minutes of screen time. It means nothing, particularly since Prime is alive again by the end of the movie. They want all of the impact with none of the work. Even the appearance of Devestator, the Decepticon build-a-figure which was created by assembling six separate Transformers, means nothing because it’s given no weight here. It’s just checking a box off on a list of references that mean nothing. It could have been the highlight of the movie; as it stands, it’s a throwaway.

It’s such a waste. A reported $200 million budget and a production crew of hundreds were involved in a movie that is the cinematic equivalent to a hot chili fart: the event itself was temporary but the damage lingers. I don’t think any movie has made me angrier than revisiting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I don’t even think Star Trek: Into Darkness upset me this much, because I can at least enjoy portions of that movie. I enjoy nothing in this film. I honestly don’t see how a fan of the Transformers could defend this movie. It’s indefensible. Everything is borrowed. Nothing is new. Kruger, Orci and Kurtzman have served you a dog turd on a paper plate and told you that you’re eating gourmet in the hopes that you won’t notice. This is not an adaptation. This is a hatchet job.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bow out as Ehren Kruger takes over the full screenwriting duties for this third installment and, what do you know, things actually step up a bit in terms of quality. This is the most Transformiest of all the Transformers movies to date and has the most of what I’m looking for. It has the most actual robots (including a couple of my favorites, Shockwave and Soundwave) and the most believable and faithful plot outside of the source material. This time the Decepticons are trying to find a way to bring their home planet Cybertron to Earth. Megatron used to do this all the time on the cartoon series, so it looks like Kruger actually has a history with these characters. Either that or someone gave him the complete series box set for Christmas and he watched a couple of episodes and felt like he got the gist.
But at the same time, this is also the ugliest film. The human characters are as despicable as ever, though in the case of cast additions John Malkovich and Ken Jeong, actually even worse. If I were king, Ken Jeong would be in jail for crimes against humanity and I’d be debating whether or not Malkovich deserved to join him. I think Malovich escapes because he has Of Mice and Men and The Glass Menagerie on his resume. BUT IT’S CLOSE.

As happy as I am to see Autobots acting like Autobots and Decepticons acting like Decepticons, I’m not sure I’m okay with the movie that they’re in. How is this film not rated R? There is so much destruction and carnage in this film, and not the faceless type that movies like Man of Steel seem to have been given a pass by some for. We see lots of people die on screen in horrible ways. Bodies are reduced to ash and bone. Human beings fall from skyscrapers to their death on the ground below. Even the robots aren’t spared here; Dark of the Moon has introduced the unpleasant addition of what amounts to Transformer blood. When a limb or a head is severed, red goo gushed from the wound. This is in a film based on a children’s toy line? Is EVERTHING broken?

And all of the sudden Optimus Prime has turned into The Punisher. He’s been violent in the previous two movies and even in the cartoon (it was war, after all), but he never courted death so brazenly. Near the climax of the film he actually says “we will kill them all.” This is not how I want my Optimus Prime. It’s like Ehren Kruger got that these movies needed more realistic stakes but took things way too far over the line. As a result, we have a movie that my child will not see until she is 35.

This movie also adds Leonard Nimoy to the film as the voice of Sentinel Prime, which marks that actor’s return to the property (he previously voiced Galvatron in the 1986 animated film). But even that gets screwed up by having him be too on the nose, dropping Star Trek references and actually saying “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” I get it, Kruger. It’s Leonard Nimoy. WE ALL GET IT.

Still, I appreciate Kruger’s attempt to make the stakes in this film feel closer in line to the source material and give the Transformers themselves actual depth and motivation. Nimoy’s Sentinel Prime, particularly, has a lot of gray morality to explore and the movie does a decent job with that. It took three movies but we finally get Transformers acting a little bit like characters instead of empty shells.

So now here we are on the cusp of the fourth film, Transformers: Age of Extinction. I’m cautiously optimistic because Kruger injected actual Transformer love into the film series. It looks like he’s going to get the opportunity to start fresh here with a completely different cast. I’m hoping that he steers far away from the camp and ugliness that exists in the three previous films and tells a story worthy of the Robots in Disguise.
As a work of adaptation, these movies have largely failed. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman do not understand what makes these characters endure. It’s one thing to not to become beholden to continuity and fall into the trap of fan service and repetition. It’s another thing entirely to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the thing that made what you’re working on special in the first place. Ehren Kruger seems to understand this more than his former collaborators, but I’m worried that he’s lost the optimism in Optimus.

I’ll be holding an uneasy breath until Age of Extinction arrives in theaters. In the meantime, if you are remotely interested in Transformers but have only experienced these live-action movies, I would recommend that you seek out the many television shows and collected editions of the IDW comics, which have expanded the lore to almost biblical proportions. The Transformers in these movies aren’t really the Transformers that I love at all. There’s an entire universe of stories and characters with deep motivations waiting to be explored. The sooner Hollywood realizes that, the closer we’ll be to actually seeing the “real” Transformers on screen.


  1. Heath your thoughts on the Transformers movies represent the .0001% of the online Transformers discussion that is actually thoughtful!

    I will only add that I really love the sound design on these movies. A great demo for a high-end sound system for sure. I have trouble defending much else (although I'll be there to give away my money for Transformers 4 #IAmPartOfTheProblem).

    1. You're right, these movies do have excellent sound design. When the robots transform, it's a sonic masterpiece. If only that much attention had been put into making the movies as good as that one element. I don't blame the production staff or the CG animators or really anyone else for these movies not living up to their potential: I blame Michael Bay, Kurtzman, and Orci. Kruger...I haven't decided yet. If Age of Extinction retains the same scatalogical, juvenile humor and really bizarre plot contrivances that are present in the first three then I suppose I'll know he's part of the problem.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Great piece, Heath! Transformers is a franchise I love because it was such a big part growing up but it really is a shame that the movies have done such a bad job at translating them to the big screen.

    Other than Optimus and Megatron, who are so archetypal as to be rendered uninteresting, and the My-Pet-Robot Bumblebee, none of the Transformers come across as actual characters. You're lucky if you can tell them apart! I'm not sure how well the cartoons hold up as it's been awhile, but I seem to remember them having distinct personalities and certainly distinct looks (there were toys to sell after all) - how hard would that have been?

    And why are they SO MUCH about people? It's like the assholes who made these movies have such little understanding of how stories and movies work that they didn't think it was possible people could actually relate to the robots in their ROBOT MOVIE, so they have to play second fiddle to the HUMAN DRAMA that we, the stupid fucking popcorn-inhaling audience presumably are capable of comprehending. I barely remember the human element of the cartoons (certainly never had a human toy) and I could relate to those robots as heroes and villains with fears and desires as a fucking SIX YEAR-OLD.

    I'm not sure I've seen another movie/series with so much contempt for its audience and that's the truly unforgivable part, right?

  3. Yeah, you're absolutely right about everything you mention, Sol. I've been going back and re-watching the original cartoon and, while it is definitely a product of its time, each character is developed as an individual. This has only gotten more and more pronounced over the years as new creators and new media have tackled the characters and fleshed out their backstories, giving this cartoon that was originally an extended toy commercial added depth and lots of development. One thing that I appreciate is that if you watch the 80s cartoon you will definitely see an arc: the characters that you start with are not the characters that you end with. Characters die and are modified and loyalties and motivations change. Granted, a lot of it has been made clearer through comics, but that original show definitely did establish a universe that has infinite possibilities for interesting stories.

    And you're right about the human focus in the movies, too. The whole point of Transformers is that are essentially humans themselves, they just look different because they're from a different planet. There were political motivations, betrayals, sacrifices, all kinds of human aspects to the storylines that didn't even get a nod. I don't think the creators of the film understand the Transformers. Frankly, I don't think they knew what Transformers was outside of the name recognition. "Transformers? That's that toy franchise about the robots that turn into cars? We can make money out of a movie with that. Let's do it."