When a live action Transformers movie was announced by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay back in 2005, a maelstrom of emotion passed through a particular demographic in the western hemisphere.
Any faintly virulent male in their late twenties and early thirties pricked up their ears like young rabbits at the first rumble of a bulldozer.
In the 1980s Transformers wasn’t just another cheap toy off the Hasbro production line; it was a way of life. For any preteen boy swept up in the cartoons, comics, lunchboxes, and sticker albums, Optimus Prime and his assorted cohorts became more iconic than Kiss a decade earlier. No wonder then that a 21st Century update caused such a stir. But while impartial reviewers gave the film a mildly disinterested thumbs up, long term fans of the franchise reacted with seething vitriol. Why was this?
The most obvious and immediate deviation from the original concept was the design of the robots. Gone was the vibrant anthropomorphism that gave each character a distinct personality and in was an ultra-realistic approach that constructed the robots from the constituent parts of their vehicle forms. Impressive though this may have been from an FX perspective, the end result was that with a couple of exceptions none of the Transformers looked like their 1980s counterparts.
In itself this could have been forgiven by all but the most militant Peter Pans, but a further upshot was that each robot was practically interchangeable. Apparently it matters not whether you start off with a car, a helicopter or an aeroplane; when you’ve twisted and distorted them into an anthropoid they all resemble a generic amalgam of Meccano. This meant that, in the fast paced fight scenes especially, it was almost impossible to work out who was who, and which assortment of cogs and spanners the viewer was supposed to be rooting for.
Surely one of the greatest thrills for a Transformer fan watching a live action adaptation was to see their favourite childhood heroes and villains rendered on the big screen (even if it was poorly achieved). As expected the core Autobot forces are made up from all the old favourites: Optimus Prime, Jazz, Ironhide et al. All present, all correct. Few could have argued with the producers on this front. Who, then, was responsible for selecting which Decepticons were to be in the film?
Megatron and Starcream? Of course. Frenzy? At a push. But Bonecrusher? Barricade? Blackout? These were hardly the antagonists fans were clamouring for. A brief cameo from an ill-fated Scorponok did little to redress the balance. Dozens of Generation One favourites were overlooked for seemingly no reason – other than perhaps laziness on the part of the creative team. Maybe it was deemed favourable to produce a disappointing Blackout than a disappointing Soundwave or Laserbeak.
Alright, so the Transformers didn’t look like Transformers, or at least not the ones most fans have heard of anyway. Why go further and make pointless cosmetic alterations to the franchise? Surely onomatopoeia dictates that Bumblebee transforms into the small, compact, bug-like VW Beetle. Not only is it logical but the bright yellow VW is an iconic feature of the Transformers landscape. There was no need to morph the character into a high speed Chevrolet.
Likewise where was Megatron’s arm-mounted cannon? Why was the medical officer Ratchet no longer an ambulance? And why was the Matrix suddenly referred to as the All Spark? It’s understandable that the film’s producers wanted to make their own mark on the franchise, but unforgivable that they chose to do it in such a ham-fisted way.
Revenge of the Fallen
This summer’s sequel, centred around a plot involving the Pyramids of Giza, will see the first film’s surviving cast return along side a batch of new recruits. While more of the same has been promised there is still room to hope that maybe some criticism has been adhered to. Sam Raimi achieved a perfect balance of pleasing mainstream audiences whilst placating long term fans with the Spiderman films. Surely Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg have enough combined experience to do likewise.