Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are a mixed bag. And, by a mixed bag, we mean that they range from mediocre to awful. Somehow, despite its blatant inadequacy, the Transformers films have created some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and it’s shown no sign of stopping. Partly, this enduring series of science fiction movies (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) has got by on spectacle alone.
While they are largely nonsense, narratively speaking, the metal-clad action movies can’t be criticised for lack of scale, explosions, and sheer bombast. In fact, in that regard, the movies are outright ambitious. Undeniably, there are sporadic glimpses of inventive and effective sound design, and impressive visual effects. There are also moments of impossible hilarity. The best example of this is the death of T.J. Miller’s Lucas, who is cremated by a grenade. More than any intentional instance of humour, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. Well done, Michael Bay. You made me laugh at a man being disintegrated.
If you’re enviously easy to please, every few hours the movies will blow you away. In that sense they lend themselves to the theatrical experience, helping to explain their mammoth box office results. And, there is value to be found in pure spectacle. The issue is that Transformers movies can be so much more. One has already proved it. And no, it’s not Bumblebee.
No one could deny that Bumblebee was a huge step in the right direction, stripping the franchise back to a more simple premise and execution. It was fun, with a retro-quality that scratched all kinds of itches. It was a complete departure from what Michael Bay had defined Transformers movies as, blissfully absent from the seedyness that plagued previous instalments, and the utter lack of interest in the plot.
It also contains a great central performance by the ever-charming, indisputably charismatic Hailee Steinfeld. Bumblebee, more than any other Transformers movie, is anchored by its human characters. This is a blessing, in that it makes the movie much more watchable – but also a curse.
Let me be clear: no one is here for the humans. No one. If you’re sitting down, choosing to watch Transformers, you’re in that position because you want to see giant robots that turn into things. You want to see robots in disguise. Everything else is fluff.
The only movie that really, truly gets that, and then delivers so much more is Transformers: The Movie. Released in 1986, Transformers: The Movie is now almost four decades old, and it has never stopped being completely, unambiguously awesome.
If you’ve never heard of Transformers: The Movie, you’re not alone. The animated movie was underappreciated upon its release, garnering middling-reviews and poor box office returns. Don’t let that fool you, though. Transformers: The Movie is a certified classic. It ignited my imagination as a child, and it still does today.
One of the most immediate, and striking differences between Transformers: The Movie and the modern Transformers series of action movies is that you can actually discern, visually and audibly, between the various Autobots and Decpticons. Each character has their own colour and personality, and you don’t have to pause every few seconds to figure out who is punching who. It manages to achieve this visual clarity without sacrificing on scale: the movie has a starship crashing into the eye of a planet-sized, world-munching Transformer. You don’t get bigger than that.
This is, of course, assisted by the timeless, beautiful animation. One sequence that stands out, and could only be achieved through animation, is the timelapse of the Decepticon assault on Autobot city, transitioning from day to night, and back to day. That image, of the gunfire raining down from both sides, will stay with you. Other moments of visual majesty include the devastation of the first planet, and Galvatron’s – how should we put it? – interruption of Starscream’s coronation.
Some people have a bias against animation, believing that an animated movie can’t be enjoyed by more mature audiences, and that they’re aimed exclusively at children. If there’s one movie that can convince you otherwise, it’s this one. Transformers: The Movie is mercilessly brutal.
If you have a favourite Transformer, get ready. They’re probably dead by the end of the movie. Yes, that includes all the greatest heroes and villains, and none of Optimus Prime, Megatron, Ultra Magnus, Starscream make it out of the movie alive, alongside countless other deceased Autobots and Decepticons. In fact, in an attempt to whittle down the cast of characters, the movie opens with a ruthless, bloody robot-murder spree.
This wouldn’t be half as effective as it is without the excellent work of a stunning voice cast. Leonard Nimoy, taking over the regenerated role of Galvatron, imbues the character with menace and arrogance. Of course, there’s also Orson Welles. Welles has an incredible voice: it sounds the way that petrol smells, and I can’t get enough of it. His voice acting for the role manages to lift the character of Unicron the Planet Eater above all others, giving the character a weight and gravitas befitting of his size.
And, in the background of all this is a pounding, unapologetic soundtrack of rock songs. The music beats away during battles, and provides a sense of momentum and fist-pumping fun to offset the gloomier moments in the movie.
Most of all, and in stark contrast to the recent Transformers series, the animated movie is coherent. It has a strong, deep narrative, balancing smaller stakes with a huge, world-ending threat perfectly. Perhaps most impressively, it also dares to be about something: responsibility, the weight of leadership, and maturity. That’s right, this is a Transformers movie with themes, a Transformers that says something.
Transformers, the first movie in the Michael Bay series from 2007, isn’t awful. It’s watchable, and moderately entertaining along the way if you’re able to completely turn off any critical faculties to appreciate the spectacle. Bumblebee, too, is a fun ride – though forgettable.
But this should be the bare minimum. Next time the Autobots roll out into cinemas, think of Transformers: The Movie, and remember that Transformers can do so much better, and be so much more.
If you prefer your aristocrats to your Autobots, and your demons to your Decepticons, check out our guide to the best fantasy movies.