I’m not one of the ’80s kids who is here with starry eyes to tell you that I wish Optimus Prime was my uncle. My parents bought me roughly a whole suburban finished basement worth of Transformers toys during my boyhood, but I don’t remember one single plot from the original television show despite having watched what I’m sure amounted to days of it. I don’t need to be a slavish devotee to be somewhat offended at what’s been done to the property, however.
That makes me sound like I’m blissfully unaware of the rapacious nature behind all of those bad ’80s cartoons, doesn’t it? I’m not, I swear. I’m sort of furious that one of my childhood diversions came about more or less because U.S. President Ronald Reagan, always a fount of great ideas, moved to essentially deregulate cartoon broadcasts, removing a bunch of rules that prevented children’s programming from being glorified toy commercials. All your Gobots, your Thundercats, your He-Men, your Brave Starrs and your Holograms, all were designed in the fervent hope that maybe somebody could start matching Kenner for Star Wars figurine sales.
For a recent reminder of this, check out my least favorite television producer’s 578th “vanity card.” That’s right, Chuck Lorre himself got his start, he tells us, as a hack scriptwriter churning out ’80s cartoons, something he professes ambivalence about.
“Rather than be educated and/or simply entertained, this very vulnerable audience could now be exploited for financial gain,” he writes in the vanity card that aired after Jan. 11, 2018’s episode of The Big Bang Theory. “Bad for kids, but good for me.”
I guess I have Ronnie and Mattel to thank for Two and a Half Men, too. Who knew Lorre and I agreed on literally anything? I am grateful for whichever scripts of his I almost certainly vegged out during, though, because despite my utter lack of appreciation for how these plastic-plugging distractions entered my young life, I do deeply appreciate a lot of things about how earnestly some of the artists and writers went about making it.
If you don’t believe me, look at some of the animation, voice work, and music on display in a clip from Transformers: The Movie (1986), where evil robot Leonard Nimoy (!) fights planet-sized evil robot George Orwell (!!!).
Some of the properties that came out of this deregulation were shoddily made pablum, but Transformers, whether beleaguered parents wanted to admit it or not, was actually pretty well-made pablum. The story—about exiled alien robots who carry out their war on Earth in an attempt to garner resources—bears little examination. The characters, on the other hand, are all memorable, even if you can’t always remember their names. Through voice, through personality, through expressive features, Optimus Prime and his Autobots and Megatron and his Decepticons left impressions on kids. Even a four-year-old knew that if you picked up a damn toy of Starscream, you affected his voice and did something vaguely traitorous.
For that reason and that reason only, I remember the exact moment in 2006 when I saw the trailer for 2007’s Transformers and read, with horror, the words “A Michael Bay film” over the title at the end. And I must hand it to Bay, because in all fairness, he has made this franchise his own in the most regrettable ways imaginable. I usually divide these articles into titled sections that highlight one particular aspect of the point I’m trying to make, and to give a sense of continuity. This being an examination of a Michael Bay property, the most instructive approach is not to do that at all.
A decade after the first Transformers, and countless reboots of the cartoon have aired on networks I don’t watch and wouldn’t let my girlfriend’s kids watch were they to ask me. Despite that, though, the franchise itself seems as if it belongs firmly to Bay’s cinematic nonsense. He’s managed to make a five-installment series, each chapter of which is simultaneously a monument to excess and a celebration of total mediocrity. The 2007 film was every bit as loud and hard to follow as everybody accused it of being, but far worse was how utterly, irretrievably lame it was. The unfunny humor, the puerile treatment of Megan Fox’s character, the most thankless love interest role of our young century—all leave a truly raw taste in the mouth of anybody who remembers entertainment that was actually earnest..
Shia LaBeouf’s character Sam Witwicky (you know, the human) sticks around for three films, and maybe other characters do. Maybe they have motivations and emotions. Maybe they have arcs. By the end of any one of these films, you won’t remember. You might remember the racist caricature of an Indian customer service guy dropped inexplicably into the middle of what’s supposed to be a tense firefight involving a human, flesh-and-blood character who is at risk of dying. It might be nicer to have a firmer recollection of why that soldier is fighting and to reflect on how scary it might be to be up against gigantic robots that are largely immune to conventional weapons, your only ally being other gigantic robots whom you need to bring yourself to trust.
Hell if any of that thematic weight ever carries through in any of these films, though, especially considering the weight even of the combat fails to register in five whole movies. Look at this clip below, from the most recent movie.
Does any of what Optimus (or, I guess, Nemesis) Prime does in this scene appear to register on Mark Wahlberg’s character? I don’t think that it does. Does Wahlberg cringe back from the vicious impact of those sword blows? No. Does he take a panicked step back to avoid debris or sparks? No. How far from Optimus is he, in meters, while the fight that opens this clip unfolds? I really have no idea. I don’t even know where he’s standing relative to the woman Prime is menacing. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, made in 1988 and featuring the filmmakers more or less just drawing cartoons over the film, long before anything we recognize as computer animation today, did not have these fundamental problems.
Bay, who can storyboard and direct sequences involving complicated pyrotechnics, intricate green screen and a mix of practical and computer-generated sets, apparently has no concept of how to relate characters within a physical space and then convey that relationship and its scale to the audience who shelled out the money to see it. And because he can’t do that, he can’t convey any depth of any kind. I’m not entirely certain why audiences abruptly stopped giving these celluloid ulcers all their money, but even Sir Anthony Hopkins apparently couldn’t bring people to the cinema for last year’s Transformers: The Last Knight, a film that goes off the rails and into complete nonsense even by the standards of the rest of the series.
The first two installments did roughly even business between the foreign and domestic markets and made back the production and marketing costs with plenty to spare, but it was with the third and fourth installments that the series became almost entirely a foreign fixation, with 2011’s Dark of the Moon raking in $771 million of its $1.1 billion take from outside North America, and 2014’s Age of Extinction making $858 million of its own $1.1 billion take in foreign markets.
What in the world changed in 2017? Why did The Last Knight, a movie functionally indistinguishable from any of the other ones in this series, pull in a comparatively pathetic $600 million when the last two were billion-dollar babies? I well and truly have no idea, and no evidence points toward the audiences of today being more discerning or less tolerant of regrettable garbage.
As somebody whose upbringing consisted at least partially of being weaned on a media diet of loud, flashy images whose only meaning was whatever genuine care and craft some underpaid artists and actors and writers could sneak in despite every vicious corporate directive, I’ve got a theory though: Maybe they’re just exhausted.
Kenneth Lowe is one with the Matrix. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his work has appeared in Illinois Issues Magazine, Colombia Reports and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Unfortunately, you can follow him on Twitter and read more on his blog.