Less than meets the eye: Why the Transformers movies are the work of the devil

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I am a child of the ’80s, and thus a fan of ’80s toys, comics and cartoons. I was a huge G.I. Joe geek well past the age when I should have been embarrassed to be caught admiring the latest Joe-related action figures at Toys R Us.

That said, boy, do I hate the Transformers. I’ve hated them since they first appeared, and over the years my hate has telescoped in size, like Optimus Ponce unfolding into his true form. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the appeal of cars and trucks turning into robots. I also understand the appeal of armies of sentient robots waging an epic interstellar battle. I’m just not sure those things should go together. Still, as long as the Transformers were confined to a cheesy, poorly animated half-hour here and a comic book I never read there, I could tolerate their existence.

That was then—before Michael Bay took a dorky line of toys and turned them into an unstoppable action-movie franchise. Before said franchise raked in enough cash to not only buy the United States’ debt to China, but to cut out the middleman and buy China outright.

Why do I hate the Transformers movies, and why should you? Let us count the ways.

  1. The dumbest concept in history. The biggest reason I hate these movies is that they’ve taken the dumbest cross-platform merchandising concept of the last hundred years and legitimized it. Some people scoff at fantasy and therefore sneer at the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. Some people look down on comic books as puerile adolescent power fantasies and thus roll their eyes at every superhero movie that rolls down the pike (and not without just cause, as many of them are plain awful). I look at giant, powerful beings with names like Bumblebee, Skids, Starscream and Mudflap, and I cringe. I gaze upon robots that change not only into cars and trucks but cassette players and I feel a current of bile swirling in my throat. And I see the glassy-eyed, slack-jawed devotion some of my geek brothers and sisters display for this “mythology” in which the good guys are known as Autobots, for crying out loud, and I want to start hoarding ammunition and canned goods in an underground bunker.
  2. It’s all surface. The best stories—in any genre—are about much more than the hero and the villain duking it out. From the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the Harry Potter series to The Dark Knight, it’s been proven that sci-fi, fantasy and superhero properties (and Transformers certainly appeals to fans of all three) can actually have something to say. Spider-Man? With great power comes great responsibility. Iron Man? Even dicks can be heroes. Transformers? Um … Decepticons are bad? It looks cool when things blow up? I got nothin’.
  3. They manage to make giant fighting robots … boring. I don’t particularly mind Michael Bay’s films. Heck, I like explosions. I like guns. I like scantily clad women. I can even deal with Martin Lawrence in small doses. And I grudgingly like watching giant robots turn into cars and trucks, and vice-versa. It’s neat. But he overloads the Transformers movies with so many explosions, so many fights, so many transformations that the effect is muted. What was once visually arresting becomes … numbing.
  4. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. Before the Transformers movies, director Michael Bay consistently worked with a mix of action stars (Nicolas Cage), actual actors (Sean Connery, Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor) and even a couple of performers who successfully straddled the line between the two (Ben Affleck, Will Smith). In each case, those talents were already established stars by the time Bay came along.

    With Transformers, however, he foisted a new pair of “stars” on the world without explaining what exactly the viewing public did to deserve them. He turned a sullen, anorexic would-be Angelina Jolie into a sex symbol, and elevated LaBeouf from a former child actor with a modicum of talent into a marquee name with no discernible trace of it whatsoever.  (Underlining just how unimportant “actors” and “characters” are to these noisy assembly-line productions, the latest installment replaces Fox with Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose only apparent asset is her ability to pout. Don’t even think about it, Hollywood. I’m not buying it.)

  5. They’re not going anywhere. All three movies so far have ranked in the top 50 worldwide box-office successes in history. As long as people keep going to these movies, Bay, executive producer Steven Spielberg (who should know better) and company will keep churning them out. And that wouldn’t bother me so much if they weren’t making so much money and casting such a shadow over the pop-culture landscape. There’s a place for movies based on toy lines, movies in which giant trucks and sleek robots stand around and say things like “As long as Megatron and Starscream have the Energon Cube, Earth is doomed!” That place is most decidedly not at or anywhere near the top of the list of the most successful popcorn franchises of all time.

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