Robots In Disgrace: A Transformers Fan's Trauma

Just get it over with…

There’s a new Transformers movie out: Age Of Extinction. Reviews so far have been, well, mixed at best. But then, what was anyone expecting? The fourth instalment in a mega-money-spinning series that is now said to run to six releases, enjoying a second-trilogy reboot of sorts, Age Of Extinction again pairs the titular morphing metal titans with director Michael Bay, while the script is handled – as it was for the atrocious Revenge Of The Fallen (2009) and barely any better Dark Of The Moon (2011) – by Ehren Kruger. Face it: this was never going to be a Nolan-like rebirth.

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Transformers: Age Of Extinction, trailer (2014)

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And yet, here I am, eager to see Age Of Extinction. The simple common sense of adulthood – don’t waste what little money you have on crappy cinema experiences – has been, once more, beaten down by my childhood nostalgia running amok. I’ve seen all of Bay’s previous Transformers movies, and only the first, of 2007, really had anything going for it that made for a pleasurable addition to an already vast, multimedia franchise. It ticked fan-service boxes, with its throwback transformation noises and blend of frenetic action and goofy humour, balancing relatable human characters (for the most part) with ginormous robots bashing bolts off each other.

What came next: pure CGI carnage porn, with the bare minimum of a plot to hold the flying sparks and severed limbs together. These were Kruger’s creations, and they were terrible. No reason to believe that Age Of Extinction isn’t another stinker – and a current rating of just 18% on Rotten Tomatoes says, yep, something is definitely whiffy about it. A 90-minute toy commercial fleshed out with a few chase scenes and instances of human peril: sure, we can all get behind that at the summer box office. But 165 minutes? There isn’t enough Bayhem in the known universe, from here to (the Transformers’ home planet of) Cybertron and back, to fill that sort of running time.

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I’m Optimus Prime!

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So why this pull I’m feeling? Why am I going to, eventually, give Age Of Extinction the time that I know I’m going to regret giving it as soon as the credits roll? Because the 1980s, basically. The kids of today, aged anywhere between three and their early teens, know Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, Ironhide and so many other core-canon characters of the Transformers series – but they know them very differently to how anyone aged, say, 30-and-some upwards will. This isn’t about to become a hackneyed, golden-age reminiscence, spouting on about how Generation 1 is so very superior to everything that followed it. Because that’s been done to death, and there’s something else to consider here, anyway. Transformers was always crap.

There, I said it. Whereas Star Wars, another massive role-play presence in the playground of the mid-’80s, was a film first and a bunch of got-got-need toys after, many of which were gobbled up by older siblings anyway, never to be shared, Transformers was only ever a toy line, ruled with merciless efficiency by Hasbro. Anything else was window dressing, marketing, pressure on parents to pick up a new-design Optimus Prime from Woolworths because now he came in a ‘Powermaster’ guise. (There has been an almost uncountable number of toy Primes over the years, including an A Bathing Ape-branded model, and an extremely limited-run release cast in vacuum-metalized gold. Slick.) In the 1980s we had the animated TV show, the comics, the lunchboxes and the stationary and the wallpaper, but it all added up to just one thing: buy our toys.

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No, I’m Optimus Prime!

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Which we did – or, rather, our parents did. I recall, fondly, the Christmas that I opened my own Prime – a toy that’d soon enough lose both arms to younger brothers. Equally, I was thrilled to receive Soundwave as a present – whereas Prime was the wholesome leader of the heroic Autobots, the good guys of the Transformers power dichotomy, Soundwave was the ice-cool communications expert of the enemy Decepticon forces, who came packaged with a cassette-tape-that-turns-into-a-bird companion. His battery turned into a gun. He was awesome.

When transformed into his stereo disguise, the Soundwave toy was much bigger than Prime as a truck. Which was hilarious for a six-year-old, as I’m sure you can imagine. He sounded great in the TV show, too, voiced through a whole box of effects by Frank Welker (who also provided dialogue for the characters Megatron and Rumble, as well as lead roles in the Scooby Doo and The Real Ghostbusters cartoons, and the parrot from Deep Blue Sea). But I’m getting off point: Transformers was always crap.

The cartoons were terrible, in that cheesy all-American way where the good guys prevail with a chuckle and the baddies end up slightly bruised by the experience but ultimately ready to return next week only to shit things up all over again. But the Marvel-produced comics that we got in the UK were actually pretty decent. For a while they towed a Hasbro party line, keeping things colourful, cheerful. But when they earned the right to get dark, oh my. Some 332 issues were published, and by the end of the run it was very much a case of how many ‘Bots would be left standing, as writer Simon Furman took great glee from eradicating characters from proceedings. It could be traumatic for a young reader – and do I ever still recall those robo-zombiesShudder.

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Zombieeeeees!

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There was precedent: in 1986, the first Transformers film came out. When critics talk of Age Of Extinction being the fourth movie, they omit this animated affair, commissioned to shake up both the toy line and the TV show, which had debuted two years earlier. Hasbro wanted new products on the shelves, so some old favourites had to go: see ya, Prime and Megatron, both of whom are written out in a tears-spilling death-match showdown, and hello to new faction leaders. The movie’s plot is unremarkable, taking cues enough from Star Wars – unlikely hero, a mystical force, the destruction of entire planets, Leia’s hairdo – but delivers enough fairy tale-like tangents to ensure that, unlike Revenge Of The Fallen, it’s at least clear what the hell is going on.

Nevertheless, The Transformers: The Movie was completely panned on release. Orson Welles, in his final professional role as the gigantic Unicron character, a consumer of worlds, was completely dismissive of it, and Variety called it “unintelligible, noisy and unoriginal”. True – if you were coming to it with no prior knowledge of the stories. True – but even (in the new movie!) Mark Wahlberg gets down to this. And totally true – see that whole Star Wars thing above. And yet, it today enjoys more than just a cult following: head back to Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see it has an 88% audience approval rating, and 7.4 on IMDB. Something, clearly, connected. However crappy the reality of the movie was. And it was pretty crappy.

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The Transformers: The Movie, trailer (1986)
(Check out this one, too, with lots of non-Movie animation)

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But not so crappy that I don’t still get a rush when I hear ‘The Touch’, or feel my skin prickle when certain scenes are on show – I’ve watched the 1986 film with my oldest son, and have found this scene in particular a pretty harrowing flashback, and also a reminder of the movie’s terrific/terrible cock-rock soundtrack (although this somehow still fills me with awe). As it stands, the ’86 (perfectly well) animated picture has the highest IMDB rating of any Transformers film – a pretty damning statistic for anyone involved with the Bay-helmed live-action releases. And no great shakes in and of itself, on account of the movie being crap. Entertaining crap from the perspective of an old-boy fan(boy), but definitely crap.

So why am I going to see Age Of Extinction, a 34-year-old father of two in a queue to watch almost three hours of not-even-there machinery go to war? Because, embarrassingly, it’s long been in the blood. Transformers is no guilty pleasure, as I’m quite upfront with enjoying many of the older stories and naming favourite characters (always Ironhide and Sideswipe from the Autobots, Shockwave and Soundwave from the ‘Cons) – but watching the last two movies has been horrible. Yet something draws me back, like the great maw of Unicron itself, and I’m unable to resist. I am being sucked into it. Kruger, Bay, come at me. I’ve more memories ready to be trampled. Can’t wait.

Aw, crap.

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Transformers: Age Of Extinction will be reviewed in the Clash Film Column before long.

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