Michael Bay-lieve it or not, they’re still making Transformers movies! This week sees the release of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of the decade old Blockbuster franchise based on some Hasbro toys. Join Max Robinson and Patrick Stinson this week as they brave the dubious racial caricatures and ever-increasing plot devices, and mighty robots of
The Gobots The Transformers.
Max: The 2007 Transformers movie was a pretty entertaining, if uneven, Summer Blockbuster with a lot to like. Two years later, Bay came back with Revenge of the Fallen, and any kind of subtlety or nuance that Spielberg brought to the last one was summarily executed. I remember distinctly my friend Mike calling this the “biggest” movie he’d ever seen, not really as a compliment. Revenge of the Fallen is so big and so loud and so full of forced jokes and insane robo-violence that you feel like the THX deep note is liquefying your brain. Between a HANDFUL of cool moments, RotF makes us tiptoe over a LEGO firewalk of boring subplots, quirky “characters,” and jaw-dropping racism. Patrick, where do we even start with this thing?
Patrick: Well I want to set the stage a little. It’s 2009. Three years of nerd peer pressure have gotten me to take another look at Transformers, and I’m digging it—little Patrick jumped off before Beast Wars in the ‘90s. The first movie happened and didn’t suck too much and made a lot of money, and it was sort of this weird homecoming. This is when I started buying the toys. And my good friends and I totally expected to dig this movie.
We went in a big group on opening day.
And we all walked out making excuses for how it couldn’t have been THAT terrible, and there was this cool moment and this cool moment. And sequels are always a little worse right? (This was essentially pre-MCU.)
We were wrong. This movie is rotten and it stinks more every time I see it. Rotten structure, rotten ideas presented in that structure.
Max: This movie is BAD. And not in the way your average dumb popcorn movie is bad. Blame the fallout from the 2007-2008 writer’s strike, blame Bay having no one to say “no” to his ideas, blame the law of diminishing returns: Revenge of the Fallen is B A D. We talked about how the hijinks and human “comedy” bits of the first movie occasionally fell flat, and RotF dials that to 11. Why do we have scene after scene of Sam’s wacky wine mom or the Stepin Fetchit Ice Cream Truck robots?? This movie is like being force-fed Doritos and firecrackers.
Patrick: If interviews are to be believed, major shooting and all VFX design work was done before anything that could be called a screenplay existed. This is the specific stage in the process that Michael Bay has on-the-record apologized for, and the source of the rotten structure I refer to. The movie is in a very real sense a ghoulish mixing together of sequences that were individually conceived. In one scene Sam is nearly killed by Allspark gremlins; in the very next scene he’s dressing down his car (WHO SAVED HIM), gaslighting his girlfriend, and angsting over his coming of age. The famous Devastator appears in a scene of staggering expense…while his component Constructicons are observed in a simultaneous battle, and he’s dispatched by three comic relief characters, two of whom disappear during the process! No one involved was interested in making a coherent product, they were trying to maximize their return.
Max: The slapdash “eh, whatever!” approach of Revenge of the Fallen is perfectly captured in the fact that the movie introduces a Evil Coed Vixen who turns out to be a Decepticon and NOBODY THINKS THIS IS A BIG DEAL. You have evil robots who can perfectly mimic human beings and we’re not going to talk about this or bring this back later on in the film? Sam gets a new friend/roommate whose role is screaming in terror, making lewd remarks about his friend’s girlfriend or spouting Reddit conspiracy nonsense. So much of this movie either doesn’t click or just completely whiffs it, it’s kind of overwhelming. Pat, what do you think was the biggest missed opportunity of Revenge of the Fallen?
Patrick: The death of Optimus Prime. As an accidental side effect of his death in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, every time the character is reinvented he tends to have a vaguely Mothra-like (or Christ-like) arc of death or near-death and renewal. So we knew this was going to happen to Movie Optimus and Peter Cullen would get his second pass at the scene. Now, the actual sequence that results in Optimus’ death is nothing short of spectacular. Setting aside the fact that it is a VFX feast, I submit that in terms of choreography and action it is one of the best fight scenes in the Hollywood sci-fi canon. It is ten minutes of sublime pleasure that is plopped right in the middle of this trash movie. It is just as good as the Battle of Autobot City in 1986, or the death of Dinobot in Beast Wars. It is sublime. And they shot this bolt on a movie that is a chore to slog through. They can’t tap this well again! You already killed him and brought him back! Want to do this story right? Too bad!
Max: The Optimus Prime stuff in this movie is by and large Extremely Fucking Cool. Homeboy shows up at the beginning of the movie driving out of a cargo plane in truck mode, transforms in mid-air, then parachutes to the ground! The scene of him taking on a bunch of Decepticons solo (and just cold wrecking dudes) is supremely satisfying until Optimus dies. They bait-and-switched his death in the first movie, and here he dies before we even get into Act II. We know Optimus isn’t going to be dead for the whole movie if he dies this early on, and Prime’s absence doesn’t have much of an impact on the cast. Speaking of, this movie introduces a bunch of new Transformers and Bay doesn’t really find much for them to do (save for the wiseguy leg humping RC car Decepticon turncoat and Ancient Transformer
Warren Ellis Jetfire).
Patrick: Except for a couple weird sex jokes, I’m a big fan of the turncoat Wheelie. Not only does he deliver great verbal and physical comedy, he’s the source of much of this movie’s world-building, establishing the concepts of faction-switching and castes of Cybertronians. And he doesn’t wear out his welcome, allowing for a triumphant return in Dark of the Moon.
I don’t like Jetfire. He’s sort of a weird grab-bag of traits of previous Jetfires, shaken up with old-person jokes, and you never really understand why he opposes the Fallen, how he ended up where he did, or why he rips his own guts out to become a Super Mushroom for Prime.
The other new characters are the Twins, who are detestable (they are race-coded, class-coded, incompetent and literally illiterate) and what’s worse, they completely sideline returning good characters Ironhide and Ratchet. By diluting the Autobot team like this, they fail to give any of them essential roles in a cast dynamic, so from this point forward they are all redshirts. This movie can’t even restrict itself to its own suckage, it drags down its own sequels and prequels.
Max: The secondary Transformers basically all exist as walking licensing agreements with GM. Let’s talk about The Fallen, who is transparently supposed to be the Emperor Palpatine to Megatron’s Vader. The Fallen of the Dreamwave comics was literally a fiery demon, and here he’s some kind of Pharaoh Lich. Every Transformers sequel seems to retcon the history of the film before it, but it is very weird that this movie introduces Megatron’s Previously Unmentioned Boss who doesn’t do anything besides squash a couple soldiers (Boy, Bay just slaughters army guys in these huh?).
Patrick: From the moment the title was announced people were straight-up excited about the Fallen, because it indicated a pretty deep dive into the existing lore of the brand. For about the first half of the lifetime of the Transformers brand it accidentally built up this elaborate hodgepodge of lore, and then the first generation of fans took over the reins and started essentially remixing and riffing on that established material in interesting ways. It’s one of the most unique things about the property. Unfortunately, it was a waste of material, since the overstuffed movie cut out almost all of its backstory about the Fallen (who is the Robot Devil ffs) and doesn’t even give him a decent boss battle at the end. In the end, the Fallen adds no value to his own movie, and in he fact devalues it by rendering the character of Megatron into a sycophant. Nothing really comes of the Earth connection either, except making the framing sequences into a boring National Treasure ripoff, and The Last Knight appears to be starting this backstory completely over again just to make something out of it.
Max: We haven’t touched on the Sam/Mykaela angles of this one and that’s because there’s basically nothin’ to it. We get a bunch of Chosen One BS with Sam learning THE TRUE Matrix of Leadership is friendship and some really stunted faux-macho drama bc Sam *gulp* can’t say he loves his girlfriend of two years. I think the biggest problem of this movie, more than anything, is that everyone here is an asshole and not in a particularly fun way. Even noble Optimus Prime is demanding the faces of his vanquished foes!
Patrick: This is the lasting legacy of this film and it’s a really toxic one. I think it’s an early example of Michael Bay overcorrecting, which will become more of a theme in movies 3 and 4. Optimus does kind of get shoved around in movie 1, coming off a bit like Captain Picard tangling with an eight-foot Klingon. In response to this critique, Bay makes Optimus into a badass hero. But to Bay and his team, apparently, badass heroes track down hiding “terrorists” and put bullets into their fucking faces in high def. Now the traditional Optimus Prime is not a pacifist, but he’s also not a berserker and he’s not SEAL Team 6. And the most unforgettable thing he says during the proceedings is the ludicrously violent battle cry, “Give me your face!”
“GIVE ME YOUR FACE”? Like, WHO SAYS THAT?
So “Movie Optimus Prime” goes from “Optimus Prime with tryhard flames” to a psychopath in the eyes of the fan community overnight. You either find it funny or you find it sickening. So much damage was done to Prime—who IS the brand—that a sort of impromptu arc resulted in the sequels, putting him through the wringer to justify his ultraviolence. Now he is advertised as a VILLAIN in The Last Knight! More than three movies later we are dealing with the fallout from this one stupid line, and don’t you dare tell me it was planned from the start.
Bay’s (apparent) militant centrist interventionist politics warp the charming black-and-white morality of the Transformers universe. Instead of shades of gray, you get dickhead heroes who aren’t different enough from the villains to compel viewers. Triumphant scenes of American military equipment destroying cities in Asia and villages in Africa erode the brand of the Autobots in the eyes of anyone who didn’t think the Iraq War was an awesome idea. Mere incompetence in filmmaking is easier to forgive than this moral failure. In many ways, the Transformers film franchise is playing damage control for Revenge of the Fallen to this very day. It may have made a lot of money on paper, but thousands of fans walked out of the theater and haven’t been back since.
Max: Also, that The Used cover of “Burning Down the House” in the frat house is an actual war crime.
NEXT UP: We buckle up for Dark of the Moon’s wild ride of Cybertronian Dune worms, evil Patrick Dempsey, and an earth-shattering conspiracy at the highest levels of NASA.