Transforming the Transformers

An unexpected copy of the 4K Ultra HD release of Transformers: The Last Knight flew over my transom last week. My history with this franchise is schizophrenic. Of the preceding four films, I’ve seen only the first two. While I didn’t totally succumb to the first, I appreciated the way it blended music and action. One or two of its scenes are still on my demo list, in particular the extended sequence of the Transformers arrival on Earth from their decimated planet, Cybertron, Sam Witwicky’s introduction to them, and the importance of his grandfather’s glasses to the story.

Yes, the film remains weighed down by Michael Bayness (action uber character and plot), but at the time it was interesting and different—at least to those of us whose childhood wasn’t defined by the Hasbro toys that inspired an animated television series. But the less said about the second film the better and, so I’m told, the third and fourth installments as well.

This fifth entry may well set a new bar for mindless action punctuated by cringe-worthy humor. The variety of Transformers has also reached a new level of unlikely complexity, including one who sounds like John Goodman and constantly wields a fake cigar for no apparent reason other than someone on the production team apparently thought it looked cool. Ditto a new high for incessant dropping of the S-bomb in a PG-13 film.

The story, or as much of it as can be understood, is intriguing enough, beginning with a Gladiator-like battle in the middle ages between King Arthur and barbarian Saxons. Arthur is victorious thanks to Transformer help. More of that plot line might have made for a better movie, but instead we move on to the present day, where the evil Transformer Quintessa brainwashes Optimus Prime (leader of the good Transformers, or Autobots) into helping her find a staff that she says will save Cybertron, though Earth will be a casualty.

I think I have all of that right; having skipped films three and four I might have missed details important to the story arc. This time around, the always superb Anthony Hopkins makes a noble effort to class up the joint as an important link to the past, but whenever he gets on a roll he’s interrupted by lame gags or a car chase. And director Michael Bay has never shot a long or convoluted action scene he didn’t like too much to shorten or cut, so the last 30 minutes of this 2-hour, 34-minute slog is filled with endlessly confusing battles between good bots, bad bots, and human bots.

So why am I wasting keystrokes on all of this? Because the production design of this film, no matter how scattershot, is filled with exceptional eye-candy, both live action and CGI. The cinematography itself is gorgeous (it’s Oscar worthy, but likely won’t even be nominated—how many Academy voters will sit through even 10 minutes of this?). Just as crucially, the UHD transfer here is pristine, with loads of natural detail, rich colors, and exceptional dynamic range even as viewed on an HDR-capable projector. Projectors, in general, can’t come close to equaling the peak brightness possible on a good flat screen set, and peak brightness is important for HDR. But projectors stomp on any flat screen when it comes to immersion and overall impact—vital qualities for this type of film.

The sound is nearly as impressive, even though I listened to it in conventional Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and not the full Atmos audio available on the disc. While the layered sonic elements get a bit dense and cluttered at times, I can’t imagine action fans complaining.

Alas (or perhaps hooray!), director Michael Bay has said that this will be his last Transformer outing. I can’t say I blame him; it’s been long haul. But Paramount has big plans to continue the franchise into the misty future, perhaps with a new entry every year. To do so, however, they’ll need to find a new helmsman (or helmsperson), which raises the question: How would a high-profile director liven things up by taking the Transformers in a new direction?

Here's are my thoughts on what a few of them might do...

Kenneth Branagh – Transformers: Much Ado About Nothing
As we all know, the Transformers’ franchise is inherently Shakespearean. Witness the soliloquy by Optimus Prime as he describes the devastation of his home planet, Cybertron, and how the Cube later arrived on Earth. Or how the Autobots settle on Earth (at least initially) as their newfound home. Transformers: Much Ado About Nothing will build on that long-term thematic heart of the franchise.

Ridley Scott – Aliens vs. Transformers
On a journey back to survey the damage to Cybertron, a team of Transformers receive a distress signal. Travelling to an uncharted planet to check it out, the Transformers, disguised as Chevy Silverados, sink into the mud of an open field and, unable to transform, are attacked by evil, saliva drooling Xenomorphs. Their acid blood cuts into the Transformers’ chassis’, but it’s neutralized by the oil in their crankcases. Only later the true horror arises as a Harley — with a sharp, gaping maw where its handlebars should be — bursts from the engine block of the lead Chevy-Transformer and attacks the column. Chaos ensues as Scott directs the scene, yelling “More oil, more oil…”

Steven Spielberg – Jaws of the Transformers
A rogue Decepticon attacks a girl swimming in the ocean at dusk, alerting the seaside town where she lives to the danger. A good Autobot sets out in a fishing boat to find the perpetrator. He’s accompanied by annoying humans who keep pleading that they need a bigger boat n tragedy as the weight of the Autobot almost swamps them, but eventually they catch the Decepticon as he gradually rusts into near immobility by the salt water. Spielberg might reject this story line as he instead ponders Transformer Park, E.T. The Expectant Transformer, or Bridge of Transformers. But ultimately he’ll certainly return to his roots.

George Lucas – The Phantom Decepticons
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a refugee band of good Autobots land on an alien planet populated by an annoying group of duckbilled natives who speak only in pigeon Jamaican. The Autobots settle in to defend their newfound friends from an expected Decepticon invasion, despite the natives’ annoying monologues. Later, a lovelorn human couple arrives to complicate the plot, but their even more annoying patter drives off the Autobots just before the Decepticons arrive. A cliffhanger ensues…cue sequel.

James Cameron – Terminator 5: Transformers
Dateline: July 2018: James Cameron announces that planning has begun for his take on the Transformers franchise. Release is expected by Christmas, 2028.

K.Reid's picture

Despite the beautiful cinematography; dynamic soundtrack of the most recent film and addition of Anthony Hopkins (to save this awful movie), the entire Transformers' franchise needs a reboot. It is absolutely vile how Michael Bay has decimated the films.

Taking Unicron and suggesting he lives inside Earth is an atrocity. In the original animated Transformers movie Unicron's sentient head was floating in space. After a fierce battle between Autobots and Decepticons on Earth that concluded with Optimus Prime's death and severe injury to Megatron, Starscream with his twisted aspiration of leading the Decepticons shoots Megatron with a near fatal laser blast and boots him in space left for dead. While floating in space, Unicron reformatted and rebuilt Megatron into Galvatron who himself is powerful, insane and maniacal. Galvatron was arguably worse than Megatron. You can guass what Galvatron does to Starscream.

While near death, Optimus Prime transfers the Matrix of Leadership to Hot Rod who morphs into Rodimus Prime, a reluctant leader who eventually gets his act together and puts the 'smack down' on Galvatron.

The snippet I present above is an example of how Michael Bay and company have so grossly deviated from the Transformer's original story arc. We have not seen many iconic bots such as Metroplex, Omega Supreme, Fortress Maximus, Aerialbots (they combine to form Superion), Predicons (who merge to PredaKing), SkyLynx, Rumble, Wheeljack, Blur and others.

Tom, you enjoy modern animation films, but check out the 1986 Transformers movie (recently remastered), you may enjoy the classic animation and get the benefit of understanding how far M. Bay veered off course. Perhaps the new upcoming Bumblebee film will reset the direction.

utopianemo's picture

A local newspaper once likened the second Transformers movie to Heironymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", which aptly describes the whole series. I likened the film to "being force-fed cotton candy for two and a half hours".

In any case, it's interesting to hear your take on the films, having not been a fan. I can't stand them, but I do agree that they're good ear and eye candy. I really enjoyed your sequel ideas; regarding "Jaws of the Transformers", you may not have known that there were characters called Sharkticons in the original cartoon(appearing first in the animated movie mentioned by the fellow above). Well done!