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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

sign of the apocalypse: I’m not dreading a Michael Bay flick

I saw the trailer for Transformers on a big screen for the first time this weekend, at a showing of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the groaning/ giggling reaction of the pumped crowd seemed to agree with me that this looks like the biggest-dumbest-movie-that’s-gonna-be-a-whole-lotta-fun ever made. And a geeky friend who was with me started yakking about Optimus Prime and Megatron and other ridiculous-sounding names: these are apparently major characters in the Transformers universe. And suddenly I thought, What? There’s an actual story to the Transformers? I thought they were just toys and the cartoons just long advertisements for them…
And then I thought: Oh no. Are there Transformers nerds out there who are going to be upset if Michael Bay “ruins” their most favoritest cartoon ever? Like maybe the people who write Transformers fan fiction? (Yes, it exists.) Isn’t a fictional universe that includes something called “Super-God Masterforce” kinda already ruined?

I’m not sure that geeks will care overly much about whether Transformers adheres to some two-decades-old canon that only ever existed in the first place to separate our parents from their money. If there’s a spirit to the original Transformers that the film might hope to capture, it’s that one: the purely mercenary one. As long as the movie delivers what that noisy trailer seems to promise — giant robots beating the crap out of one another in a Michael Bay-a-riffic orgy of fake violence and indulgent slo-mo — I think we’ll all be happy to throw our ten bucks at it, maybe even more than once.

On the other hand, if The Simpsons Movie dares to give Smithers — or Comic Book Guy — a girlfriend, or defies canon by giving Homer a brain, tries to provoke us by suggesting that perhaps the citizens of Shelbyville or North Haverbrook aren’t the kitten-killing monsters we’ve always known them to be… Well, there could be rioting.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how much a movie should respect its source material, or whether a movie should cater more to diehard fans than ordinary moviegoers. There’s no general rule that I can see: some movies do extraordinarily well by both the most dedicated geeks and the casual fans when they deviate somewhat from the source material. Peter Jackson, for instance, in his Lord of the Rings films, made some major deviations from Tolkien work extraordinarily well, creating some narrative urgency necessary for film that isn’t necessary in the written word — and those changes were so vital to the storytelling success of the films that even someone like me, who practically has the films memorized, enthusiastically appreciates what Jackson did. Likewise with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the one book that Harry devotees figured would have to be divided into two films, there was so much going on. But the story that showed up on film, though greatly truncated from the book, worked perfectly.

The unforgivable sin for movie adaptations? Losing the spirit of the source material. Jackson brought Tolkien’s spirit beautifully to film. The Harry Potter movies, for all their many ups and downs, have done the same. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the next one, but the trailer looks pretty darn in keeping with that magical spirit.) Sam Raimi failed with his new Spider-Man because the sweet spirit of the first two, of Peter Parker’s story across all media, got lost in the crazy quilt of villains and CGI and too-fast-to-follow battles.

I hate to admit this — me, the Michael Bay hater of long standing — but Transformers might actually be the first Michael Bay movie that I’ll actually, you know, like. There’s no pretense to these giant violent robots: they just fight, and morph, and represent nothing more than unrepentently brainless sensory overload. Who better than Michael Bay to capture that spirit, and not even have to pretend that there’s supposed to be anything more to it?

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  • JSW

    Don’t worry, Transformers fans are used to juggling multiple continuities, from the comic book and cartoon universes that diverged right from the start, to the Beast Wars/Machines continuity that took elements from both, and then there’s the Armada/Energon/Cybertron trilogy that exists in a universe of its own, and of course while the various Japanese series were mostly meant to take place in the same universe as the original cartoon they ignored the “Rebirth” miniseries that made up season 4 of the original series (and with good reason, since Rebirth sucked.) This’ll barely be a drop in the pond compared to all that.

  • MaryAnn

    OMG, so there ARE serious Transformer fans. Who knew?

  • Yes. There are many of us. And while many of us cringed at having Michael Bay at the helm of a beloved childhood obsession — er, love, it does like it might be fun.

  • JoshDM

    All you had to do was ask, says the longtime reader, longtime commenter.

    Bay appealed to us “fans” by allowing Peter Cullen, the original voice of Autobot leader “Optimus Prime” (from the original TF series) to be the voice of the movie Optimus Prime.

    We’re still griping about the “flames” on Optimus and that he doesn’t seem to have a trailer and that pretty much none of the characters look like their original iterations. Optimus does get his faceplate on at times and sure Megatron has a gray head and Jazz’s head almost looks like the original, but otherwise Starscream looks like some sort of demon thing and no one really clamoured for Skorponok or any of the other Decepticons by name.

    At least he’s leaving Soundwave out of this, though Frenzy is a shell of his former self.

    So yes, MAJ. We do exist.

  • JSW

    To be fair, I haven’t actually seen much from most of the series I mentioned in my earlier post, but I’d easily place Beast Wars along side any other science fiction TV series you can name. Sure, the first season was a bit shaky, but if you don’t have a tear in your eye by the end of Code of Hero or Transmutate you have no soul. Unfortunately, while Beast Machines (its follow-up series) wasn’t half-bad on its own, it really didn’t measure up to its predecessor.

  • JoshDM

    You win.

    I don’t know the names of episodes by heart like that.

  • Rob Vaux

    I attend screenings with a friend/fellow critic who has been quietly obsessing about this film for months. It’s instructive and a little frightening to watch his mood swings – hoping that Transformers will do right by the source while simultaneously fearing that Bay is going to pull his childhood up onscreen and sodomize it in front of everybody. He goes deep into the heavy canonical details, so clearly there’s meat there for old school fans to chew over. Personally I fall into Mary Ann’s camp – can one really screw up two hours of giant robots bashing each other? – but I’m coming to sympathize with those who really need it to be a little more.

    Also, my friend had what I think is the final word on directors. When I asked him who better than Michael Bay to tell a big loud empty-but-fun technostory like this, he looked me in the eye and said “James Cameron.” I’ve been cutting him some slack snce then.

  • JSW

    Personally, I would have said “Paul Verhoven”, but I’m not sure if he’s physically capable of making a movie with anything less than an R rating.

  • MaryAnn

    You guys are scaring me…

  • JoshDM

    What I wouldn’t do for an R-rated Transformers. Mmm…

    Still waiting on Cameron’s “Aquaman”. Of course, Vinnie Chase was a totally poor choice for the role – the fact that Arthur Curry is blonde factors in to his history. It’s the whole (ret-conned) reason he is an Atlantean outcast.

    And Vincent Chase isn’t “gruff” enough to be the Sub-Mariner.

  • The thing that worries me most of all is that the human star of the film is Shia LaBeouf.


    So I’m going to see the movie despite the fact that he’s in it.

  • Eric

    I was young enough to come in on the tail end of transformers in the 80’s. It appeals because its giant robots bashing eachother… to save humanity. And they freaking transform from cars, come on. I’d say it taps into nostalgia and adrenaline, and its a deadly combination.

  • MaryAnn

    The thing that worries me most of all is that the human star of the film is Shia LaBeouf.

    Oh, no, he’s wonderful. I dunno if he’s action-hero material, but I guess the robots will more than fill that slot. :->

  • David C

    MaryAnn, welcome to a generational breakpoint.

    Don’t worry, you and I are too old (just barely, but enough) to really “get” Transformers, just as many of our elders who were born in 1964 or thereabouts don’t get Star Wars.

    I actually have a whole generational theory based on the junk TV you watch as a kid. MaryAnn and I, born 1969, were in one of the last age cohorts to grow up watching old reruns of all sorts of random stuff after school that might have come from anywhere between 1955 and 1975. With programming decisions made mainly on the basis of “What’s cheap enough for the crappy UHF station to afford to put on at 4 o’clock?”

    Shortly after we became teenagers and stopped watching cartoons (or were “supposed to,” anyway), the trend of programming *new* material, financed by more or less making the shows 30 minute toy commercials, began.

  • David C

    BTW, the Giant Robot Movie *I* want to see is a feature-length movie by this guy!


  • Think you may be on to something, Dave. I was born in ’72, which is a razor-thin difference in age, but which I think almost perfectly straddles the line you mention. My early childhood consisted of a hodge-podge of cartoons, mostly reruns: Scooby-Doo, various eras of Bugs Bunny, etc. Transformers, GI Joe and their ilk came along at about age twelve – when I was still young enough to watch them, but was rapidly developing enough faux sophistication to dismiss them as “kid stuff.” Find someone born just a couple of years later, and they likely have no memories of those older cartoons, but embraced He-Man, Transformers, etc. as the touchstones of their youth.

    God, we’re nerds.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, welcome to a generational breakpoint.

    Yes, exactly. At 15 when Transformers debuted, I was too old. (And yet the friend I mention in the original post is a few years older than I am. He’s a bigger geek, though. :-> )

    Strauss and Howe — the guys who came up with the cyclical, generational theory of history — divide Xers into “Atari wave” and “Nintendo wave.” Those of us born in 1969 are definitely of the Atari wave, though at the end of it. Someone born in 1972 would be at the leading edge of the Nintendo wave.

  • David C

    I was just thinking of a graphical representation of the TV of my youth, which was the “Channel 20 Club” membership card. If only I could show you one…


    Ah, Internet, is there anything you *can’t* do?

    (more here: http://kidshow.dcmemories.com/twentypt3.html)

    But check out that card, with a roster of TV shows on the local UHF station circa 1975-1978. Everything from Bugs Bunny to Hogan’s Heroes to Ultraman to the Three Stooges to Get Smart!

    Some of this stuff was objectively good, some awful, most junky… but watching this stuff would give you (mostly by accident, granted) a pretty fair grounding in U.S. culture of the 20th century! Of course, Hogan’s Heroes isn’t going to give you a lot of accurate history, but at least you’ll get some idea of what World War II *was*. And old sitcoms would clue you in to differences in everyday life between then and now.

    Five or ten years later, most of the shows on that card no longer aired, or if they did, they’d only show up at 3:00 AM or during Orioles rain delays.

    The “toy commercial” era cartoons, though, are pretty much unmoored from their culture.

    Which is why we’re provably better than you Gen Y people. ;)

  • David C

    Ah, MaryAnn’s post reminds me, I made a mistake in my post. We’re superior to Gen Y *and* Nintendo-Wave Gen X! ;) ;)

  • MaryAnn

    Oh my god, that card is my childhood in a nutshell.

  • I humbly submit that there is a middle ground between Nintendo Gen-Xers and Atari Gen-Xers: ColecoVision Gen-Xers. And we’ll take the lot of you with one joystick-wielding hand tied behind our backs.

    Also, I choose to believe that this Balkanization is caused by the fact that Gen-Xers are so exponentially more awesome than any other form of life that we must now turn on each other in order to find any enemies worth defeating.

    Wait, what were we talking about? Oh yeah. Transformers. What’s up with that?

  • I’m definitely too old to have gotten into “Transformers” yet I had no problem getting into “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain,” “Powerpuff Girls,” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.”

    Heh. Irony.

  • MaryAnn

    Hey, you’re right, Tonio! I was *totally* into lots of supposed kid stuff in the 90s, like *Pinky and the Brain* and *Beakman’s World.*

    I think what happened in the 90s is that a bunch of Atari-wave Xers started making the toons, so there was a wink and a nod in them, as well as a bit of snarky grownup attitude. There wasn’t any of that in *Transformers* — that one really was just for kids.

  • David C

    Yeah, Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain in particular were quite consciously linear descendants of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, which were always written for all ages.

  • Mark D.

    I was born in 1974. I LOVED Transformers, G.I
    Joe, Thundercats, and M.A.S.K., among others. The animated movie, though, is where it’s at. My nostalgic love for the Transformers stems entirely from the movie. It was far more serious than the TV episodes. The animation was better, characters died, and the music was perfect. I STILL love that movie. I never watched any Transformers show after the first gen, but I still find myself caring about what Bay has done to these characters. I’m not sure his movie should even be called Transformers. Who knows, It may end up being a fun flick, but most certainly is NOT what I would have hoped for.

  • JoshDM

    Honestly? I re-watched the Transformers Animated movie and fell asleep. Same thing happened when I re-watched Superman II.

  • Cthulhu

    I think Transformers isn’t just a generational thing – there’s the whole aspect that us English folks had it placed in as part of the Saturday Morning kids TV show process. It was bundled together with MASK, GI Joe and The Inhumanoids – as far as I recall they were all made by the same company.

    At the age of 10 it was the only way my parents could get me up on a Saturday morning before 8 in the morning. Compared to other kids TV during the week this type of cartoon was the height of sophistication – other than that it was Grange Hill, Blue Peter and Newsround!!

    By the way – I didn’t realise I could post here!! Whoohay!!

    Cthulhu fhtagn!!

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