MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE?
by Sam Hatch
I must admit that while I was part of the correct demographic in the eighties, I was never a huge fan of The Transformers cartoon. I did have a few of the toys, mind you as some of them were pretty cool. Somehow I got lost in their transition from neat transforming toys to multi-media entertainment entity. I think that despite my young age and general tendency to buy into anything sci-fi related, I was still turned off by the feeling that I was being marketed to. I was a huge collector of Star Wars toys (or more accurately, my parents were), but at least those toys were made in the shadow of the film. With Transformers, the story was made to support the toys.
Transformers had an interesting inception, as Hasbro execs discovered a series of cutting-edge toys at a Tokyo toy showcase and immediately bought the sales rights. They then went to Marvel Comics to work out a tie-in and commissioned them to come up with a concept to back the toys. Marvel was pretty used to this by then as they had already created successful comic characters out of the toy series' Shogun Warriors, Micronauts and Rom. Even eventual X-Men alum Dazzler was initially a failed attempt at creating a multi-media crossover character with Casablanca Records. Jim Shooter came up with the simple Good-guys - Bad-Guys' motif that was basically recycled from his work on G.I. Joe where he created the opposing forces of Team Joe and Cobra. GI Joe was another toy-servicing cartoon I was supposed to love but didn't.
Around the time all this went down I was finding my affinity for Japanese anime cartoons, and had found the Holy Grail for American anime fans in the early 80s Robotech. Robotech had transforming robots (indeed, Starscream in the Transformers line was just a repackaged toy from the Japanese show Macross which later became part of the 'Robotech Saga') and a great, overarcing space-opera storyline. Transformers started out with potential, with Japan's Toei animation handling the production duties. Eventually, the arc was taken out of the show to focus on more episodic adventures, which I suppose led to me abandoning the show at that point.
I did have the initial four-issue Marvel Comics miniseries, and as that eventually blossomed into an ongoing entity, it strangely diverged from the path the cartoon was taking. The Transformers mythos was therefore a mess the storylines were fractured and the only constant theme was this: BUY! Likewise, the toys were a mess as well. As time went on Hasbro kept buying up any new transforming toy on the Tokyo market, repackaging this mongrel product line and selling it back to Japanese.
After a few seasons (and countless half-witted competitors such as The Go-Bots), the show dried up in America, yet in Japan they continued crafting multiple animated series on their own accord (I actually wouldn't mind checking these out sometime). Once CG animation became affordable enough, Transformers eventually came back with the Beast Wars series and resuscitated the franchise in America.
Shortly thereafter, the generation of kids weaned on the original product was old enough to understand nostalgia, and Transformers-mania suddenly struck with a vengeance reaffirming its position in popular culture much like Scarface did through the hip-hop community. Soon, goth stores like Hot Topic were selling pseudo-faded faux 'vintage' t-shirts with the logos of the two warring Transformers clans the Autobots and the Decepticons. This was followed closely by the equally head-scratching resurgence in popularity of the feline-warrior TV cartoon Thundercats. Even as a kid, I found most of this stuff to be junk culture perhaps I was just a snobby little bastard.
It didn't surprise me to learn that a live-action version of the Transformers was being planned, and while I wasn't wetting my pants with joy I was intrigued with what could be done with modern special effects. The first time the bots hit the big screen, it was for a financially disappointing animated feature called Transformers: The Movie. I never saw it, but everyone else my age did and they all let me know that one character dropped the S-bomb in it. So it had to be good, right?
Needless to say, I wasn't worried about the screenwriters of the new version ruining any of the accepted canon. In fact, I was hoping they would inject more of an interesting human story into the proceedings. The initial teaser trailer (depicting a Mars rover encountering a silhouetted Decepticon baddie) incited equal amounts of "Huh?" and "Duuuuuude! amongst theatergoers, but the only thing that really worried me was the inclusion of Michael Bay as director.
Michael Bay has a notorious reputation among cineastes, and is known generally as a hack action director who makes soulless, big budget pictures such as Armageddon. In that film, Bay treated everything like an action scene, so even shots of Billy Bob Thornton in a NASA control room were shot with rollercoaster-speed dolly pans. The opening oil rig scenes were a (Optimus?) prime example of his sturm-und-drang style with shaky, impossible to follow camerawork accompanying characters acting so manic and over the top it became questionable as to whether or not they were even speaking (or more accurately shouting) English any longer.
If that weren't bad enough, he would later inject sappy death and/or love scenes with overloaded Hans Zimmer music and would actually try to get the audience to cry - even though the rest of the film was so inanely goofy that it made Tom & Jerry cartoons feel like Herman Melville prose.
Speaking of Jerry, Jerry Bruckheimer also earned plenty of scorn for the end product, and indeed Michael Bay was a mutant byproduct of the classic Bruckheimer formula traditionally lensed by action director Tony Scott. Armageddon and the Bad Boys franchise were the action movie equivalent of what happened to the comic book world in the 90s when artist Todd McFarlane took over. New, likeminded artists were producing material that was an exaggeration of already exaggerated material, and grew so far removed from reality that it caused a disconnect with the reader/viewer.
This bastard child of Tony Scott named Michael Bay later went on to helm the much reviled Pearl Harbor (pick up Team America: World Police for a hilarious and scathing take on the 'talent' inherent in that film). He did show a bit of promise with 2005's The Island, which began with some intriguing Logan's Run style dystopian sci-fi but was later mired in mind-numbing chase scenes and infuriating product placement.
So news of Transformers was a mixed bag. There was a chance of the writers making the material fresh and enjoyable, and the thought of giant transforming robots doing deadly battle in city streets sure sounded pretty cool. But then there was the Bay factor would he find the heart of the project only to squash it beneath his celluloid jackboots? One thing still left me relieved at least he wasn't about to destroy my beloved childhood property, namely Super Dimension Fortress Macross aka Robotech.