First there was the cube  …

James Combes

A shiver goes down the spine. The hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. The familiar yet forgotten voice transports me back 25 years, back to a time when toys were not just toys.

They were  "More than meets the eye."

Transformers summed up the over-indulgence of the eighties. At the peak of Transformer hype, Optimus Prime  — the ultimate Transformer  — flew off the shelves quicker than a newly-released Harry Potter novel, leaving thousands of desperate parents in its wake. How could they explain to their child that Father Christmas had run out?

But there is a more sinister side to the Transformers story. They are perfect proof of the triumph of marketing. The rollickingly good-fun eighties cartoon was nothing but an extended advert. It was purposefully designed to sell a line of toys by the bucket-load.

To today's youngsters this fact may seem totally irrelevant; after all, this is the way that all films are marketed now. Every kids' movie that comes out has associated action figures, tie-ins with breakfast cereals and fast-food companies, sticker-books, t-shirts and lunch-boxes. It is a recognised formula  — a marketing strategy that never fails to separate children (or at least their parents) from their hard-earned cash.

But that model  — the idea that there is a market for all of these things  — is a fact rooted in the late-seventies and the early eighties. That's where it all started. The key film was George Lucas's giant space-opera, Star Wars. Once the original trilogy had proven itself to be the cash-cow that it was - with toy versions of the Millenium Falcon, Darth Vader, and replica Lightsabers being the must-have items for young nerdy boys  — it was as if the page had been turned: the innocence of the children's film market had been shattered.

Even nearly thirty years on there is something uncomfortable about that fact. And of course, what  "Star Wars" began in the seventies became one of the defining points of the eighties. Every new cartoon, from Masters of the Universe (MOTU) and Thundercats to Transformers, had now run with this idea. Saturday morning television was littered with adverts for new action figures and exciting plastic toys. But there was one saving grace for both MOTU and Transformers  — a fact that absolves the sinister, plotting, marketing men slightly: the cartoons were commissioned after the toys.

This time around, Transformers does not have that excuse. This film is simply an extended advert and shameless with it. The new film will re-launch the brand. But it does raise a few ethical questions concerning the targeting of young children by the marketing world; and  — artistically speaking  — compromises from the outset any real integrity that the movie might have.

In the years since their heyday, the brainchild of toy-makers Hasbro has been revived in various forms. A full-length cartoon movie entered the cinema in 1986, set against a big-haired, air-punching 80's rock soundtrack  — most notable for the fact that it featured the late, great Orson Wells in his last ever role. The movie failed to have the impact that it should have, which is a shame because it is a fantastic 80-minute romp and has since become a cult classic. Later there were Beast Wars and Transformers Armada  — cartoons so bad they should have had government health warnings on them.

But this is different. This is a full-scale, live-action Michael Bay movie. And that voice belongs to Optimus Prime, leader of a group of Transforming robots called the Autobots. It does not matter how bad this movie is now: getting Peter Cullen to resume his role as Prime is sheer genius.
Unexpectedly, the plot is rudimentary. There is some gobbledegook about a cube that created the Transformers, but it's not that interesting. Only four things need to be realised before watching the movie:

1. There are good guys called Autobots.
2. There are bad guys called Decepticons.
3. They are going to spend large chunks of the next two hours belting chunks out of each other.
4. Megan Fox has a very nice midriff.

This film is either going to be absolutely awful, or mind-blowingly good.
That considered, and with my expectations set at  "low" I find myself pleasantly surprised at the impressive CGI, the performances of Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox, and the underlying sense of humour that pervades the film.

Bay has decided not to take the film too seriously  — a fact that is much to his credit. A Decepticon disguised as a police car displays the usual police badge on the side  — with a difference. Instead of the usual  "To serve and protect" mission statement, it says  "To enslave and destroy." Elsewhere in the film one of the Autobots makes a crack about Sam's pheromone levels, which suggest that  "he wants to mate with the female."

Sam Witwicky is the archetypal teenage geek, hankering after his own set of wheels and the seemingly unattainable bad girl, Mikaela Banes. Bumblebee is the real star of the show, indulging in Herbie-style shenanigans at the used car lot and communicating by playing cheesy music to help Sam impress Mikaela.

As Banes walks off into the distance, taking her curves and midriff with her, Sam is left unsure of what to do. Bumblebee's radio comes to the rescue, conveniently playing  "Drive" by The Cars:
 "Who's gonna drive you home, tonight  …"
Cheesy? Yes. Funny? That too.

In fact, the film is surprisingly decent. It is far from perfect, but it's not a bad attempt. Hard-core fans of the original cartoon will nit-pick over the re-designing of so many of the major characters, and the two dimensional Decepticons.

A crucial failing, is the under-developed antipathy between Decepticon leader Megatron and Starscream  — two of the key Decepticons of the original show. This is a shame, because it provided a much-needed level of characterisation in the cartoon series. Michael Bay could have utilised this to greater effect. And there is the problem that because of the speed at which everything moves in this film, the images are just too blurry to get a grip on. To actually see the robots clearly is often quite difficult.

Megatron's re-design leaves a lot to be deserved. The slapdash  "scary robot with pointy teeth" option seems to be an exercise is chasing the lowest common denominator. Even his aircraft mode lacks finesse. And although Prime's robot form is much the same as the original, the re-design of his truck mode seems entirely pointless. Gone is the subtle but iconic red and blue articulated HGV. Instead there is a gratuitous,  "in-your-face" design  … with a flame motif running along the sides. What next? Go-Faster stripes?

The new robot designs simply aren't as distinctive or memorable as the originals. It is as if Michael Bay has taken it a step too far in trying to make them look like alien technology  — they have become too robotic, and somehow characterless.

That said there is plenty to enjoy here. All the romping, clanking, gratuitous violence, and that funny, familiar sound that the Transformers make as they change form  … These are all there in great abundance. LeBeouf's performance is steady and convincingly geeky and Fox does her best to transform  — geddit?  — an otherwise two-dimensional character into a convincing piece of acting. It's not her fault that her dialogue is often as clanking as the robots: she does the best with what she has been given.

And after two hours plus of mass destruction the film closes on a sunset. The Autobots are stranded on Earth  —  "hiding in plain sight", as Prime remarks. And most of the audience leave satisfied.
Of course, it would have been much better if Megatron said  "Excellent" all the time, in that way that he did in the cartoon. But you can't have everything. Next time, let's have Wheeljack, Trailbreaker and some Dinobots too.


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