By Scott Brown
For two glorious years, Optimus Prime was America’s hero. He starred in Transformers, a thriftily animated series (cynics would call it a half-hour toy commercial) that pitted Prime and his army of Autobots against the vicious Megatron and his Decepticons. On the small screen, these robots in disguise were more than cartoons, they were towering titanium gods, massive in their machine carapaces: tractor trailers, cop cars, fighter jets.
In toy form, Transformers combined the tantalizing tactility of a Rubik’s Cube with the vroom-vroom automotive voyeurism of Hot Wheels. Add a touch of Cold War moral clarity and we were hooked. Boys ages 5 to 11 — and it was boys — faithfully tuned in week after week to watch the saga of these doughty bots, who struck out from their home planet, Cybertron, with vague and mixed motives — conquest, freedom, resources, defense — and brought their civil war to our planet. We welcomed them as liberators and adopted Prime as our mech-daddy. Some quite literally: In 2001, a 30-year-old National Guardsman from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, legally changed his name to Optimus Prime. “I really latched onto him when I was a kid,” Prime said to TV reporters before shipping out to the Middle East in 2003. “My dad passed away and I didn’t really have anybody around.”
Then in 1986, the original Prime did something that distinguished him from most other cartoon heroes. He died. He died for freedom, for righteousness, and for shelf space. In the toy biz, there’s no room for fatherly affection — only next year’s line. The Transformers: The Movie, released in August of that year, was Prime’s swan song. For nearly two decades, through various toy lines and dubious toon reboots (a gorilla named Optimus Primal? Please.), the sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot.
At last, in July 2004, it was decreed from the throne of Steven Spielberg: There would be a live-action remake of Transformers. (Wonder! Joy! Blogging!) A year later, another revelation: Michael Bay, best known for such Truffautian explorations of modern manhood as Armageddon and The Rock, would direct. (Rage! Spittle! Blogging!)
The Making of an Autobot
A prayer went up across the Internet: Please, God, don’t let Michael Bay screw this up. Debate rocked the virtual halls of nerd Thunderdome, aka Ain’t It Cool News, where Transformers (out July 4) racked up more traffic than any other upcoming film — no mean feat in the Spidey-infested, franchise-fueled summer of ’07. “It was as if you told them Michael Bay was directing Star Wars,” says Harry Knowles, editor of Ain’t It Cool News. “I don’t get it, because the things that Bay does best are make cars look cool, make things blow up. He’s the best exploder in the business.”
So why all the grief over a Bay-battered Transformers? It’s a toy. A cartoon. What’s next? Please don’t let Brett Ratner desecrate the Care Bears? And aren’t ass-kicking robots exactly what you’d expect from the high priest of high-octane puerility?
But among a certain sect of geekdom, there’s more at stake. Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-’80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between: Stallone had begun his long sag. Arnold was already more credible as machine than man. So when Prime declared, “One shall stand, one shall fall!” in that seismic, tear-down-this-wall timbre of his (or, more accurately, voice actor Peter Cullen), you believed him. Thus began the cyber-outsourcing of masculine heroism, a process that would eventually, inextricably, link Y chromosome to Xbox.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Michael Bay, you’ve destroyed my childhood,’ ” says the man himself from the cathedra of his Santa Monica, California, editing bay. Appropriately, Bay is wearing a black Decepticons T-shirt. He’s aware of his image and, to some extent, relishes it. “I knew there were fans,” he sighs, shaking his shaggy blond power-mane. “I didn’t know there were people who’d hunt you down. I urge them to watch the 1986 animated movie, go watch the cartoon. You’ll want to shoot yourself.”
True, standards for TV animation have risen — epochally — since the days of those schematic, shakily drawn morality plays, and in theaters, we’ve been fed ever-more-smashing CG spectacles. But man-children of a certain age look to this Transformers movie — by the director’s own admission, a film designed for 9- to 15-year-olds — for more than galvanic summer thrills or simple nostalgia. They’re looking for redemption, as men. They’re going to a kids’ movie to grow up all over again, to remember just what Prime père taught them before giving up the ghost (and the hallowed Autobot Matrix of Leadership) in ’86.
“While a large chunk of people want to see giant-robot fights, there’s an equally large, dedicated group who want to see their childhood idols treated like serious characters, with real emotional arcs,” says John Rogers, the original screenwriter for the movie. “For every fan wanting to feel like he’s 12 again, there’s another who’s outraged that you think this is just a movie for 12-year-olds. It’s not that people don’t trust Michael Bay. It’s that the list of people who would be trusted is almost vanishingly small.”
Trust is in short supply for good reason: We’re tired of seeing our childhood titans (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Catwoman) humbled by heedless, ham-fisted directors. “At best, it will be a fun summer movie with explosions,” one 35-year-old Transformers devotee conjectured at a recent WonderCon. “But it seems like guys in Hollywood… Unless they’re really reined in, they have to pee all over something to make it theirs, like big cats.”
The mark of Bay on Hollywood filmmaking is acrid and highly identifiable. He’s more jock than geek, a two-for-flinching type who, at 42, is really too old to have any actual Transformers nostalgia of his own. What he does have, though, is a sensibility — a crass and desensitizing one, according to his many critics. Bad Boys, Armageddon, and the historically hyperbolic Pearl Harbor — these movies, with their tommy-gun jump cuts, their nitric, breezily nihilistic momentum, their catchphrase-grunting action heroes, and their napalm denouements, comprise a subgenre known simply as “Michael Bay.”
“It’s just a style,” Bay says, innocent as a killer cyborg lamb. “When Orson Welles loaded all those cinematic tricks into one movie, they hated him for it.” (A more historically accurate connection between the two directors might be the fact that one of Welles’ last performances was as the voice of Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie.)
“Michael Bay” means, among other things, car chases. So, as you might expect from a Michael Bay movie about robots that turn into vehicles, Transformers contains a car chase guaranteed to hit fans in their crumple zone. A car chase so smashtacular, he may never do another one.
Watching the scene from Bay’s monitors (with Bay helpfully replaying the sequences he doesn’t think you’ve fully appreciated), one can’t help but believe him: Down a crowded freeway streaks benevolent Bumblebee, now a yellow Camaro (muscled up from his origins as a VW Beetle). He’s carrying our human heroes, teenagers Sam (Shia LaBeouf, breakout star of Disturbia and the newly announced Indiana Jones sequel) and Mikaela (Megan Fox, in the role of standard Bay hottie) in the backseat. Behind them chugs Prime, in roaring-semi mode, fending off a massive minesweeper called Bonecrusher, an evil Decepticon.
At 90 miles per hour — and here’s where the brain begins to record-scratch a bit — Bonecrusher transforms into a bipedal robot the size of a small building. He then rollerblades (there’s no other way to describe it) through the traffic, effortlessly sweeping unlucky commuters out of his path. Prime morphs, too, going from hog-nosed Peterbilt to hulking robot in a headlong flinging of struts and panels, digging his big blue clodhoppers into the asphalt and reversing course.
Prime and Bonecrusher collide with molar-rattling impact, then tumble vertiginously over the concrete lip of the overpass to the roadway below, where Prime slams a boxcar-sized fist into Bonecrusher’s jaw. Bonecrusher’s face erupts in a skittering, dazzling spray of CG shrapnel. Oh, the lack of humanity!
How does this kind of catastrophe happen? With hard work, strict storyboarding, and a computing capacity that is measured not in megs or gigs, but in assloads. In scenes with multiple robots, rendering a single frame of film can take up to 38 hours. “Dealing with the moment where the trade-off from semi wheels to robot feet happens was the most challenging part of the transformation,” recalls Industrial Light & Magic’s Scott Farrar, who served as visual effects supervisor. “It was important to Michael that they transform in a believable way.” (Believability isn’t cheap: Production on the movie cost $150 million. Still, that’s about half as much as every other blockbuster out this summer.)
Then there’s the matter of matter. Bay says that weight-mass orthodoxy informed the decision to make Prime a hog-nosed semi instead of the flat-front model from the cartoon, which, he says, would have yielded only 23 feet of robot height. (He wanted Prime to stand at least 30 feet tall.) He also insists that it was these practicalities — and not his movie’s partnership with Chevy — behind his heretical decision to convert cuddly Bumblebee into a bitchin’ Camaro. Physics also informed the decision to make Megatron, originally a pistol, into a jet; and Frenzy, the beloved Decepticon cassette tape, is now a shiny boom box. But other alterations were simply Bay’s prerogative. Optimus Prime now boasts bright orange cholo flames and — much to fans’ horror — lips. “I’m the director. I make my own decisions. I like to paint the house green, even when everyone says it’s got to be white.”
Bay likes to work fast and acknowledges a tendency to push his crews to the limit. “I’ve been directing since I was 24. I don’t take ‘no,’ you know? I’m blunt, and sometimes people don’t like blunt. But I can run a gigantic ship, on 12-hour days, without going into overtime.”
Bay can probably afford to pay overtime. Thanks to the success of Pearl Harbor, Bay has built up so much goodwill with the Pent agon that he can call up and order F 16s the way the rest of us order hot wings. What’s more, this movie’s theme — “No sacrifice, no victory” — certainly must resonate with the military mindset right about now. An excellent way to keep costs down is to get aircraft, tanks, technical advice, locations (Edwards Air Force Base, White Sands Missle Range), and already-costumed troop extras on the cheap.
“When Hollywood comes to us for assistance, we see it as an opportunity to inform the public about the US military,” says Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison. “If they want our help, they have to show us the script and listen to our suggestions for increasing the military realism.” Bay puts it a little more bluntly: “I think they look at it as a recruitment thing.”
In the movie, the Decepticons make their first attack in the Middle East, and the war comes swiftly home to Anytown, USA. What does the Pentagon, or Bay, for that matter, think of a story that puts the American military in the middle of an alien civil war? Bay brushes off any parallels. “Civil war? Well.” He pauses. “A good movie teases you!” He pauses again. “There’s a lot of good action here.”
A lot of good product placement, too. In addition to Detroit’s most-steroidal rides, you’ll see a transformational cell phone and videogame console. Bay notes that he “took it up the ass” for product placement on his last movie, the box-office bomb The Island. (In its bold vision of the future, Aquafina, Michelob, and Cadillac featured big — though it should be noted that Spielberg, Bay’s Transformers producer-collaborator, pulled the same trick with Minority Report and got little guff for it.) But let’s be honest with ourselves, purists: Are we really going to quibble about endorsements when the urtext itself was fired in the kid-vid kiln of product placement? “What do you want, speeches at the UN?” co-screenwriter Roberto Orci asks. “It’s Transformers.”
True. But pimping our childhood ride is one thing; pimping our dad is another. With bated breath and shaken faith we await the return of our Almighty Rig. Because without Prime, we’re stuck with whiney Spider-Boys, metrosexual pirates, and koan-spouting kung-fu Christs in designer sunglasses and unisex clubwear. Because he died protecting us in ’86, and nothing’s ever been the same since. Because these days, the only real men left are giant robots. It’s moot, of course: With or without the sons of Prime, Transformers will do zero-to-bank in four seconds. Still, we wonder: When Papa comes truckin’ home, will we recognize him?