Drift Notes #4: Michael Bay & Me
2007. Life as an independent young man, full of beans and spunk. At this point I’m all about music, drawing comics and drinking unhelpful amounts of cheap whiskey. Working hard in the wrong direction and working out the kind of person I want to be. My 2002 G1 Hot Rod reissue sits in a box with a few other trinkets; too precious to lose, too childish to display.
The incoming live-action Transformers film is on my radar – after all, with the promotional blitz it would be hard to miss even without an existing affinity for the franchise. But as my then-girlfriend and I sit in the cinema that July afternoon I have no expectations.
I also have no idea how explosive Michael Bay’s opening salvo will turn out to be.
When it comes to adaptation, few brands have proven as resilient as the Transformers. Different versions of the story have existed from the start, and from G1 to the Cybertron Trilogy to the Aligned Continuity each iteration has evolved earlier concepts, added fresh ideas and brought in new fans by the truckload.
It wasn’t always this way.
2003, and from the outside the Transformers is a legacy toy line. The Cybertron trilogy is a moderate success but the brand has long since lost the cultural cache of G1. Dreamwave comics tell bold G1-inspired stories for an older audience; meanwhile the new Masterpiece figures aim squarely at adult collectors. To the casual observer, the Transformers are G1 or bust.
Behind the scenes in Hollywood two producers are gambling otherwise. At Paramount, Ian Bryce and Lorenzo di Bonaventura propose a bold new vision of the Cybertronian war – a live action film to bring the concept into the new millennium.
2004, and Steven Spielberg joins the production as Executive Producer. He defines the core of the film as the story of “a boy and his first car”, and proceeds to approach action film and commercial director extraordinaire Michael Bay. Bay is reluctant, but a crash course in the brand at Hasbro’s HQ shows him the potential of the sci-fi concepts and anime influence. He signs on, and with a story and script by Don Murphy, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Ocri, the film is ready to roll for it.
Back to July 2007, and much to my girlfriend’s chagrin I am geeking out. The Transformers is juvenile but it works. Bay’s film is loud, brash, sexy, full of bone shaking action and underpinned by goofy humour. I love his version of Bumblebee and it’s a joy to see Optimus Prime and Megatron on the big screen, despite their alien designs. I’m not alone as the film goes on to score over $700 million and end the year in fifth place at the worldwide box office.
Bay’s film may be the first time that wider audiences see the Transformers as more than just a toy commercial… but the film’s success breathes new life into the toy line as well. Hasbro CEO Alfred Verrecchia tells analysts on a conference call that U.S. retail sales of the new Transformers toys have “exceeded our expectations with 3 million units sold since the launch.”
Bryce and di Bonaventura’s gamble pays off. For the first time since the 1980’s the Transformers are culturally relevant.
August, and the impact of the film outlasts my relationship with my (now ex) girlfriend. Bay’s character designs have not captivated me but I still find myself perusing the toy aisles of high street shops. One day something catches my eye – the Alternators line, discounted at Argos. I pick up Wheeljack, the last one in stock. Not a character I love but the 1:24 scale 2005 Ford Mustang GT alt-mode is an all-time favourite.
I’m impressed. The alt-mode is a display-worthy piece of toy engineering. If I knew the meaning of the word ‘kibble’ at that point I may have found the robot mode disappointing, but I instead appreciate the fact it can transform at all given how good it is in disguise. It is a one-off purchase, a piece of fancy – but it also entices me to dig out my G1 Hot Rod. Now I have two display-worthy pieces, and the rest is history.
Today. In the warm afterglow of Bumblebee, Travis Knight’s prequel-turned-reboot of the Transformers film series, it’s easy to criticise Michael Bay’s contribution.
In Bumblebee the characters are more recognisable as their G1 counterparts*, however brief their screen time. The smaller scale gives the story a human quality and clear focus, something Bay’s four sequels lacked. The action sequences are intelligible. The casual discrimination and juvenile-at-best male gaze is absent. Everything about Knight’s film has left the series on a surer footing (except, perhaps, box office performance – Bumblebee made $465 million worldwide, albeit on a smaller budget).
* Well, all except poor
A dozen years on from buying Alternators Wheeljack and I have shelves full of display-worthy pieces. I’ve read great comics and learned about a fascinating slice of toy industry history. I’ve made good real-life friends through Instagram. It’s (probably) unrelated to Michael Bay but I’m married to a wonderful woman who also happens to support my collecting habits.
Michael Bay’s Transformers aren’t for everyone. They’re barely 20% for me. But at a point in my life when I was figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be, his first film reminded me of how much I love the robots in disguise.
For that, he’ll always have my gratitude. And with that, I’m off to wrangle me up some Ding Dongs.
Big thanks to Garry for lending me Studio Series #38 Optimus Prime for this shoot – it’s an impressive figure indeed.