June 28, 2007, Rhode Island. Botcon 2007 was kicking off, and fans eagerly filled auditoriums at the Providence Place Mall’s multiplex theatre. This was the moment. After close to two years of leaks, advance information, and trailers, this gathering of fans would get to experience Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg’s vision of the Transformers in live action.
The lights dimmed. The presentation began.
Cue Peter Cullen.
Before time began, there was the Cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds and fill them with life. That is how our race was born. For a time, we lived in harmony. But like all great power, some wanted it for good, others for evil. And so began the war.
The audience erupted into cheers and applause. The original voice of Optimus Prime was back, and with it, the Transformers franchise, reinvented and reborn for the big screen.
(Of course, to fans, the brand had never gone away. It had continued near unbroken for over 20 years. But in the public consciousness, Transformers had gone away around 1986, and was now returning in force.)
It has been ten years since that initial fan premiere event, but the memory of that event, and what made that first movie so special, still burns bright in me.
Article continues after the break.
The story of Transformers (2007) was a simple one at its heart, one born of an idea contributed by Steven Spielberg: a boy, and his car. A coming of age story where awkward high-school senior Sam Whitwicky (Shia LaBeouf) bought his first car to try to impress his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox); with the added complication that one of his family heirlooms was the key to locating a powerful alien artifact that could settle an age-old war – oh, and his new car was also an alien robot.
It was a reinvention of the franchise, stripping back years of complicated lore and space opera plots to get back to the core concept; the idea that any vehicle could be an alien robot, and that these robots are among us, waging their war in secret. As a back-to-basics approach, it worked extremely well, not only as an origin story for this new big screen take on the franchise, but it also helped to reconnect all of those who fondly remembered the original show from the 80s with the new franchise, not to mention also bringing in an entirely new generation of fans.
The movie blended elements of teen comedy and coming of age dramas with a military story about an alien invasion in a way that kept the story grounded and ultimately helped to get audiences invested. Some complained that there was not enough time spent on the robots, a valid criticism since you did not get to see much of the robots or a big robot-on-robot fight with multiple participants until the film’s final act. The majority of the early focus is on Sam, Mikaela, and his car; on a small group of soldiers with critical information; and on a hacker subplot that never really helped to move the story forward very much.
It was a necessary approach, though. As an origin and an introduction, these early robot-light scenes introduced the world and set the stage, before the arrival of the Cybertronians and their war that would transform the world forever. The human focus arguably made the story more relatable and real; we’ve all been in the position of wanting to catch someone’s eye, and many of us remember buying our first cars. The relatability is a factor in what has made the first movie so enduringly popular when taken as a series with the rest of the live action movies.
If the realism helped to ground the movie, then it was the frankly insane special effects that brought it to life. With Michael Bay on board, pulse-pounding battle scenes were a given. His action scenes – with his signature brand of “Bayhem” – are the cinematic equivalent of a white-knuckle ride. They hammered home the intense action of Transformers’ robot combat, bringing a level of visceral reality to the robots’ attacks and battles. In the first movie, a number of set-pieces raised the tension. Blackout’s initial attack impressed on audiences from an early stage how powerful these invading robots were. It showed off how humans alone would be powerless against just one Decepticon. This was followed up with set pieces showing the humans fighting back against Scorponok – showing that these robots were not invincible – and then our first Transformer on Transformer fight, with Bumblebee fighting Barricade. The film’s action culminated at Mission City; a grand spectacle of an action sequence with multiple battles going on and multiple combatants, culminating in the second big screen showdown between Optimus Prime and Megatron. It was a big brawl, with a raw force and intensity that drove home the sense of mortal combat between age old foes. Crucially – and very noticeable when viewed against some of the more recent offerings – there were also lulls between the action, quieter moments with the characters where things would slow down before the pace cranked up again for the next fight sequence.
Industrial Light and Magic also deserve some credit for their work in breathing life into the Transformers with their incredible CGI work. From small details like moving gears, to the detailed transformations that made you believe that yes, that Camaro could indeed be a giant robot in disguise, ILM’s work brought the robots to life as never before. They’ve only bettered their craft since, too. After Transformers (and, credit where it is due, Iron Man), high tech robots (or robot super suits) never looked the same. It is said that after Star Wars, you couldn’t get away with low budget sci-fi movies anymore, and we’d argue a similar sea change in movie special effects came about with Transformers (and its other contemporaries).
We also need to give praise to the score of the movie, which was ably provided by Steve Jablonsky. Several tracks from the first movie’s score stand up to listening outside of the movie, with themes such as Scorponok providing excellent background to the tense battle scenes. We of course also need to give full appreciation to the sensational theme that is Arrival to Earth, an excellently composed track which accompanies the debut of the Autobots including Optimus Prime, and in a single track encapsulates the wonder that audiences felt the first time watching the movie.
That’s not to say that Transformers (2007) was a flawless production. Aside from the aforementioned lack of robot screentime, there was a reliance on crude humor (an issue present to a greater or lesser degree in all of the movies) as well as some bad shaky camera effects in some of the fight sequences. There were also sideplots which were largely unnecessary (the hackers, for example). But as far as live action adaptations to properties go, Transformers did an admirable job and enjoyed a phenomenal run in theatres – 18 weeks, grossing $319 million domestically. It even reviewed fairly well with critics, with the late Roger Ebert speaking positively of it, something he notably did not do for the sequels.
Such was the success that this movie, which could have been a one-and-done like other attempts at big screen adaptations of properties spawned a whole series of sequels, culminating in what is now a burgeoning Transformers cinematic universe. Of course, sitting in that theatre in 2007 as the credits ran, we had no idea that was coming. As a good friend of mine said afterwards, “I went and was entertained. I saw great special effects and my childhood heroes come to life on the big screen.” That’s how it was for many of us. We came, we were entertained. And now, ten years later, we are enjoying the latest installment.
But nothing replaces the wonder of that first screening, ten years gone now. Our first time watching Blackout lay waste to a military base. Our first time seeing Optimus Prime and Megatron fight in live action. Our first time witnessing Bumblebee play matchmaker between a pair of human teens in the way only an alien robot disguised as a Camaro can.
We end as we began, with Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime:
With the Allspark gone, we cannot return life to our planet. But fate has yielded its reward: a new world to call home. We live among its people now, hiding in plain sight, but watching over them in secret, waiting…protecting. I have witnessed their capacity for courage, and though we are worlds apart, like us, there’s more to them than meets the eye. I am Optimus Prime, and I send this message to any surviving Autobots taking refuge among the stars: We are here. We are waiting.