Innovation

Transformers: More (crap) than meets the eye

autobot.pngFrom Wired, robot uprising survivalist Daniel Wilson opines on the philosophical value of the original 1980s Transformers cartoon:

[W]hen I started building robots myself, it was only natural that the independence of [Optimus] Prime and his crew stuck with me. Remember that before Transformers, sci-fi robots in the US were either scary (HAL 9000) or infantilized (every robot in Star Wars). We giggled at the antics of C-3PO and Artoo, but they lacked any real autonomous authority. Megatron as a giant handgun — now that guy had bucketloads of authority. With their blatant disregard for people, Transformers burned into my psyche the idea that robots didn't have to depend on — or be limited in the same ways as — humans. That was the kind of robot I wanted to build.

Now, Wilson is the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising — and he very much evokes some of what is good and great about the original Transformers — but can he tell me how to survive Michael Bay ravaging one of my treasured childhood memories? Transformers, the big-screen adaptation by director Bay opens July 3, and smart money says it's going to give the phrase box office gross a whole new meaning.

In retrospect, was the 1980s version of Transformers lame? Yeah, absolutely. Soundwave went from 20 feet tall to the size of a club sandwich. Megatron transformed into a handgun that humans and giant robots could somehow wield interchangeably. Shockwave turned into a giant flying ray gun that DIDN'T SHRINK, and the Insecticons disguised themselves as GIANT ROBOTIC INSECTS, which somehow made them blend in on prehistoric Earth. (Hey, dinosaurs were pretty dumb, just ask the idiotic but indestructible Dinobots.)

That said, the original Bonecrusher and Optimus Prime would never have deigned to rollerblade while fighting. The old-school Transformers never tried to be cool (or even make sense), they simply were cool. I mean, giant frickin' robots that were also sports cars and fighter jets. That doesn't need any dressing up or justification. It justifies itself.

But when you turn these icons of adolescent wish-fulfilment into self-serious, preening death machines (that rollerblade), you miss the point. It's like making a serious movie version of Super Mario Brothers that tries to logically justify a guy named Mario Mario who fights sentient mushrooms and subterranean dinosaur tyrants (oh, wait, we've been subjected to that too). Some things exist in their own idiom, and can't be translated into a cookie-cutter overproduced blockbuster without immediately becoming a self-parody. And Michael Bay is the patron saint of such films. You've all been warned.

But I'm still gonna go see it. For cryin' out loud, it's the Transformers!

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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