This post in the nutshell: Who said giant transforming robotic aliens are difficult to relate to if watched on a screen? A cartoon series proves otherwise. They too can have many human-like features that allow us to relate to them.
Back in the day when the Transformers first live action movie was being produced (in 2007); many fans were concerned as to how true the producer, Michael Bay, would stick to the franchise’s lore and history. When it was made known that Bay wanted to emphasize more on the human characters so that the general audience can relate to the show more, it raised eyebrows for many fans, who wanted there to be more focus on their favourite shape-shifting robots. Well, Bay continued with his plans for human focus, and produced the next 2 films with similar ideas.
4 years later, we have Bay to thank for the experience of 3 Transformers films, and this ‘thanks’ was pretty much well given since the third movie broke box office records for revenue.
Nevertheless, many fans still voiced their complaints, and some demanded a reboot of the movie series, saying Bay ruined the personalities of the Cybertronians (collective term for Autobots and Decepticons), often citing Optimus Prime’s violent face destroying tendencies as an example. For the uninformed, these fans felt that in the movies, Optimus Prime almost always aimed for his enemies’ heads, and he either rips them up with melee weapons or blasts holes right through them with his cannons at point blank range; this is a stark contrast from the much kinder and forgiving Optimus Prime of the comics and cartoons, whose belief is that every Cybertronian can be redeemed, and that the Decepticons may yet turn from their evil ways; killing was seen only as a very last resort. Though I was not a major fan, and have never watched much of the original cartoons, I still had a vague of Optimus’ forgiving nature, and such, I also found the Optimus Prime of the live action films to be somewhat vicious, and that his true personality was not honoured well in the movies.
When I heard that Transformers: Prime, a new animated series, was making its way to Singapore airwaves, on OKTO, I was excited about it, and looked forward to what it had to offer.
Here’s a US trailer of the show.
It had just concluded earlier in the week, I was pleasantly surprised by the series; the CGI was relatively very well done for a cartoon, the Transformers – especially Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Megatron, were portrayed in a way that was very reminiscent of the epic movie designs. Compared to past Transformers cartoons, this seemed to have the best graphics yet. The music and sound effects were good too, with an epically composed score capable of rivalling that of Steve Jablosky’s (composer for the movie sound track.) Most importantly, it had a storyline that was seemed to stay true to Transformers lore, and the characters were represented with the correct personalities – Optimus Prime wasn’t a face-ripper; it seemed like a perfect blend of movie and cartoon animation, on television. As you probably guessed, I got hooked.
I also felt that the cartoon had effectively countered Michael Bay’s ideas about the perspective to take on Transformers films. He felt that he had to focus on the human characters (Sam Witwicky and his girlfriend) to make the audience relate. The cartoons were instead more focused on the Cybertronians, and I found that I could still relate to the Transformers on the cartoon, even in episodes with little or no human involvement. Not to spoil the whole series for you, I would just like to make reference to one episode, in which I found was related also to a recent communications lecture topic; that on group communication.
In one other later episodes of the series, titled ‘Partners’ (alternate synopsis, click here), we see Starscream (the Decepticon 2nd in command) declaring his loyalty to Megatron and the Decepticons, and from an audience perspective, it seems like he had turned over a new leaf; this is because in all the past episodes, he was seen always trying to usurp the rule of Megatron. However, shortly after his declaration of loyalty at the start of the episode, his loyalties were put to the test as he witnessed a recently rejoined member of the Decepticon team, Airachnid (a female spider-like transformer with a helicopter vehicle mode), speaking ill words about him to Megatron. She previously was a rogue Decepticon, but has rejoined recently due to circumstances. Due to Airachnid’s gossip with Megatron, Starscream suffered verbal abuse and interrogation by the ruler the Decepticons, and then tested when Megatron paired him up with Airachnid on a mission to recover some artefact that they intend to use in their war against the Autobots. During the mission, Starscream had a squabble with Airachnid, and in the short fight that ensued, she managed to bind Starscream down with her webs, and left him to die. This occurred just as the Autobots also made their appearance to intervene in the Decepticon’s schemes. As such, the Autobots found the bound Starscream, and captured him. Starscream, probably feeling betrayed by his own kind, declared his willingness to join the Autobots. As the story progressed, one of the Autobots, Arcee (a female transformer with a motorbike vehicle mode), began to converse with the captured Starscream, and in so doing discovered some ugly truths about him, specifically that he had been responsible for the deaths of one of her friends. Enraged, she challenged Starscream to a duel to the death, and sought to kill him. His life was spared only due to the well timed appearance of Bumblebee (who in terms of Cybertronian age, is probably a teen or minor), and Arcee, not wanting to show an act of killing before Bumblebee, withdrew her blade. Starscream then fled the scene, and eventually declared Neutrality, stating he would be neither Autobot nor Decepticon.
This declaration of neutrality, and also depiction of choosing sides between Autobot and Decepticon, reminded me of the concepts on groups. First, both Autobots and Decepticons are groups similar to ours, and have their own norms and group identities. Autobots were marked by their belief of freedom being the right of all sentient beings, mercy, mutual respect and other values idealized by their leader, Optimus Prime. Decepticons, on the other hand, were known for their cunning, ruthlessness and deception. In terms of organization, the Transformers have something similar to us as well; For Autobots, they have an Energizer, Coordinator, Orienter (and probably more) rolled into one, Optimus Prime, and then they have an information givers – Ratchet (a male medic transformer) who uses his computer systems to find critical information about Decepticon activity, as well as Bumblebee, who is considered a scout. The Decepticons on the other hand, have a form of Groupthink going on, with Megatron leading and not allowing for much dissension, and any rebels (e.g Starscream) were often dealt with harshly. They also have an information seeker, Soundwave, who specializes in reconnaissance, and been dubbed by fans as the eyes and ears of the Decepticons.
Starscream, being a Decepticon, fitted in to his group norms; he was cunning and ruthless when needed. He was often a deceiver as well, often pretending to be loyal to Megatron, only to grab the next chance to try and terminate Megatron’s spark (i.e. to kill Megatron) and claim leadership. Due to his cunning, and possibly strategic skills, he was able to rise to become the 2nd in command (more than full member), of the Decepticons. There he was able to enjoy his power, and for times when Megatron was unable to lead, he was in command. However, due to his a-bit-too-many tried and failed attempts and usurping Megatron, his leader grew weary of him and disregarded him, and as such he became a marginal member. This was further worsened by the return of Airachnid, who, as mentioned earlier, badmouthed him and questioned his loyalties. It is not surprising that shortly after being marginalized, and left to be captured, that Starscream would say he wants to defect to the Autobots. However, due to Starscream’s history and personality, he was unable to fit into the Autobot norms and values as well, and hence eventually left both.
In sum, this episode, and also the rest of the series, Transformers: Prime, clearly show how giant robotic aliens can be very much relatable to us, and a film on them doesn’t need to have a strong human element to be relatable. Thus, it is quite possible to produce a film in future that has greater emphasis on the robots and still have it enjoy success.
This, of course, is my opinion on the matter, but how do you feel? Should humans play a key role in a movie about Transformers?