Robot wars: There's no stopping the Transformers franchise
From humble beginnings, Transformers has evolved into a billion-dollar movie franchise that shows no sign of abating
Text: James Mottram
There was considerable scepticism when Paramount Pictures announced a film based around the Transformers range of toys. Even Michael Bay was less than enthused when he received a phone call from Steven Spielberg, asking if he'd direct the first Transformers movie.
"I hung up and said, 'Thank you. I'm not doing that stupid silly toy movie'," he told reporters before the first film's release back in 2007.
You can understand his reluctance. Toys rarely inspire good movies - unless we're talking about the nostalgia-inducing Mr Potato Head and Slinky Dog in Pixar's animated Toy Story films. Usually, the things we played with in our childhoods should remain fond memories from the past. Look at 2012's Battleship, Peter Berg's attempt to take the strategy board game and turn it into a blockbuster resulted in a soulless affair with little connection to the pleasures of the game itself.
Yet this month sees the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in a series that just seems to be getting bigger (and louder) with each passing movie. The franchise's first three films have collectively taken more than US$2.6 billion around the globe; the third outing, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, was by far the most successful, grossing US$1.12 billion - making it the second most lucrative film of 2011 after the final Harry Potter instalment.
If there's an appeal to Transformers, it goes deeper than cinemagoers wanting to watch metal-mashing mayhem and alien robots at war. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Transformers, a toy success story that's spawned a veritable multimedia universe of spin-off comics, cartoons, films and merchandise.
Launched in the US in 1984 by the American toy manufacturer Hasbro, these two-in-one playthings that change between robots and vehicles, weapons and other items were ideally placed for a generation of kids already reared on Star Wars figures. Yet the origins came not from the US, but Japan. Back in 1970, toy company Takara (now Takara-Tomy) licensed Hasbro's popular G.I. Joe figure for the Japanese market, calling it Combat Joe. A spin-off, Henshin Cyborg, led to a line called Microman, which by the 1980s had been rebooted more times than a Spider-Man movie.
By this point there was New Microman, and further spin-offs Diaclone and Micro Change - the blueprints for the Transformers. Takara failed to crack the US market but their old friends from Hasbro went wild when they saw Diaclone and Micro Change at the Tokyo Toy Show in 1983. Licensing both toy lines to sell in the US, the Transformers were born - a series so successful, it was soon repackaged for Japan, obliterating Takara's original lines.
While Star Wars figures came with a built-in backstory from George Lucas' films, the Transformers had none. Smartly, Hasbro got to work swiftly with Marvel Comics and animators at Sunbow Productions to develop a story to help transform the Diaclone and Micro Change toys into, well, Transformers. It might not have been Shakespeare, but this tale of two warring robot factions from an alien planet known as Cybertron was the perfect marketing tool.
Even those only vaguely aware of the Transformers have probably heard of the Autobots and the Decepticons and their respective leaders Optimus Prime and Megatron. In the backstory, the Autobots and Decepticons crash-landed on ancient Earth, where the robots lay in stasis for thousands of years until awakening to resume their battle in 1984. While the heroic Optimus Prime and his Autobots sought to preserve humanity, the evil Megatron and the Decepticons laid siege to the planet.
This, though, is just the bare bones of a world that grew exponentially in the Marvel comic books, the TV cartoon series (which contradicted much laid down in the comics) and a 1986 cartoon feature The Transformers: The Movie. Even Bay was struck by the extent of the folklore when he initially visited Hasbro's headquarters to go to 'Transformers school', as he put it. "I thought I was going to learn how to fold up robots, but I met the CEO and I went through the whole Transformer lore."
Chris Ryall, co-author of the 2008 five-issue comic series Transformers: The Reign of Starscream wrote, "Transformers fans aren't folks who just casually pick up an issue, and then read it, shrug and move on to the next thing, indifference radiating from them as they do. No, these fans care about the property and the characters. I mean they really care."
While unofficial fan clubs began as early as 1986, this was taken to a new level eight years later with BotCon, an annual convention for Transformers fans and collectors. Rising in popularity alongside the more general fantasy/sci-fi world of Comic-Con, attendance has grown each year, with many fans dressing up in elaborate costumes of their favourite Transformer.
Doubtless it's this enduring love for the mythology that has helped the movies' box-office domination, despite generally scathing reviews from the critics.
The franchise is also actor-proof. When Megan Fox left after the first two films, her character was written out and in came model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley - an indication of just how dispensable the human characters were. After all, it's the computer-generated robots that are the real stars, a fact that's underlined in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Set four years on from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, gone is Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky, the lead human character in the first three films.
Part-continuation, part-reboot, it's as if Paramount is following the commercial instincts of Takara and Hasbro, which have relaunched, repackaged and reissued the toys many times over the years. Now we have Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, a mechanic who purchases a truck to sell to raise money for his daughter Tessa's college fund - only to discover that it's Optimus Prime, in hiding from the authorities after the bone-jarring destruction of Chicago at the end of the previous film.
With Nicola Peltz playing Tessa and Jack Reynor as her boyfriend Shane, and a story that takes place partly in Hong Kong, it's as if - like a wind-up toy - Bay has simply wound the spring back and repositioned it to head in a different direction.
With further instalments planned, there's no end in sight, with talk of a possible crossover film featuring the Transformers and that other Hasbro-inspired toy-to-movie franchise, G.I. Joe. What was once a simple toy has transformed into something much greater.
Transformers: Age of Extinction opens on June 26
FULL METAL RACKET
The Venetian Macao is celebrating the cartoon with an interactive exhibition, "Transformers 30th Anniversary Expo", that features giant statues and holograms. The 28,500 sq ft exhibition area is divided into 10 zones that recreate scenes from the films and showcase more than 1,000 toys and collectibles from different eras, tracing the development of the Autobots through the past three decades.
The centrepieces are two seven-metre tall "life-sized" statues of Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as well as the world debut of 2-metre high 3-D Transformers holograms. One Hong Kong and one mainland superfan loaned more than 400 limited edition figures to the collector's zone and classic Transformers cartoons are played in a screening room for HK$40 a ticket.
For those who can't make the trip to Macau, the statues of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee also stand guard at Telford Plaza and Maritime Square malls in Kowloon Bay and Tsing Yi. Darren Wee
Cotai Expo Hall F, The Venetian Macao, Taipa, Macau, June 1-October 5, 11am-8pm. HK$80-HK$100. Inquiries: 6333 6660
‘HEERO’ OF THE HORDE
Forty-year-old Patrick "Heero" Lui Ka-yeung has been an avid Transformers fan since the mid-1980s.
"I started my toy collection back in the year 2000 from the Car Robots series. The designs are amazing — they're not only transformable, but they can combine to make a large robot! That brought many of us back to the Transformers and since 2000 the number of fans has kept growing. I can't buy that many toys [now] — it's not the price, it's the space.
I have to rent a 150 sq ft storage space just for my toys. I can barely enter it. Now, I choose the toys that have better designs. I have over 1,000 pieces at a conservative estimate, from G1 — the original cartoon series — to the movies. I've spent HK$50,000 on my collection. The most I've ever paid has to be my 1987 56cm-tall Fortress Maximus. A complete Fortress Maximus with instructions, bio card and packaging has sold for over HK$10,000.
"In order to make one complete Fortress Maximus, I bought three incomplete pieces from Japan. I bought one because it had the little bio card and instructions. One toy itself was in very good condition but missing the sword, so I bought the third one for the sword. Altogether, it came to HK$6,000.
"In Hong Kong, there's only one place to find rare Transformers toys: In's Point in Yau Ma Tei. But it's expensive. It is cheaper than eBay, but it would be half the price if I bought from Japanese auction sites.
"Along with a few other collectors, we started the HK-TF fan club on a BBS forum in 2000 to share information about new toys. We have gatherings once in a while. The number of fans kept growing, when it got close to 100 we built a website. There are now 3,000 or 4,000 registered users and around 100 to 200 active members.
"I think the first movie is the best. The story is good and the characters are close to the original cartoon. The second one comes second, but the last one is too commercial — it lost all the Transformers essence." Darren Wee
MASTER OF MAYHEM
Bruce Law Lai-yin has been responsible for a lot of movie mayhem for close to 30 years. So it came as no surprise when Michael Bay — no stranger to cinematic chaos himself — tapped Law to be the stunt coordinator for the Hong Kong section of Transformers: Age of Extinction last October.
A stunt and special effects specialist, his 1998 directorial debut, Extreme Crisis, is notable for an explosive scene in Central that saw luxury cars blown up in the air, flipping 360 degrees then landing with thud on Chater Road — it's just the type of bombast one would expect from a Bay film.
For the latest Transformers movie, Law and his company, Bruce Law Stunts Unlimited, provided Bay with the stunt crew.
His usual practice when Hollywood comes calling, Law says, is to give the decision makers options: "For Li Bingbing's double, I gave them three options. They tested the three people, asked them for demonstrations, and then picked the one who looked the most like her when in action."
The Transformers crew shot in many locations, including Sham Shui Po, Central, West Kowloon waterfront and Stonecutters Bridge.
And like a typical Hong Kong production, the crew worked fast.
"Filming occurred at different places at the same time," says Law, currently working on John Woo Yu-sam's upcoming film, The Crossing. "Everything was carefully planned in advance."
While everything moved like clockwork behind the camera (the occasional extortion attempt from local triads notwithstanding), things looked crazy in front of it.
"When the Transformers fight in the city, you need stunt people in the crowd, not just regular extras," he says. Yvonne Teh