'Transformers': One Way It's Kind of Brilliant

The franchise has relied on secret histories to keep it going through five films (and many more to come).
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
'Transformers: The Last Knight'

Few would argue Michael Bay's Transformers franchise is for intellectuals or cinephiles.

The films are critically reviled, written off as overstuffed and incoherent mish-moshes of extravagant explosions, loud noises, product placements, scantily clad women and terrible dialogue. (Anyone remember John Turturro uttering the line, "I am directly below enemy scrotum," in Revenge of the Fallen?)

But there’s one aspect of the series that doesn’t get enough credit — and it is actually kind of brilliant. It's the franchise's reliance on a popular bastion of fiction known as secret histories, a concept that is used to justify the perpetuation of these movies from a storytelling standpoint, no matter how thinly scripted the final products actually are.

For the unfamiliar, a secret history is a version of historical events that differ from what is commonly accepted as what happened. Simply put, what if Stanley Kubrick really did fake the moon landing in 1969 or Lyndon Johnson was behind the JFK assassination? Unlike the genre of alternate history (a la The Man in the High Castle), secret histories do not run counter to our own timeline of events. Rather, they play out just as the history books say, but with key information withheld from the public or distorted to fit a more realistic narrative.

With each successive movie, Transformers has played with this idea, inexorably tying the fate of humanity with the fate of refugees from Cybertron (draw what modern parallels you will) through events and iconic landmarks like the aforementioned Apollo mission (2011's Dark of the Moon), the extinction of the dinosaurs (2014's Age of Extinction) and the Pyramids of Giza (2009's Revenge of the Fallen). It’s something that would make author Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods?) scream, "I told you so!" with joy.

With no shortage of unexplained mysteries and myths throughout mankind’s shared history, Bay’s screenwriters (six over five movies) have had quite a treasure trove with which to contrive ways to keep bringing the incomprehensible metal-on-metal action to Earth.

For all intents and purposes, Transformers: The Last Knight (purportedly Bay’s last directorial involvement in the franchise, barring helming a spinoff) is the culmination of this secret history of the otherworldly robots’ presence on our planet, tying together the previous four films that came before it with the introduction of a secret society — the Witwiccan Order — tasked with protecting the history of Transformers on Earth that dates back to the Dark Ages and the times of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. "You want to know why they keep coming back," says Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins in a surprisingly enjoyable comedic performance), an aging member of this society to Mark Wahlberg’s returning Cade Yeager, now a fugitive on the run from the law because Transformers have been deemed illegal (except in Cuba for some reason) and are hunted by the paramilitary Transformers Reaction Force. In addition, the inclusion of the Witwiccans allows for the return of familiar faces like Turturro's Agent Simmons.

And while the movie revolves around yet another MacGuffin of incalculable power, The Last Knight brings up some interesting ideas, such as Merlin (an always welcome Stanley Tucci, barely recognizable under a prosthetic nose and beard) was not an actual wizard but a medieval drunkard who had access to alien technology, and that the fire-breathing "dragons" of yore were just a bunch of ancient Transformers melded together.

More than ever before, we get a glimpse into the long-lasting relationship between humans and the Transformers who have fought alongside them for centuries, giving Bay an excuse to include an entirely superfluous sequence of robots fighting Nazis alongside the Allies, which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is pretty frickin’ awesome. There are also off-hand lines of dialogue like, "That’s the watch that killed Hitler," opening up entirely new and intriguing possibilities for this universe where history, much like the eponymous robots, is not what it appears to be. One could even respect Bay’s uncanny ability to cram a bunch of well-known actors into his films like Tony Hale as a government scientist or Steve Buscemi as a junk-dealing robot (something you never knew you wanted until you’ve seen it), or a comic-relief robot butler named Cogman (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), who is such a blatant C-3PO rip-off that the movie (so self-consciously aware) brings attention to it so you don’t have to.

All in all, The Last Knight is the most enjoyable Transformers movie since Dark of the Moon, despite the fact that it’s way too long at two and a half hours, bogged down by jarring cuts to Imax that, while beautifully framed, are more distracting than awe-inspiring. Be that as it may, by linking alien mayhem to real-world events and legends, the Transformers movies have created a twisted mythos all their own; a cinematic universe within the confines of our own universe, if you will. Even if the movies themselves make no sense and Bay’s preoccupation with cleavage and blowing shit up is not your cup of tea, you can still appreciate the original repackaging of stories we’ve all heard a million times. Whether that warrants 14 more of these movies, which Bay says are in the works, is yet to be seen, but at least we can be challenged to look closer at the world around us and ask questions. It’s a refreshing reminder that with everything in life, there’s always more than meets the eye. 

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