Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

A Chat with actor Chris Ellis: An interview by Nate Hill

Very excited to bring you my latest interview, with actor Chris Ellis! Chris has an epic and wonderful career, appearing in many films including Armageddon, The Island, The Dark Knight Rises, The Devil’s Rejects, The Guest, Catch Me If You Can, Transformers, Wonderland, Planet Of The Apes, October Sky, Mr. Bean, Con Air, Wag The Dog, A Little Princess, Crimson Tide and many more. He’s a true gentleman, a hard working performer and a great guy. Enjoy our chat!


Nate: How did you first get into acting? Was it something you always wanted, or did you stumble into it?
Chris: From age 5 while watching the Mickey Mouse Club on early television, I warbled, “Hey diddley dee, that actor’s life for me.”
Nate: I’ve heard you referred to as a character actor before. What is you opinion on the term, and would you categorize yourself as such?
Chris: A male character actor is one who never gets the girl because he is not pretty enough – too bald, too chubby, too southern. I have played such roles throughout a lengthy, undistinguished career. Just once I wanted to kiss the girl.

Nate: The Dark Knight Rises: How was your experience working on this film, with Christopher Nolan and such an epic scene on that bridge?
Chris: You have the advantage of me, sir, as I have never seen that movie. More to the point, I have never read the script, though I understand I appeared in it in the early, middle and late sections. The reason I never read the script is that I was never shown any part of it other than the pages containing my own dialogue, and those pages were drastically redacted such that I was able to see the immediate cues for my dialogue and nothing else. At one point, after shooting a scene over my shoulder, the camera was turned around on me for a reaction shot. My query as to what I might be reacting to and how was answered by Nolan so: “That is on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.” He fleshed out that response by suggesting I react as if I were “reacting to the sight of two guys talking.” No one I know who saw the movie hinted that I never looked as if I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but in fact no plot point was ever made known to me, nor any suggestion of the long arc of the movie. On the other hand, I got paid well, travelled to Pittsburgh, New York City, and Nottinghamshire in England. In all three places I had lots of time off in which to wonder what the hell the movie was about and to do lots of sightseeing. Any time, Mr Nolan.
Nate: I’ve noticed that you work with Michael Bay very frequently. Are you two pals, or has that just been coincidence? How has you experience been on his films, Armageddon/The Island etc.?
Chris: I worked with Bay on Armageddon, Transformers, and The Island. He is said by some to lack gentility and sophistication, and I have seen him on sets demonstrating a want of courtesy to actors who permit him to do so, but if you want a big action movie grossing a billion dollars about exploding planets and trucks turning over in high speed traffic mishaps, he is your boy. If you want art, go to the Lemmle Theatre in Santa Monica. I do this for a living. I go to museums for art. 
Nate: The Devil’s Rejects: such a wild and crazy film. Very memorable part as the goofball cop. How was your experience on that set, working with Rob Zombie and William Forsythe?
Chris: One day I mentioned to my theatrical agent that I had always been a fan of horror movies, by which I meant the classics of that genre, mostly from the 1950s and 60s. Very next day he called me with an offer for “a horror movie by Rob Zombie,” of whom I had never heard. I wouldn’t call The Devil’s Rejects horror – more like a Charlie Manson wet dream, but Zombie was the soul of gentility on the set. He is covered in tattoos, many of them visual renderings of famous horror movie characters from a simpler time, and when I worked with him he kept his wallet attached to his person by a length of chain sagging with languor between the wallet and his belt loop. This is a fashion accessory I associate with the Donald Trump demographic but which was belied by Zombie’s gentle and quiet spirit. 
Nate: What are some of your favourite roles you have played in your career so far?
Chris: Last year I played a judge on a TV series called Murder In The First. That was my dream job, as it involved sitting in a comfortable chair all day long on set, frequently unshod, and with an improving book in my lap to which I could refer between the words, “Cut!” and “Action!” I quite enjoyed yet another incarnation of Sheriff Cracker von Peckerwood in a 2000 movie called The Watcher, not least because I was given a rather wide berth by the director and screenwriter in making the dialogue my own. Also, it was a character with whom I felt a comfortable intimacy. The same applies to the character I played in the movie Armageddon and in one episode of the TV show X-Files. Playing Deke Slayton in Apollo 13 was probably the actual thrill of a lifetime because we all believed while working on that movie that it would become a significant movie (which it remains) and because I remembered Deke while he had been part of the Soyuz/Apollo mission in 1975. But, I hope it will not appear to be taking the liberty of rodomontade to utter the hope that there never has been a time of stepping onto a movie set without breathing a prayer of inarticulate gratitude for the consummation of a lifetime’s desire.
Nate: How was your experience on Catch Me If You Can?
Catch Me If You Can was a joy to work on, first because the script is superb, and because it gave me the chance to work with Spielberg who is a gentleman non pareil and who offers every artistic freedom to everyone on set. When I worked with him, at the completion of each set up, he would ask to the crew as well as to the cast, “Does anybody want to try another one? Anybody want to try something a little different? We have the time, so let me know if you’d like to do anything else with this shot.” Of course he has a very competent crew surrounding him, so his movies are apt always to come in one time and under budget, so it was a joy to work with such freedom.
Nate: Do you have a favourite or preferred genre to work in, or is it all equally enjoyable? Just once I’d like to kiss the girl, but as I say, every time I step onto any kind of set I remind myself that I am not laying roofing tar in Phoenix during the summer. If you ever hear me complain about any circumstance of my livelihood, you are invited to come where I am and kick me in the nuts.
Nate: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects, cinematic or otherwise that you are excited about and would like to mention?
Chris: Nope. Mostly what I do for a living is wait for the phone to ring. My family and I are now on vacation, but soon as I get home I will be slouching toward the telephone hoping to god it rings.

Nate: Thank you so much for your time Chris, it’s been a pleasure, and keep up the awesome work!



Before Michael Bay decided to piss all over our nostalgic memories of The Transformers cartoon with his live-action monstrosities, there was a feature-length animated film that for all of its clunky animation and cheesy, dated soundtrack is better than the entirety of Bay’s series of movies. For those of us who grew up watching the cartoon every day after school in the early 1980s, the movie came as quite a shock. Most of us, at that early, impressionable age, were unprepared for the much darker tone and the increased level of violence, including some of the show’s most popular and beloved characters getting quickly killed off in the first few opening scenes. The Transformers: The Movie (1986) was a commercial and critical failure but went on to develop a strong cult following among fans.

It is 20 years into the future (making it, at the time, 2005!) and the war between the Autobots (a race of good transformable robots) and the Decepticons (their evil counterparts) continues to rage. The Decepticons have taken control of the transformers’ home world of Cybertron. The Autobots are planning to retake the planet but need to get more energy from Earth in order to do so. Unfortunately, the Decepticons learn of these plans and their leader Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker) intercepts the ship headed for Earth with the intention of launching a sneak attack on the Autobot’s base. Unbeknownst to the Autobots and the Decepticons, a planet-sized transformer named Unicron (Orson Welles) is devouring entire planets to feed its insatiable desire for energy. Only the Matrix of Leadership, housed in Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, can stop him.

The dark tone of the movie is set right from the prologue, which features Unicron mercilessly destroying an entire planet of transformers. No one is spared. We even see one escape pod almost make it before getting sucked into Unicron’s massive, gaping maw. For kids used to the relatively tame television series this sequence came as quite a surprise. This was nothing compared to what came next as soon afterwards the Decepticons ambush a ship carrying several Autobots that are quickly and casually killed off! It was one thing to see anonymous characters with nothing invested in them be destroyed but it was something else entirely to see characters we had grown to like on the series dispatched so suddenly and coldly. These deaths do raise the stakes considerably as if the filmmakers were making a statement that all bets are off with this movie – any character, no matter how beloved, is fair game.

Clearly the powers that be (i.e. the toy company) meant to clear the decks for a new generation a.k.a. a new line of toys for kids to buy but I think they underestimated just how profound an effect all these deaths would have on their audience. This culminated with the death of Optimus Prime – the most popular transformer. Not since Darth Vader cut down Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977) had the death of a heroic character been so traumatic for its fanbase. At least Prime got to go out in style with an epic one-on-one slugfest with his nemesis Megatron. For kids at the time, it was an emotional moment because we cared about Prime. His death scene, in particular, had gravitas and meant something to the fans of the show. This is something that the Bay movies never were able to replicate with their multi-million dollar budgets.

Another memorable aspect of the movie is the scope and scale. Where the T.V. show’s action was largely confined to Earth, the movie opens things up by introducing other worlds and races (even if they are all transformers). And so we are presented with the Planet of Junk, one of the more fascinating additions to The Transformers universe. It is inhabited by the Junkions and their leader Wreck-Gar who speaks in T.V. clichés mainly derived from advertisements. In an inspired bit of casting, he is voiced by Monty Python alumni Eric Idle. Their world is a metallic compost heap masquerading as a planet and rather fittingly their theme song is performed by none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This race of robots provides a much-needed moment of levity in what up to that point had been a very dark film.

The battles are also bigger and more intense as Unicron transforms into an enormous robot that attacks Cybertron but this almost pales in comparison to the intensity of the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron that left many fans shocked by its outcome. No one was prepared for what went down and the film never quite recovers from this moment. Speaking of gravitas, who better to play a transformer the size of a planet than Orson Welles, the brilliant filmmaker who made Citizen Kane (1941)? His digitally augmented voice has the dramatic weight befitting the scale and power of Unicron. The filmmakers needed a formidable actor to play a formidable character and they found their ideal candidate in Welles. This gig would be his last and he died five days after completing his work from a heart attack.

One of the things that dates The Transformers movie the most is its soundtrack of awesomely bad generic ‘80s hair metal, complete with the show’s cool theme song redone by Lion. Most memorably is Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” which went on to be hilariously immortalized in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). The one song that acts as a crazy counterpoint to this bloated arena rock is Weird Al Yankovic’s theme for the Junkions, “Dare to Be Stupid.” His goofy, non-sensical lyrics (anticipating Beck by a few years and actually goofing on Devo) are perfect for this absurdist, almost Dada-esque race of transformers.

After the first two seasons of the television show, toy company Hasbro wanted to eliminate many of the characters and introduce a new line. Season three would feature several new characters and the feature film would make that transition. Toy lines are discontinued for new ones and so the dilemma facing the screenwriters of the movie was how to make this transition seamlessly. According to story consultant Flint Dille, “So, we had this one scene where the Autobots basically had to run through a gauntlet of Decepticons. Which basically wiped out the entire ’84 product line in one massive charge of the light brigade. So whoever wasn’t discontinued, stumbled to the end.” The scene didn’t quite play out that way but over the first third of the film, several of seasons one and two characters were killed off. Not surprisingly, it was Hasbro that dictated the story of the film, “using characters that could best be merchandised for the movie. Only with that consideration could I have the freedom to change the storyline,” said director Nelson Shin in an interview.

The Transformers: The Movie
’s pacing is fast and furious with never a dull moment – perfect for kids with short attention spans and actually works in its favor as any narrative fat is trimmed, packing a lot of action into its running time (again something the live-action films failed to realize with their bloated lengths). While I don’t know if the movie exactly lives up to its poster’s tag line, “Beyond good. Beyond evil. Beyond your wildest imagination.” It was a pretty mind-blowing experience for this impressionable youth back in the day. So, I come at this movie now with nostalgic baggage in tow, unable to really look at it objectively. I can only imagine what kids of today think of it now. Sadly, they probably don’t even know/care of its existence having been bombarded by the Michael Bay movies, which is too bad because they lack the imagination, the ambition (which are largely earthbound while the animated film takes place mostly in outer space) and the substance that makes The Transformers: The Movie by far superior. Plus, I’d take the likes of Stan Bush and Lion over the bland nu metal stylings of Linkin Park any day.