For over 30 years, Transformers have been part of our cultural landscape. With cartoons and comic books designed to sell vast ranges of action figures, the franchise has also sparked a cinematic presence, that hasn’t always been as fun as the plastic toys we played with as kids.
With the release of Bumblebee, we decided to rank the seven Transformers movies in order of greatness – from that worthy of weight jettisoning to the awesome and inspiring life-giving powers of Vector Sigma. You may disagree, but one thing’s for certain when you settle down to watch a Transformers movie – all you need is a little energon and a lot of luck.
7. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
So desperate was I to see another decent Transformers instalment, I sat through a Facebook Live stream from the world premiere of Michael Bay’s fifth Hasbro-Paramount paycheck. The abiding memory from the hyperbolic event was two of the three credited screenwriters speaking about their love and respect for Cybertronian mythology. They lied. Instead of nurturing the beloved lore, they took inspiration from a time-travel-based episode of the TV series and rewrote the history of Transformers’ relationship with humans. Cherished names such a Unicron, Hot Rod and Anthony Hopkins are used and abused, and our intelligence is insulted for 154 agonising minutes.
6. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
The franchise really should have lived up to the title. For so many strange choices to exist in the same film, makes for some achievement. What would be admirable in satire, is sadly just unnecessary when played straight. The action isn’t exciting, the jokes aren’t funny, and the actors are going through the motions. What could have been a forgivable 90-minute swan-song for Bay’s tenure, is bloated to 165 minutes merely to pander to product placement, justify Chinese investment and harvest the subsequently massive box office. The $320 million taken in China comfortably outstripped domestic receipts, which sadly meant Bay remained.
5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
For sheer disappointment factor, this could easily have sat bottom of the pile. All the characters that helped make the first film an enjoyable romp returned, but like a reborn Optimus Prime in a space mausoleum, something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps it was the overcomplicated storyline that delved back into history, rather than building on the impending excitement of the future that ended the previous movie. Was it setting the template for ancient artefacts that have the power to do something awful but maybe good in the right hands? Was it needlessly introducing appalling characters like the racially-questionable Skids and Mudflap? Trick question. It was all of these things.
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
In the interest of full disclosure, I remember seeing this movie, but I don’t recall anything that happened. Even reading the synopsis online, very little rings a bell, other than there being another Transformers relic, but this time on the moon, obviously. Oh, hilariously, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky has a new girlfriend literally named Car(ly). Apparently, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong and Alan Tudyk all had sensibly one-off roles to play. Throw in some visually unappealing fight scenes and my vague impression of a movie is complete. By virtue of being almost entirely forgettable, Dark of the Moon is saved from being remembered as completely awful.
3. Transformers (2007)
There are three great Michael Bay movies – The Rock, Bad Boys and his first pass at Transformers. Sure, they tinkered with iconic characters and streamlined some mythology, but the modernisation process worked with more than satisfying results. Bay captured the awe and excitement of having gigantic robots finding refuge on Earth, and how they impact the life of a reluctant hero. The comic relief characters were funny, the action intelligible and it was genuinely moving to hear the voice of Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime rollout through a theatre. Not to mention the subtle use of the cartoon’s transformation sound effect. My appreciation of this movie is matched only by the disappointment of its sequels.
2. Bumblebee (2018)
Then along came a prequel. Given the previous seven years of bad Transformers films, I had low expectations, until seeing the cinematic trailer for Bumblebee. Featuring glimpses of Generation 1 Autobots and Decepticons engaged in a battle on Cybertron, it excited me for this 80s-set story. It was even more than I could have hoped for, and a dash more. Deftly helmed by Travis Knight, it immediately sets about erasing the memories of Bay’s direction, by giving us characters we can care about, both old and new. Is it a particularly original storyline? No, of course not, this is an action movie intended for a family audience. Yet, never before across its running time, has a movie made me feel like a child, an adolescent, a post-graduate and a 36-year-old boy in equal measure.
1. Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Nothing is more Transformers than the original feature-length animated adventure. Released three years after I was born, I never saw it at the movies, but played my VHS copy to near death. The soundtrack never fails to set my heart racing and my everyday dialogue is peppered with quotes, so perhaps I’m biased towards my all-time favourite film. But for an understanding of what Transformers is all about, nothing comes close to exemplifying the reasons there’s a depth of feeling about Cybertron’s children and connections to characters possessed by fans.
Overall, the most pleasing aspect of compiling this list is the comforting knowledge there are now three good Transformers films. Can it rival such legendary trilogies as The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather or Star Wars Episodes V-VI? Maybe not for everyone, but for fans of the original toys and the generations since, there’s a trio of films that do justice to the legacy, able to light our darkest hour.