EDITORIAL: Themes and Meanings of the TRANSFORMERS Trilogy

Of all the blockbuster film trilogies of the past decade, perhaps none has received more criticism and outright scorn than Michael Bay’s Transformers films. And let's be honest, they are quite bad. But are they really as shallow and worthless as so many people claim, or are they just the victims of bad direction? Come and see why there may be “more than meets the eye” to this film series.

Editorial Opinion

Michael Bay’s trilogy of Transformers films, soon to be followed by a fourth, has been a massive financial success, grossing over two and a half billion dollars and reviving worldwide merchandising giant. However, they have also been subject to intense ridicule by both critics and fans alike. This is with good reason. The films are sloppily made, lack any characterization on most of their robotic characters, spend half their screen time on the U.S. Air Force, and of course, are packed to the brim with pace-destroying immature "humor." Yet in spite of this, I believe that not all the criticism of the films has been truly deserved.

One of the biggest complaints that I hear around the internet is that the films have no substance, and are merely ridiculous action fodder with no regard to story.. This is one complaint that I must take issue with. Some films, as we all know, are just pure garbage, from beginning to end. The Transformers films are not among them. If they were, they might make me less angry.

I am a firm believer that the films are the product of talented, even passionate writers. There is a fairly well-thought-out, even epic, science fiction trilogy within them, which is easily lost amidst the many butt jokes, pee jokes, weed jokes, ghetto-transformers, inscrutable action scenes, and shameless military propaganda.

If one looks beyond the poor direction, one can start to see the films that these could have been, and what they truly had to offer. There is something truly special here, and that is what I will now focus on.

On a side note I’m apparently not the only one who sees something here. In 2010, famous cinematographer Wally Pfsiter noted that director Christopher Nolan, who I’ve often claimed as being Bay’s opposite in the realm of intelligence in action films, was a fan of Bay’s work. Apparently “he sees something in them.”


The Transformers was a well-done and entertaining animated series for children of the ‘80s to grow up with. It of course told the story of the long-standing war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, alien mechanical beings from the planet Cybertron, who bring their fight to Earth.
The heroes were the Autobots, lead by the mighty Optimus Prime, and including the young, naive Bumblebee, rough and tough Ironhide, and cultured Jazz, as well as as human characters like Spike Witwicky, his dad Sparkplug and girlfriend Carly, and others like Chip and Raul.

The Decepticons were the villains, led by the ruthless Megatron One aspect of the show that never made it into the films is the relationship between Megatron and his second-in-command Starscream. In brief, Starscream wanted nothing more than to replace Megatron as leader of the Decepticons, Although Megatron kept him in command as long as he could use him, he never trusted him, and the constant chess game between them was a hallmark of the series.

This essentially brings into focus a central difference between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and in fact, a primal idea behind the story of good vs. evil. The Autobots fought for the good of others, and as such, built strong bonds of love and brotherhood, not only between one another but with their human companions as well, all of whom they'd be willing to die for. The Decepticons fought only for themselves, and thus even their own leaders could not even depend on each other to not betray them.
This is a fundamental flaw in the ideology of evil, and one reason why good so often does triumph in the end. Although much of this theme is lost in translation, the film series still maintains clear themes of selflessness as opposed to selfishness, of using one’s strengths to protect others, even at great cost, and on focusing on the things that truly matter. All of these are clearly present throughout the trilogy. Let’s take a look.

Part 1: Transformers

One aspect of the films that proved somewhat controversial with fans is that it tells the story from a human point of view. But, like It or not, that is our story. Here we meet Sam Witwicky, and amidst all the alien war and havoc, the trilogy is truly a story of Sam’s journey into manhood.

Sam is an inheritor of a grand legacy. His great-great-grandfather was a famous explorer, and the tales of his great accomplishments, his motto “No sacrifice, no victory,” and the pride of the Witwicky heritage, have been taught to Sam his whole life. But right now, he is mostly concerned with other things. Specifically, he badly wants a car. For this one simple goal, he even tries to pawn off the relics he has inherited from his family legacy.

Sam, at this point, is just a boy. Great accomplishments, sacrifice, leaving something behind for future generations, none of these things matter much to the mind of a seventeen-year-old. What does matter is having a cool car, being liked by other kids, and getting a hot girl.

Now we meet Mikaela. She also doesn’t see too far ahead. She’s the essential trampy-looking girl from a bad home who doesn’t seem to hold much self-worth, always going for the strong, powerful types, and somewhat letting herself be used as a trophy.

Of course, there is more to both of them. When Sam is confronted by a stronger bully-type, he refuses to be kicked around. H doesn’t do it in the most mature way, or for the right reasons, but he shows his unwillingness to back down. Mikaela too has her limits as to how much she will be treated as a brainless object, and walks away from the same boy.

Sam isn’t looking for a torrid romance with Mikaela. She isn’t the girl he has always loved and dreamed of being with (although the novelization leans a little more in that direction). He certainly has a crush on her, but in many ways he’s not even really different or better than any other young man in how he sees her at first. However, as they get to know each other a little better, he begins to see that there is “more than meets the eye” with her.

Sam is now perfectly happy with is nice car and the girl he thinks he has a chance with. But his simple life is about to experience a violent push into far more serious things. Soon he and Mikaela are both swept up into a greater adventure, and confronted with five robots from outer space. He learns that his great-great-grandfather’s legacy isn’t finished yet, and In fact, what might be the most important information in the universe has been left in his own possession.

These new friends, the Autobots are warriors who have fought for long centuries, had their home destroyed, and traveled throughout the reaches of space, in order to defeat the forces of the evil. Now they are even willing to sacrifice the one way to restore their home world for the better of the universe. Some of them are jaded, wondering if the humans of Earth even worth their effort. But Optimus remains firm in his principles, repeating his famous line “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”

Megatron’s philosophy is based on power for those who can take it “You still fight for the weak,” he later tells Optimus, “That is why you lose.” It’s Social Darwinism at its purest: The belief that those who are strongest, who can defeat and subdue others, have the right to do so. At least as long as they are the powerful. Optimus rather believes that strength gives one a duty to the weak, that wisdom gives one an obligation to the unwise. In the end, this great war, and all the grand battles waged in it, are all just for small people.

Amidst all of this, we also have another main human character. Will Lennox is the human that the Autobots can far more relate to. He’s a soldier, tried and true. He knows what it is to fight a war, and to give of one’s self to a cause. Yet he longs for the only thing he knows really matters, that same thing that wars are fought for, his family. In fact, he and the Autobots are both searching for the same thing. Home.

For his part, Sam finds himself growing as he is taken along in this adventure. Although he is at first appalled and judgmental at what he learns of Mikaela’s past, he comes to realize not everyone has had as comfortable a life as him. Mikaela has her flaws, but she has also had t o live a life of sacrifice, while Sam hasn’t had to live up to that part of his family legacy. He finds a bond with Mikaela, as well as with Bumblebee. A day after his biggest worry was looking cool at a party, he finds himself running, fighting, and making ultimatums to government officials in order to protect both his new friend and to clear Mikaela of her past. And Mikaela, who has always looked for the strong and powerful types, realizes there's more than meets the eye with Sam.

Finally, Sam, Mikaela, Lennox, and the Autobots are all thrown into a gigantic battle against the Decepticons. Sam’s world now completely collides with that of the Autobots and Lennox. In moments like these, when one is confronted with a situation they never planned on or wanted, and one can choose to simply run away. It is Lennox who tells Sam he is a soldier now, and helps him make the choice to do what he has to.
Mikaela too finds her strength, and refuses to leave the dangerous battle zone without getting her injured friend Bumblebee to safety. But then, instead of running away, it is this teenage human girl, and an Autobot with his legs blown off, who take out one of the biggest and worst Decepticons.

Sam ultimately finds himself staring down the great Megatron himself. Trent the bully and Agent Simmons were nothing compared to this. Yet even facing the feared leader of the Decepticons, he holds his ground. When Optimus saves him, he recognizes that Sam was willing to sacrifice his own life for the cube. "No sacrifice, no victory," Sam tells Optimus. It is at this point that he has become like his ancestor, like his new friends, and has lived up to his family legacy.

When the titanic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron finally commences, Optimus is ultimately overpowered. Yet it is this boy, a member of the weak human race, who manages strike the killing blow and kill Megatron. The great Optimus Prime lowers himself to him and tells him he is in his debt. The humans themselves are now their closest allies, and friends.

Thus, we see that small, weak beings, are not only worthy of saving, but the smallest, most base being may hold inside themselves strength and courage unseen. Within all, there truly is “more than meets the eye.”

Lennox gets a ride home, appropriately enough, from the truest soldier among the Autobots, Ironhide, and Sam gets more than he bargained for. Rather than a cool car and a hot girl, he gets a best friend and woman he can love (even if he won’t use that word until the end of the next film). As for the Autobots, after ages of war, they have they have found a new world to call home.

Part 2: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The second film continues along Sam’s natural path of growing up. The first film was about a teenager getting his first car and girlfriend. This time, it’s about going off to college and taking that first real step into adulthood. Sam is all too eager to get away from his overbearing home life and all the alien madness. Bumblebee, by contrast, has trouble moving forward, still concerned over Sam's safety, and hasn’t yet joined his fellow Autobots in their new mission. Sam realizes that they both need to go along their distinct paths for now.
However, that also includes leaving Mikaela behind. Herein lies the crux of this part of the journey. As Sam's father points out, two people may make a good pair as adolescents, but it is when they find themselves stepping out into adulthood that will truly test them as a couple (and, of course, most don't make it). This is especially evident here, with Mikaela remaining stuck in her mundane, sub-par life while Sam goes far away to a prestigious college, also seeming somewhat insensitive about it. He could probably go someplace closer, but it seems his eagerness to get away from everything at home is overriding even his self-proclaimed determination to make his relationship last. Truthfully, both of them are responsible for holding back their relationship, as neither has been able to tell each other they love each other yet.

When Optimus Prime comes to Sam for help, even simply help of the diplomatic kind, Sam becomes terse with him for interrupting his new life. “Fate rarely calls upon us at a moment of our choosing,” Optimus tells him. But this time, Sam is unable to accept life’s disruption in his own plans, and turns away. It’s not an action that truly has lasting consequences, but the thought behind it will weigh on him greatly.

Despite the battle against the Decepticons being something Sam thought was in his past, he once again finds himself in the middle of it. And when his life is threatened, Optimus comes to the rescue, this time dying in the process. Sam is wracked with guilt over how he had treated him just before. Optimus died defending him because that was the kind of thing he did, no matter what. He was, as we discover, the last of the Primes, a great race of Autobots known for their especially great courage and leadership. And all Sam did was turn him away when he needed him. Now, however, Sam finds himself bound and determined to do right by him, and sets out with Mikaela, Bumblebee, and their other friends, to find first what the Decepticons are looking for, and later, to bring Optimus back to life.

To their heartbreak, when the group reaches the end of their journey and find the Matrix of Leadership, it crumbles to dust before them. But even here Sam refuses to give up. His faith in what he can do, in what has to happen, pushes him to literally put the dust from the Matrix into a sock and run through a battlefield to try to get the fragments to Optimus. And while Mikaela does not have the same faith in these things as Sam, she makes the final trek with him, because what matters most to her, what she has faith in, is him. And so even when he is lying dead before her, she does not give up.

From the spirit of a past Prime himself, Sam learns that the Matrix is not simply taken, it is earned. Sam’s fortitude in his mission, his refusal to give up even against the greatest odds, are what make him worthy of it. He takes a moment to tell Mikaela that he loves her, and forthwith, brings Optimus back to life. Optimus then, as always, does what he needs to do to save the day.

And so Sam learns, as it seems, an even greater version of the same basic lessons, and now his strength and courage have been noted to even be worthy of a Prime. He grows up even further, taking that first step into adulthood. And into that new journey, having both been tested and realizing how much they mean to each other, he is taking Mikaela with him.

Part 3: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

First, a brief note: Transformers: Dark of the Moon was written with the idea of Megan Fox returning as Mikaela. This remained the case until merely a month before shooting started, when the role was hastily rewritten. But the third film was meant to be a cap on a trilogy that essentially tells of Sam's journey with Mikaela. Any other way, it really isn't good storytelling. So I will be writing this section from the point of view of reading the script one month before production, of pretending Mikaela is still present, and that there have been no shoddy last-minute rewrites. Because that's the only way it works.

The third film returns to the themes of finding home, this time involving Sam in that motif. This film is about a person taking that final step into the world, deciding who they are going to be in life. For Sam, what is important to him is simply that he matters. He has come a long way since wanting nothing more than a car, or later, simply to be “normal.” Now he is going through exactly the opposite of the latter. After having saved the world twice, he is left unsatisfied having the rest of his life’s work be something unsubstantial. Furthering the idea of just how opposite things are from the last film, it is now Sam who feels restless with his life, while Mikaela has landed her dream job, and Bumblebee is off on his adventures with the Autobots, with Sam complaining that he never stays in touch. Everyone seems to have found their place but him.

To this end, Sam is more brash and curt than we have ever seen him before, and even when confronted with high-ranking government officials, he isn’t afraid to get in their face and remind them of what he’s done. His regalia in front of stronger figures is as strong as ever, but it is also now mixed with a big head. He is unable to stand being called "just a messenger." But it seems, in spite of everything he's proven of himself in the past, the truth is he is not like the Autobots, or like his human friends Lennox and Epps. His is not a military life, nor will it be. Although finding purpose does matter, it seems what Sam really wants is to be a hero again.

When a new Decepticon threat arises, Sam is all to eager to join the fight, and insist the Autobots need him. He doesn’t have a pair of glasses in his possession or special knowledge in his head this time. He simply has suspicions over what the Decepticons are truly after . And even though these suspicions do turn out to be correct, Mikaela realizes that he is simply obsessed with somehow returning to the fight with the Autobots. Unwilling to watch him put himself in danger again, she leaves. Four years ago, when taking the first step into the real world, Sam had to come to realize how important she was to him, more important than leading a normal life. Now he has to realize she is more important than leading an exceptional life. But this time, simple “I love yous” will not do. He has to truly choose her.

As for the Autobots, while they adopted Earth as their new home in the first film, and realized how far their roots with it went in the second, now, they get another rude awakening form their own past. Here we meet Optimus’ mentor, and see him kneel before someone apparently greater. And this leader has not yet forsaken Cybertron as their true home.

It seems fitting that Sentinel’s very arrival on Earth, that which sparked the entire conflict of the film, precipitated the great space race, leading to some of mankind’s proudest moments, shown with great aplomb in the film itself. This furthers the theme of great accomplishments, the world that Sam wants to be a part of. And Sentinel too is holding onto that world. It is he who tells Optimus “we were gods once,” who seeks to reclaim their former glory, unable to accept that their home is lost, and that life has interfered with his plans. Of course, these are all traits of the Decepticons.

And the Decepticons win. At least, apparently. An entire army of the enemy is unleashed upon Earth, for which the few Autobots are no match. All that seems left to the world is to surrender, and all there is left for Sam to do is go home to an empty apartment. Sam has a talk with his parents, who really finally help him realize what truly matters. If the world is ending, and there’s nothing he can do about it, Sam just wants to be with Mikaela.

Unfortunately, that is when she is captured and taken into the Decepticon’s stronghold. Then the Autobots are forced off Earth and seemingly killed. However, it is there that Sam meets his old friend Bobby Epps. This time around, Epps contributes to the themes of the film, even if he is somewhat the opposite of Sam. He has left the military for a seemingly more peaceful civilian life. But he too is restless, missing the life that he was meant for.

Optimus has told Sam that “The fight will be your own.” So Sam makes his decision, to march into a city occupied by a Decepticon army, not to save the world or be a hero, but simply to get back the woman he loves. Epps gladly offers his services. And in his typical fashion, even when those around him begin to back down, to see their mission as impossible, Sam marches on, ready to go in alone. Thankfully, though, the Autobots show up right on time.

The battle begins, with Sam and his friends wading through the chaos to get to Mikaela. Sam does not save the world, or deal the decisive blow. He does, for his part, get to kill Starscream. But his own fight, as it were, is one with a fellow human, who, like Sentinel, gave up on his race, and simply wanted the glory of sitting at the Decepticon’s right hand. And in that fight, Sam acknowledges his place in this battle, and accepts it.

"The kid who saved the world. You think you're a hero?"
"No. I'm just the messenger."

And once again, Mikaela does more than simply needing to be rescued. Simply by using her head and her words, she is able to turn Megatron against Sentinel, and save Optimus’ life. Optimus is then able to defeat his mentor, once again showing us that those labeled greatest and even most wise, often are the ones who falter, and the so-called lesser are the ones called to rise up. (see Matthew 11:25). This pertains to the fact that the battle as a whole is won because the two tiniest Autobots commandeer one of the enemy ships and use it against them.

So Earth is saved once again. In the first two films, Sam proved himself a hero. Here, he learns that being a hero is not as important as simply having someone to love in your life. And that is the final step in his journey.
Once again, the Autobots have chosen to forsake the chance to being their own home back, in order to save Earth. These humans were people they were just beginning to know at the end of the first film. But now they have grown incredibly close, and the Autobots have come to truly accept this planet as their home. Everyone is home.

Thus ends the Transformers trilogy. As one can see, it is rife with themes of selflessness, of courage and never giving up or backing down, of fighting for the small and weak, and how those can truly prove to be the greatest among us, and of the things that are truly important in life. Whatever else can be said about them, there is a great journey here.

Of course, Sam's story is finished. But on June 27th, the series will continue with Transformers: Age of Extinction, a new beginning for the franchise. Although Sam, and even Lennox and Epps, are gone, the film will introduce a new cast of human characters. Will this be the first in a new trilogy. Will such a series still maintain clear themes, and a genuine journey for it's new characters to go through? We can only wait and see.

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