The timing of this post might seem a little weird, but I just recently watched Transformers: The Last Knight. And since I’ve just recently watched it, I’m compelled to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, in general I like the Transformers movies. But, I’m also a guy and giant robots and explosions are pretty cool. But, these are definitely not thinking films. These are the kind of films where you unplug your brain and set it on the table beside you for an hour or two.
The biggest complaint I have with these movies is that they make very little sense in terms of story. Especially the first couple movies. Characters come and go with ease. A lot of times you don’t even know their names. Like that motorcycle transformer that was in that one movie… I dunno. Aside from the main core of Autobots, their names and story aren’t important. There’s only a couple of Decepticons that even get names at all. Sure, the toys have names, but just watching the movie you couldn’t tell them apart.
As a person with a psych background, this is bothersome. Stories are about people. That’s one way that we relate to one another. Having stories with characters that don’t have emotions or motivations don’t result in people being connected to the story.
In fact, the problem is so bad in Transformers, that characters just show up and disappear without any fanfare at all. For example, in the very first movie there’s a cop-car Decepticon named Barricade. He’s a semi-major character for most of the film. Then, near the end of the movie there’s a battle on the freeway. You see Barricade drive up an off-ramp and… that’s it. Poof. Gone. No further explanation given. He’s completely absent from the 2nd film altogther. But then, he’s back in the third film with no further explanation provided there either. In the battle of Chicago, he’s seen injured, trying to crawl to safety as they come under fire from humans. It’s implied that he doesn’t make it. He’s not in the fourth film at all. And then, you guessed it, back again for this latest film.
From a storytelling perspective, I find this to be a serious error. Sure, the producers can say “Hey, let’s throw that cop-car robot it’ll the film! More explosions are good.” And they can just write it off as being “rebuilt” because “robots” – even though that begs the question why none of the other fallen robots were rebuilt aside from Megatron because “plot device”. But doing this cheapens the emotional sacrifice the characters make. It’s not as impactful when a character dies if they can just come back to life.
As an author of several franchises with persistent universes, this is a topic that I’m always paying attention to. I’m always asking how character motivation affects the sequence of events. What things do characters do? And then once I know that, I ask how those events influence other characters. How are characters changed by the events they experience, and how does that experience carry with them into the future – how does it shape them? Probably the best example of this is in my book Starsong Chronicles: Exodus. The characters that we see at the beginning of Planetside (book 2), are vastly differently from the characters that we saw at the end of Exodus. The events from the end of Exodus have irrevocably changed the characters in deeply profound ways. Writers and storytellers should not ignore this.