The bigger the boys, the bigger the toys. And now with "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" - the sequel to the 2007 hit based on the venerable Hasbro toys - opening Wednesday with more and even bigger robots, well, brace yourselves: The boys are back in town.
>> See photos of 'Transformers' star Megan Fox.
>> See photos from the movie "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"
And, no doubt, in theaters, where the rock 'em, sock 'em rampage of the original made it a blockbuster for boys of all ages - despite such critics' comments as "loud, stupid filmmaking" (Rex Reed). Even the many positive reviews could only muster up the likes of "goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good" ( Roger Ebert).
That's fine. Goofy fun is good. Goofy fun works. Yet, ironically, neither the screenwriters nor Lorenzo di Bonaventura, one of the four producers, sees the two movies as goofy fun. And when a Transformer in the first film gets urinated on by a Chihuahua and says, "That's going to rust," you have to wonder: How are they not goofy fun? They're based on toys!
"It's really a misnomer to call them toys," di Bonaventura says about the roughly 7-inch-high action figures that you twist and turn like Rubik's Cubes to transform from robots to planes, trains and automobiles. "If you look at the animated series and the comic books, they have a very involved mythology with the underpinning that any great mythology has: heroic characters who stand up against great odds through the centuries."
"On a fundamental level, it's great storytelling," agree - naturally - Roberto Orci, who, with writing partner Alex Kurtzman, wrote the first movie's script, as well as that of the new "Star Trek" and many other things. But he's not tooting his own horn. (The Transformer called Bumblebee does that.) Instead, Orci is referring to the "Generation 1" back story created when Hasbro introduced Transformers to the United States in 1984 and had Marvel Comics whip up names and a mythos for both the toy line and its tie-in comic-book series. (See story at far right.)
"They created a set of characters at the beginning that were very archetypal, and then stories of good and evil and of making right vs. wrong choices," Orci says. The heroic Autobots, who fight the Decepticons on battlefield Earth, "are a surrogate family," he adds. "They've lost friends and family and have come together to fight back."
"Artificial intelligence and robotic life could be our destruction or our salvation, depending on the morality of the technology," chimes in Kurtzman. How exactly does technology have morality? "It has a reflection of our own," he says.
Thought-provoking stuff. And absolutely none of it made it into the first movie - the second had not been screened by press time - in any serious way. Directed by actionmeister Michael Bay, "Transformers" not only wasn't a meditative action movie a la James Cameron's "Terminator" films, it wasn't even a faux-meditative action movie a la Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" flicks. When Entertainment Weekly asked her opinion of the first film, even ingÃÂ©nue Megan Fox - who returns here with Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn and the voices of Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) and Hugo Weaving (Megatron) - could only offer, "The movie wasn't bad."
The birth of a sequel
Its sequel was born in the looming shadow of the Writers Guild strike. Orci and Kurtzman, who initially hadn't wanted to write it, "agreed to do the movie two weeks before the strike was called" in November 2007, Kurtzman says. Joined by writer Ehren Kruger, with whom the two had worked as producers developing his DreamWorks script, "Nightlife," "We broke the story - outlined the movie - in two weeks."
Bay told Variety he then "wrote 60 pages" of what Hollywood calls a "scriptment" (part-script, part-prose story treatment), and "showed the writers something to look at." The strike ended on Feb. 12, 2008 - leaving only three months until start of production, Kurtzman says, necessitating "a nonstop race."
"The studio rented a suite for all of us [writers] at a hotel near Michael's office, so we could all go back and forth easily. He'd come in every day around noon, we'd show him what we were doing, he'd give us notes, and he'd go."
With the team in one of the suite's rooms and Kruger in another, "We'd meet each other around 3 p.m. and trade pages."
The eventual product finds star-crossed Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) now in college and dodging Decepticons who want his shard of the life-giving All Spark. More than three dozen Transformers join a fray that spans the globe from the United States to Paris to the Middle East, climaxing at the Giza pyramid complex.
"We've added a lot of Transformers," di Bonaventura says. These include the goofy twins Skids and Mudflap, plus the female Arcee, "a character we wanted to fit into the first movie," he says. "The fans really wanted it, and we just couldn't fit it in."
Orci and Kurtzman, as it happens, are two of those fans. They'd met during senior year at Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, Calif., but before that, each of them had watched the cartoons while growing up in the 1980s. Kurtzman says he "wasn't allowed to have those toys. I think at that time Megatron [transformed] into a [toy] gun and not a vehicle."
Now, of course, the two get to play with Transformers all they want. Why? Because they've helped turn them from robots to movie stars.
THE ORIGIN OF 'TRANSFORMERS'
When Hasbro merged and renamed two Japanese lines to introduce Transformers to the United States, the company turned to Marvel Comics to create the robots' mythos. Marvel had already done so with Hasbro's reintroduction of G.I. Joe action figures in 1982, launching a long-running comic-book franchise.
Editor in chief Jim Shooter wrote an initial five-page treatment, and had celebrated comics writer Denny O'Neil devise character names and profiles. It was O'Neil who dubbed the Autobot leader Optimus Prime.
"But Shooter wanted changes, and for whatever reason, Denny and Shooter decided not to go forward," recalls former Marvel editor Bob Budiansky. "It was, I believe, the weekend before Thanksgiving of 1983, and [Shooter] was in a tremendous hurry - people were taking vacations, Hasbro had a deadline - and I was probably the third or fourth editor he asked" to create names and profiles.
Budiansky, who did it over that weekend, went on to edit the first four issues of "Transformers" and then write nearly all of the next 51 (plus two spin-off miniseries) - giving names and profiles to dozens of original Transformers, including Megatron himself.
Who almost wasn't called Megatron. "I knew he was the lead villain," Budiansky recalls, "and at the time 'mega' had connotations of 'megaton,' as in nuclear weapons. And 'tron' sounded technical. So I put those two [affixes] together."
But when he submitted the name to Hasbro, "Hasbro rejected it! So I spoke to the account manager and asked why. She said, 'We think it sounds too scary.' I said, 'He's the head of the bad guys. Don't you think he should sound scary?' And they said, 'Yes, you're right.' "
- FRANK LOVECE
>> See photos of "Transformers" star Megan Fox.
>> See photos from the movie "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"