[downs entire whiskey sour]
Well, the Transformers are back, once more in the hands of director Michael Bay. It’s been 10 years since he first brought the big freaking robots to the big screen, with this being the fifth film in the franchise. Now the Bayhem is unleashed once again in Transformers: The Last Knight, which once more stars Mark Wahlberg and once more features a lot of human beings acting like they matter at all as massive robot warriors decide the best possible place in the universe for them to work out their issues is our planet MARS IS RIGHT THERE GO SOMEWHERE WITHOUT ALL THE CULVER’S, YOU JERKS.
Anyway, this time around there’s yet another plot contrivance to set humans and Cybertronians against each other. Optimus Prime has disappeared but now seems to be back and this time is evil or something. There’s a bigger threat coming toward the planet so it’s up to Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, Oxford professor Laura Haddock (Vivian Wembley) and Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) to unravel the secret history of Transformers on Earth in order to save humanity from the latest world-killing threat.
“Rethink your heroes” we’re told on the first poster, which shows a sword-wielding Optimus Prime standing along a rocky beach as something massive looms in the background, including both sea and air.
A series of character posters were released by Bay on his Twitter that featured many of the main characters, some old, some new. The caption he used when posting them contained some kind of explanation of who they are and what they’re after in the movie. These aren’t bad.
Another poster told the audience the main conflict of the movie was going to be between Prime and Bumblebee, with the former seen looming over the latter as if he’s preparing the killing blow. That’s amplified by copy that reads “For one to live the other must die.”
Another poster plays into the theme from elsewhere in the campaign that the Transformers have been on Earth for a long, long time, by putting one at the forefront of a group of WWII soldiers storming a Nazi headquarters. “Every legend hides a secret” we’re told at the top and it’s called out at the bottom that this was filmed with IMAX cameras, a direct appeal to the tech-heads that are going to be interested in spectacle more than anything.
Black and white character posters started to come out that highlighted the various robots and humans that are in the middle of the story, all with a different descriptive word associated with them.
An IMAX poster put Prime in the middle of the design with not only the looming…whatever in the background but also a huge three-headed dragon for a moment of “what the hell.” I know some of the campaign has shown footage of Transformers fighting with knights and so on, but dragons? Where the hell is this coming from? Seems out of left-field.
One final poster brings the whole cast together, including the humans. They actual actors are arrayed just above Stonehenge, which is shooting a while space laser into the sky. Looming over them are Prime and Bumblebee on opposite sides of that space laster, setting up the conflict between them once more.
There’s not much story in the first teaser trailer. Burton narrates and offers some exposition about a timeless fight that’s been raging. He intones that Optimus Prime has left and asks the question of why the Transformers keep coming to Earth. After that, though, it’s all about Big F***ing Robot action. We see Prime is back, but he doesn’t seem to be acting like himself. Throughout the trailer there’s something – maybe Unicron? – that’s huge and moving toward the planet and is clearly a threat.
God bless Hopkins for doing what he can with what he’s given. His narration is meant to add some dramatic import to the trailer, but that can’t overcome the senseless action and unexplained chaos on display. This looks like exactly the same kind of movie as the previous four installments, which is just what the studio thinks people want.
The first full trailer is somewhat less concerned with the Big F***ing Robots and more with the humans who are around them. It presents a world that’s very different from what we might expect, with humans and robots coexisting in some ways and at odds in others. It almost presents Decepticons as an occupying force and some humans as the militaristic resistance. It focuses on Izzy, a young girl who’s living rough and surviving on her own. She narrates and encourages everyone to “fight like a girl” as we see some of the fighting against our new robot overlords. Izzy is the center of attention throughout, though.
There’s no bigger mythology being played into or hinted at here. It’s actually kind of an overt plea to young girls who may not have been targeted in the campaigns for earlier movies. We get some story hints, particularly with that “Enemy” sign featuring Prime’s face and the fact that everyone seems to live in bombed-out buildings.
The official trailer starts off in the past as we see Transformers in the world 1,000 years ago in castles with kings and knights. We then cut to Optimus Prime having an odd confrontation with his maker. Next it’s Yeager talking to Izzy about what he’d say to his daughter if she were there. After that it’s about Sir Edmund warning that it’s up to a couple of everyday humans to turn the tide of history and stop the persistent threat of the Transformers on Earth. Scenes of chaos raining down on the world are followed by defiant speeches about not giving up and continuing the fight. Prime then intones that the Earth must die for his world to live, meaning we’re in conquest territory here.
OK, fine. The whole idea of Prime being the bad guy here seems really odd and as with most of Bay’s movies the ambitions toward something epic and transformative (sorry) are greater than the actual execution. It’s being sold as yet another entry in the franchise and on that front it succeeds just fine.
Online and Social
Prime’s grizzled visage glares out at you from the front page of the official website, which mostly just has the usual information and a Get Tickets button on it. Remarkably non-cluttered for a movie whose entire visual aesthetic is “busy.”
Moving to the content menu at the top of the page, the first section is “Story,” which lays out the basic idea in the broadest possible terms. There’s a decent chance this is the actual script. After that the “Characters” section has the character posters mentioned above, each with a button to share that image on either Facebook or Twitter.
The “Gallery” has one of the posters along with a handful of stills and some behind-the-scenes production shots of Bay at work just so we remember who the real star of the movie is. “Videos” has the trailers, a couple TV spots and a featurette.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A short TV spot appeared to have kicked off the advertising campaign showing some of the biggest, most explosive elements from the first trailer, including using the “Rethink your heroes” copy that’s interspersed throughout those shots.
A TV spot aired during the Super Bowl that featured more of Hopkins’ intellectual talking about why the Transformers keep coming to Earth and Prime talking about meeting his maker. Future commercials showed off the action and humor of the movie and some were focused intently on continuing to build up the idea that the Transformers have been here throughout history, secretly protecting Earth and participating in major world events.
The debut of movie merchandise in stores was accompanied by a campaign dubbed “Reveal Your Shield” that encouraged fans to identify as Autobots or Decepticons.
In terms of cross-promotional partners, here are some of the companies that helped promote the latest entry in the franchise:
- Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which created TV ads that took a throwback approach, featuring kids playing with Transformers action figures that are helped in their battle by the company.
- Maaco, which launched a cross-promotional campaign including a TV spot directed by Bay himself.
- Schick, which offers a limited edition Transformers-themed handle when you signed up for their subscription shave product service and created other movie-branded products.
- Sonic Drive-In, which put movie toys in their Wacky Pack kids meals and ran a sweeps offering a hometown screening of the movie and other prizes.
- Valvoline, which ran some co-branded ads and created “Valvotron,” a new Transformer action figure sporting the company’s logo that was given away to select customers.
- Crush, which gave away a free movie ticket with the purchase of any three of their four movie-branded cans of REM’s favorite soda.
- Tasty Kake, which created a quiz to see if you were an Autobot or Decepticon that entered you into a sweeps. That went along with co-branded product packaging.
- Cat, which offered behind-the-scenes exclusive material and the chance to win exclusive merchandise.
Online and outdoor ads were plentiful, all using variations on the key art, mostly of the close-up of Prime staring at the camera.
Media and Publicity
A first look at the movie’s new villain was teased ahead of time with a series of cryptic messages and really kicked off the publicity campaign outside of news and announcements about the title and filming. Speculation about the movie and its story continued with the release of a banner showing Optimus Prime taking on some sort of dragon.
A small amount of new footage was seen before the first trailer was released in this promotional video celebrating 10 years of collaboration between Bay and IMAX, which has been used for all of the movies in the franchise. The studio also held a fan event at IMAX theaters that showed off footage from the movie as a way to generate some buzz in advance of release.
A short promotional video was released that was structured to appear like it was examining old photos from throughout history from battles and other events that include giant robots. Hot Rod was officially unveiled in a first look photo that appeared in EW’s summer movie preview along with background information on that character’s history. It also included comments from Bay about the extent he went to create monuments to blow up. A clip as well as a humorous promo involving Prime trying to learn a London accent were released during the MTV Movie and TV Awards.
As the final press push was happening and both Bay and Wahlberg were making the media and TV rounds they each signalled this would be the last Transformers movie for both of them. If you’re keeping count, that’s the first such declaration for Wahlberg and at least the third for Bay and he always comes back.
Oof, there’s a lot to digest here. The story that’s being sold completely upends all the mythology of the previous Transformers movies to an extent that defies credulity unless I’ve missed something massive in the first three entries (I’ve yet to see the fourth) that hints a centuries-long presence on Earth. But honestly, does that even matter? They found a new way to create some new robots that look kind of cool and which are visually indistinguishable (my major complaint with these films) as the rest. It doesn’t matter what the story is, just come see Michael Bay light some fuses and ask a Josh Duhamel to look up at and interact with something that will be inserted digitally later.
As much as the generic designs make many of the robots indistinguishable from one another within the movie, the similarity in tone and feel of the marketing for these movies makes them virtually indistinguishable from one another. They all feature the same shots of landscapes blowing up and humans scattering, of someone warning of dire consequences should the bad guys win and so on. It’s all about selling metallic imagery with no sense of the motivations of anyone, just vague dialogue about the consequences of such and such happening.
The one interesting thing to watch is whether the fifth installment of this series will suffer the same sort of franchise fatigue that’s tanked recent installments of Smurfs and other IP as well as legacy sequels including Independence Day. This isn’t a reboot or remake and it’s only been a couple years since the last Transformers, but still: Audience preferences seem to have shifted recently. So while it’s likely this will do just fine, there’s a chance it could tank and bring the house of metal cards Paramount and Bay have built crashing down.