Redo: An attempt to start over using some elements from the original, but otherwise presenting the redo as if the original had never been made.
Remake: An attempt to imitate the original as closely as possible, with due recognition of how society has changed since the original was released, but to otherwise present a duplicate of the original.
Reboot: An attempt to keep the essence of the original, including characters, significant plot points, and the fictional universe that has been created, but to create in the audience an expectation of taking the original fictional universe in a completely different direction, with new adventures for the characters.
There are a lot of Transformers stories (cartoons, comics, animated movie, live action movies, etc.). So let me first clarify that I’ll be analyzing the live action Transformers movie franchise in relation to the original cartoon from the 1980s.
Synopsis: Transformers, Generation 1
This is the name given by fans to the original animated TV series (more commonly: Transformers G1). The premise is that the good-guy Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, set out in their space-ship “the Ark” to pursue the bad-guy Decepticons, led by Megatron. They attack the Decepticon spaceship, and the ensuing battle causes both sides to crash land on Earth. Meanwhile, back on the homeworld of Cybertron, the competing factions are locked in battle, with no side gaining a clear advantage. In season two, the ancient Vector Sigma computer is introduced. It is a super computer that can give sentience to robots and is the origin of the Transformers.
The cartoon consisted mostly of various plots and schemes of the Decepticons to take over earth, to defeat the Autobots, or cause other types of havoc. Megatron would sometimes transform into a gun, which would be fired mostly by Starscream, his lieutenant. Starscream generally wanted to usurp Megatron’s power, although he was too much of a coward to actually make his dreams a reality.
Optimus Prime was a fatherly leader of the Autobots. Other favorites included Bumblebee — small but surprisingly tough, and Hotrod, who transformed, of all things, into a hotrod car, and later became Rodimus Prime when Optimus Prime died. As the show progressed, other groups of robots were introduced who fought on the side of either the Decepticons or Autobots, with various themes. For example, the Dinobots transformed into dinosaurs instead of cars or planes. The Aerialbots were airplanes that fought on the side of the Autobots (even though normally the air was Decepticon territory).
Synopsis: The Transformers: The Movie (animated movie, 1986)
The movie was set, for the most part, in the same universe as the television series, although it also was a significant departure. It was set 20 years into the future (which means that the future of the movie actually happened before our present. I’d like my sentient robot, please!). In the movie, contact has been established with Cybertron, so the Transformers are no longer stranded on Earth.
The plot is rather chaotic. Basically, there is a planet-consuming robot out there that sets its hungry sites on Transformer home planet Cybertron. Optimus Prime dies, Bumblebee dies, basically all the cool Autobots die. Megatron gets converted into Galvatron. Hot Rod survives, and becomes Rodimus Prime when he gets the leadership matrix doohicky from a dying Optimus. I may have missed a few details, but really all you need to know to make sense of this two hour traffic is that Hasbro wanted to discontinue toy production of a bunch of the old characters, and introduce a bunch of new ones, and the movie was their excuse to do it. And the soundtrack is pretty good.
In addition to the original cartoon, there have been many incarnations of the Transformers franchise over the years. Some other versions of the franchise include Transformers, the animated series, and Beast Wars. But let’s get to the 21st century live action movies:
Synopsis: Transformers (live action movie, 2007)
This movie starts with a voiceover from Optimus Prime. He explains that Cybertron has been destroyed by Megatron in his quest to get the Allspark (which, if my instincts are right, has joined the battle between the Lost Ark and the Jewel of the Nile as the most bizarre MacGuffin of all time). Megatron has been searching for the Allspark in order to complete his plans of interplanetary domination and, lucky for Hollywood, his quest led him to crash-land centuries ago on Earth. Of course, he landed in the North Pole, so he was instantly frozen in place. In the late 1800s, the great explorer Archibald Witwicky discovered Megatron’s frozen carcass, and in the process of making this discovery, the map that shows where the Allspark is located gets imprinted on his glasses (because of lasers and stuff). So the U.S. government relocates Megatron and keeps the discovery secret from the general population.
The rest of the action involves Sam Witwicky, Archibald’s grandson, as the hero of the story. When Sam puts his grandfather’s glasses on sale on eBay, the Decepticons come looking for him. Of course, the Decepticons could have just gotten themselves an eBay account and bought them like anybody else. But this is a Hollywood movie, so they decide to do it the hard way. The Autobots arrive just in time to save him, some weird super secret agency called Sector 7 gets involved, an inexplicable pair of computer hackers join in, and after patiently waiting an hour and a half, we get to see Megatron.
There is also some super hot chick that falls in love with Sam Witwicky, but we don’t care about her much (aside from the gratuitous shots of her doing things in slow motion). In the end, Optimus has a showdown with Megatron, but not before advising Sam that, if Optimus should get his ass kicked (which he does), then Sam should put the Allspark into Optimus Prime’s chest. This would kill Optimus, but it would also destroy the Allspark. When Optimus gets his tail handed to him on a silver platter by Megatron, Sam shoves it into Megatron’s chest instead. Good move. It kills Megatron (almost). And with the Allspark destroyed, we have a great excuse for the Autobots to stay on Earth and have a sequel.
Synopsis: Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (live action movie, 2009)
First, let’s get the background information out of the way: It turns out that there used to be an ancient race of Transformers led by the Primes (apparently there used to be a bunch of them in the good old days) that came to Earth in prehistoric times. They were scouring the universe for Energon cubes that can store energy harvested from stars (the motivation in the original cartoon for Megatron to travel into the universe and end up on Earth), and decided Earth had as good a sun as any for harvesting. The problem was that their sun energy-harvesting doohicky would destroy the Earth in the process, and the Primes had decreed that the Sun Harvester would only be used on planets that did not already have life on them. As it turns out, the Primes don’t like genocide.
This is where the movie’s new bad guy comes in. The Fallen, a powerful evil Transformer from way back in the day, rebelled against the Primes. He built a sun harvester on Earth, because his nasty evilness makes him actually want to destroy life. So he disagrees with the whole “don’t commit genocide” thing.
So, if he can get a bunch of Energon, and wipe out an entire planet of prehensile troglodytes in the process, that’s a two-for-one deal for him. Of course, the Primes foiled his plot, and sacrificed themselves so they could use their bodies to hide the location of the Sun Harvester. The Matrix of Leadership, which gives the Primes their power, is also the device that starts the Sun Harvester. So, they hid that with their bodies too. Or maybe they hid the Matrix, but not the Harvester, it’s hard to keep all this stuff straight. The point is, there are two MacGuffins for Sam to chase after.
But before hiding the MacGuffins, the Primes gave the Fallen a hardcore smackdown. So this Fallen guy has been hanging out in Saturn, or the Moon, or somewhere in the solar system (it’s hard to tell exactly where), plotting his revenge. And he’s totally bitter about his prehistoric ass-whooping.
So that’s the background. Now for the present day:
Sam is ready for college. His super hot girlfriend still likes him, so we get to see a lot of gratuitous shots of her cleavage and short skirts and her freakishly shiny lips and stuff, but he’s going to college alone. Bumblebee will stay behind, mom & dad will stay behind, and super hot girlfriend will stay behind.
But that’s okay, because there are plenty of new people to throw into the story (after all, what do you need in a movie called Transformers? You need more humans. Duh!). Sam gets a great roommate, who runs a conspiracy theory website about transforming robots. He just happens to be digging up a government conspiracy to keep secret that fact that robot aliens are living among us. And of all the people on campus, this guy is Sam’s new roommate. It can’t be a coincidence, can it? Actually, yes, it can. It’s totally and completely a coincidence.
The brilliant Act 1 background setup isn’t over yet, but I’ll skip a bit (as this movie should have done). You see, in the beginning of the movie, Sam had accidentally gazed into a leftover shard of the Allspark (the one that had supposedly been destroyed in the previous movie and killed Megatron in the process). The Allspark shard has overloaded Sam’s brain, so now he’s doing crazy things like reading an entire astronomy textbook in less than a minute, scribbling mathematical formulas all over the place like Good Will Hunting (except in Autobot language), and ignoring the sexual advances of his super hot classmate who totally wants his body for no apparent reason.
In other news, the Autobots have secretly teamed up with the U.S. military to wipe out all the Decepticons hiding out on Earth. With the help of some new Autobots (for example, the comic relief team Mudflap and Skids, who really are just an excuse to make racially insensitive jokes and reinforce a tired stereotype about African-Americans that was supposed to have ended about 50 years ago, but which Michael Bay is determined to single-handedly revive. And yes, I AM bitter about that), they kill Sideways and Demolisher, but not before getting an ominous warning that the Fallen will return.
This is the part where we get to see more of what every moviegoer wants to see when they watch a movie about alien robots: more humans. It turns out the President has a new security adviser who is a complete moron, and he shuts down the Autobot-Human joint operations. He also reveals the location of Megatron in the process, because the Decepticons have hacked into the military’s super secret communications satellites (which means a General somewhere needs to get fired. In the first movie the U.S. military’s most secure computer networks got hacked in less that ten seconds by the Decepticons, and now you’re having conference calls regarding your secret war? Not good).
But let’s get back to Sam. It turns out the super hot classmate is actually a Decepticon who can make herself look human. So, the chase ensues, Bumblebee comes to the rescue, Megan Fox’s character looks hot and pouts her lips a lot, and now we finally have a Transformers movie. Well, almost.
I’ll skip a bit. Basically, there are a lot of chase scenes, and Sam tracks down the backstory about the Matrix and the Sun Harvester. Starscream and Megatron team up and kill Optimus Prime, but Sam finds the Leadership Matrix which brings Optimus Prime back to life. Optimus also borrows the spark (life-force) of an old geezer Decepticon (?) and, combined with the Matrix, turns into such a bad-ass that he defeats a Megatron-Fallen double team, thusly preventing them from re-activating the Sun Harvester. So, everything is okay, and if the studio can get over its embarrassment, we are ready for a third movie.
Was it a Redo, Remake, or Reboot?
These two movies were a redo. I have to hand it to Michael Bay and the other film makers involved in this movie for at least dealing with the chaos that could ensue from trying to make a movie that has such a varied amount of source material. So, even though I am going to be rather harsh regarding the second movie, I have to admit I have a lot of respect that they could even pull something together to begin with.
And that is probably why they ended up choosing to basically redo Transformers instead of reboot it. It’s almost a reboot of G1, because they use a lot of the same characters, and they use some of the plot points. But they did so many things differently that it can’t really be considered a reboot. For example, the humans are different. Spike was the human in the cartoon. He was older, and worked at a power plant. In the movie, the teenager Sam is the human, and Spike is his dog. Also, all the cars are GM cars (which means you have a yellow Camaro named Bumblebee, instead of a yellow Volkswagen bug, which is weird). Other differences include the fact that Megatron transforms into a space plane instead of a gun, there is no Ark, the Transformers land on Earth in modern times, instead of prehistoric times (although the second movie sort of did the prehistoric thing), and many, many more changes that make these movies a redo instead of a reboot or remake.
But the main thing that makes this a redo instead of a reboot is that the movie throws out the primary element of the original franchise that made it so successful as a cartoon. In the cartoon, the main characters are the robots. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, Bumblebee… they are the focus. The humans are incidental. However, in the movies, the humans are the primary focus, and the robots are incidental.
For example, the scene in Revenge of the Fallen where Optimus basically gets fired: the joint Autobot/human strike force returns to base. The security adviser to the President suddenly shows up in the middle of a debriefing, and argues with the General in charge of the task force before shutting down the operation. This scene is very important for setting up the conflict for this movie, which is the fact that the Autobots are no longer welcome on Earth. This is a really big deal, but Optimus is standing in the background like window dressing. He has about three lines.
Yes, three lines. Some random guy shows up and starts arguing with another random guy while Optimus stands in the background. The film makers threw out the primary element of the franchise that made it more than just another cartoon about robots: in Transformers G1, the robots were fully developed characters who drove the story. In the movies, the humans are the fully developed characters (some of them anyway), while the robots are the incidental ones. Therefore, these movies are a redo.
Was it Successful?
This is a tricky question, because the first movie was a successful start, and the second was a complete disaster. In a way, it’s both a success and a failure. We’ll have to wait for a third movie to break the tie, but I am going to stick my neck out and say that the second movie was such a catastrophe that the franchise itself will not be able to recover, especially since Bay apparently will be doing the third installment.
The main problem — which is where most unsuccessful redos have trouble — is that they threw out the wrong stuff. With a redo the filmmakers basically say to themselves “I think they were onto something here, but they didn’t quite get it right, so I’m going to take the original idea but completely redo everything about it so that it will fulfill its true potential.” This can be good in theory (even if the original actually was really good) as long as the filmmakers know what to keep and what to change. In other words, the danger with making a redo is throwing out the thing that made the original something special to begin with. You better have a strong understanding of the source material, because you’ll have to judge which elements to keep and which to eliminate.
So, the first movie actually started out pretty well. The theory was to make this your basic story about a teenager and his first car, except his first car turns out to be a sentient robot warrior who’s in the middle of intergalactic war between good and evil that’s lasted for eons. Of course, there is the whole problem of focusing on the humans too much and not enough on the Transformers, but it was a solid movie, and laid the groundwork for a good redo of the franchise.
Part of the problem with the second movie is inherent in the way Michael Bay directs movies. His formula is to throw together a whole bunch of plot devices in the first two acts, and hope that when it falls apart in the third act, it does so in an entertaining way.
In the second movie, however, it got away from him starting in the first act. A big part of this can be explained by the fear of a writer’s strike. The screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman had to do a lot of rushed writing and redrafting because it was looking like a writer’s strike might put a halt to things. Normally, Orci and Kurtzman would be a good foundation upon which Michael Bay could do his controlled chaos thing. But not this time.
There’s just too much going on. You have the (attempted) humor of moving in on the first day of college, the new background story of the Fallen, the issue with the joint Transformer/human task force, the subplot with bringing Megatron back to life, the death and rebirth of Optimus, too many MacGuffins (the Allspark, the Sun Harvester, the Leadership Matrix, the ancient Autobot writing, etc.), the conspiracy theorist roommate, the end of Sector 7, the racist portrayal of the comic relief, and Sam fighting with and then making up again with his girlfriend, among other things. Some of these issues could have driven a movie entirely on their own.
Therefore, the Transformers movies are a redo of the original franchise.
The first movie was a good start, but it focused a little too much on the human characters instead of the Transformers. The second movie unfortunately took that trend completely over a cliff, but also suffered from poor storytelling. With one decent movie, and one catastrophe, we’ll have to wait and see the third installment to make a final decision about whether the franchise as a whole is a success or a failure.