What is a movie—a series of machine-produced images imitating life—if not a robot in disguise?
It’s only natural that folding toys would come to the big screen as massive blockbusters, painstakingly rendered alongside the real-world havoc they would inevitably wreak. Right? Well, the toy companies and the film studios seem to think so, because even after Michael Bay’s franchise came mercifully to an end, they’re still putting out more Transformers movies. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is set to come out later this year.
Aside from two—the original and latest—all the Transformers feature films have been directed by that mastermind of mayhem, Michael Bay. If you want to see how those mechanical monstrosities compare to the movies where Michael Bay focuses (as much as he can, anyways) on humanity, our complete ranking of Bay films can be found here. But for those pure Has-bros, we looked at all the Transformers films, from before Bay’s time—with the 1986 animated film—to directly after—with the Spielberg-influenced Bumblebee—in order to come up with a definitive ranking.
Here is every Transformers film, ranked worst to best:
7. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Even though this bloated franchise is still an inexplicably and depressingly popular box-office behemoth, it also feeds on Bay’s worse impulses as a blockbuster helmer. Awash in crude grade school humor, nonsensical scripts haphazardly glued together with gobbledygook sci-fi mythology, action that’s impossible to decipher thanks to an overuse of rapid-fire cutting and extreme close-up shaky-cam, bland cardboard characters that make it hard to give an iota of crap regarding who wins during said action, and an astoundingly shameless kowtowing to the gods of product placement, these films are the go-to examples for anyone trying to point out what’s wrong with big budget filmmaking these days—and with good reason. The second film in the franchise, the interminably abrasive and astoundingly mean-spirited Revenge of the Fallen belongs on the bottom of the list, not just because it doesn’t have a single redeemable quality while clearly being the most cynically constructed of the bunch, but also because it’s irredeemably and shockingly racist. Bay loves to fill his films with crude racial stereotypes as placeholders for comic relief. It’s damn near impossible to pop in a Bay flick and not come across a fat, sassy Black woman or an awkward and timid Middle Eastern or Indian character who goes “comically” apeshit during the final battle. As much as I can’t stand Bay’s willingness to keep going back to such obvious and ugly attempts at humor, I usually chalk this up to his thoughtless meathead sensibilities that sees making fun of women, nerds, LGBTQ people, and minorities as being funny in and of itself, instead of coming from a place of downright ugly racial prejudice. This line is summarily crossed with the inclusion of Mudflap and Skids, a duo of minstrel show characters, complete with whiny “ghetto talk,” gold teeth and chains, as well as any awful African American stereotype you can think of. Revenge of the Fallen is already as annoying as the rest of the series, but the inclusion of these characters makes it an infuriating experience.—Oktay Ege Kozak
6. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Dark of the Moon is almost a carbon copy of Revenge of the Fallen: The same annoying Shia LaBeouf performance, further debasement of talented actors like John Turturro and Frances McDormand, the exact same narrative structure that has our heroes globe-trotting in search of yet another supreme energy-wielding thingamajig, all to leave the theater with a throbbing migraine and a diminished faith in humanity as a whole. There are two elements that give Dark of the Moon a slight edge over Revenge of the Fallen. One, Bay actually listened to fan backlash and completely erased Mudflaps and Skids from the franchise, while also toning down the racial humor—although a scene with tech support by an Indian character doesn’t do it any favors—and two, the complete destruction of Chicago during the third act battle is kind of cool, in a mid-’90s peak Roland Emmerich disaster porn kind of way.—Oktay Ege Kozak
5. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
This one is just plain depressing. It’s as abrasive, proudly dumb and nonsensical as the rest, yet it also doesn’t have any of Bay’s bravado and go-for-broke style that’s found in the previous entries. Bay was already showing signs of Transformers fatigue in The Age of Extinction, but he’s firmly in autopilot mode at this point. He looks like he’s just going through the motions to deliver the bare minimum out of what’s expected from him and this franchise, so we don’t even get a memorable shot or an uber-stylized moment. He said this is the last Transformers film he’s directing. Let’s hope that’s true, because his obvious ennui towards The Last Knight shows that it’s really time to move on.—Oktay Ege Kozak
4. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
I don’t understand why the fourth installment of the franchise wasn’t a full-blown reboot that restarted the whole thing from scratch. None of the human characters from the first three return (Amen to that, although they’re replaced with their own array of annoying cardboard cutouts), and the story takes place in a near future where the shiny noisy robots are a thing of the past. Of course this doesn’t stop Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) from discovering Optimus Prime as a junky truck and kick-starting yet another overblown adventure where him and his family go after the thingy that does the thingy to the other thingy so the mythical thingy can finally do the all-powerful thingy. Age of Extinction has a slight edge on the bottom two entries mainly because Mark Wahlberg is a better fit for a franchise that thrives on sweaty working class charisma and meathead charm. Also, the plucky adventures of Yeager and fam trying to invent homemade robotic appliances in their Texan barn during the first act has some charm to it. That is, until it’s invaded by yet another indecipherable and interminable equivalent of a toddler banging toys together in the backyard while a coke-fueled wolverine films it using a fish-eye lens. Also, I take the fact that it’s almost three hours long as a personal insult.—Oktay Ege Kozak
3. Transformers (2007)
So here we finally are: The “good one.” I’ll never understand what prompted Roger Ebert to give this laughably inept franchise starter a three-star review while rightfully giving the sequel half a star. As far as the gaudy aesthetic, dumb plot, annoying characters and brazen product placement, they’re all here in spades. (One imagines Bay calling console manufacturers: “We’re thinking of a console that turns into a Transformer. Just to let you know, Xbox is currently offering the most dough.”) Perhaps it’s the novelty element that gives it that tiny advantage. As much as I was never really impressed with the design of the titular characters, I can see why the rest of the audience, especially those who grew up on the toys and the cartoon, would find the first time they saw a Transformer turn from a vehicle into a robot with the aid of some admittedly impressive CGI to be exhilarating. Also, the first Transformers film has the most cohesive plot, not that it means much, as well as a pretty intriguing first act that actually builds some suspense without treating every moment as a car and metal money shot.—Oktay Ege Kozak
2. The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
While blissfully free from Michael Bay’s unrestrained editing suite and heavy hand with explosions, The Transformers: The Movie actually set the filmmaker up for everything he provided in the much-maligned live-action franchise. There’s the gratuitous violence, which sees robot-people riddled with lasers, executed point-blank, shot down in the street and, in one especially horrific case, have both their eyes gouged out. There’s the volume—not of violence, but sheer sonic force. While it’s sometimes absurdly entertaining to watch the epic tribulations of the Autobots, the Decepticons and, yes, the gigantic, Orson Welles-voiced Unicron while Stan Bush wails at the top of his lungs, it’s just as brutal an assault on our senses as the multicolored Mecha-madness produced by Toei Animation. And yet this loud, stupid, violent and often ugly animated movie has more heart than all but one of the blockbuster adaptations. Perhaps it’s the voicework of Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime, fading with dignity after battle. Perhaps it’s the obvious care and joy that went into designing some of the stranger creatures and environments encountered by the crusading ‘bots. It all adds up to a film that’s charming because of its odd flaws, rather than solely off-putting. When a Weird Al needledrop (fittingly, “Dare to Be Stupid”) hits during a particularly kinetic junkyard battle, or when a caveman-voiced Dinobot literally kicks Unicron’s planet-sized butt, The Transformers: The Movie taps into the silly uncanniness that naturally develops when kids do ridiculous things with their toys.—Jacob Oller
1. Bumblebee (2018)
Paramount actually made a Transformers movie that’s a lovely, exciting and wholly engaging gem of a sci-fi adventure for teenagers. I guess it’s time for me to finally go into my dream business of exporting the newly formed ice from hell using my army of flying pigs. Bumblebee is an ’80s set spin-off/prequel to Michael Bay’s migraine-inducing, often infuriating, and always head-slappingly stupid five Transformers flicks. It wisely scales down Bay’s love of random mayhem in favor of a fairly respectful and inventive throwback to those Spielbergian family sci-fi/adventure movies about the friendship between a nerdy, lonely teenager (Hailee Steinfeld) and a friendly and protective alien/robot/magical being. Their bond teaches the teenager to come out of her shell and face her fears. Of course since we also need an action-heavy third act, the big bad military that’s unfairly threatened by the creature goes after it, forcing the teenager and the creature to defend each other against all odds, learning lessons about the importance of love in the process. Sure, Bumblebee doesn’t really bring much that’s especially new or daring to that formula, but at least all the ingredients really work. It’s hard enough to have a fully CG character as your co-star, and it’s even tougher when an actor is tasked with creating a deep emotional connection with something she can’t even see during production. Steinfeld is up to the challenge, making us believe in Bumblebee’s existence almost as much as the animators who worked on bringing him to life. Just like death and taxes, it’s a certainty of life that we will get a new Transformers in theaters once every few years. If they’re more like Bumblebee going forward, the thought of that doesn’t depress me nowhere near as it used to. —Oktay Ege Kozak