Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a soft reboot of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, dares to imagine a world where you can tell the Autobots and Decepticons apart. Set 20 years before the series’ first entry, the movie also imagines the arrival of the Autobots on Earth in 1987, as opposed to 2007, the year the first film takes place. The choice rewrites much of the series’ mythology — but at what cost?
While Bumblebee finally makes the action coherent, and grounds the story in a real and relatable human perspective, the new setting erases the increasingly ridiculous alternate history of Earth devised over the course of Bay’s five blockbusters. In this version, Bumblebee is the first Autobot to arrive to our planet, while two pursuing Decepticons not only make first contact with mankind, but team up with the government to capture the rogue soldier (which … leads to the creation of the internet).
What exactly have these changes washed away from the original movies? Chances are, it’s weirder than you remember:
Transformers (2007): Megatron on ice, 1895 A.D.
According to the first movie, the villain Megatron, in pursuit of the AllSpark amidst Cybertron’s civil war, crash-landed in the Arctic several thousand years ago, before being discovered by explorer Archibald Witwicky in the late 19th century. Archibald’s glasses, inscribed with the All Spark’s coordinates, were eventually handed down to his great-great-grandson Sam (Shia LaBeouf), the series’ first protagonist.
All this could still very well have happened in the series’ new timeline — Megatron was originally found and kept secret by the U.S. government — though one assumes Cybertron has been an active, non-stop warzone for several millennia if that’s the case, since its civil war is still ongoing during the events of Bumblebee.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): First ancient contact, 17,000 B.C.E.
Revenge of the Fallen (or Transformers: The One Where Shia LaBeouf Goes to Robot Heaven) is where the alternate history gets kooky. The film opens with what is essentially Bay’s version of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, showcasing the arrival of the Transformers on Earth around 19,000 years ago.
Over the course of the film, it’s revealed that The Fallen, an ancient Transformer, tried to kill a bunch of early humans, only to be imprisoned by The Primes. Later, we learn that Transformers known as “the Seekers” remained on Earth, in hiding, for several thousand years. So, in addition to Megatron crashing in the Arctic by accident, the Transformers were around in secret since before the dawn of human civilization. Cool. Cool, cool, cool.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): One giant leap for robot-kind, 1969 A.D.
The film opens with The Ark, a Cybertronian spacecraft, crash-landing on the far side of the moon in 1961, which prompts John F. Kennedy to approve a manned lunar mission. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin discover a powered-down Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), establishing once and for all that the Transformers were, in fact, already one of the U.S. government’s best-kept secrets before their arrival in the original film.
In Bumblebee (2017), American officials — including ones with Top Secret access — seem to have no knowledge of the Transformers’ existence in 1987. At least their desire to use them to get a leg up on the U.S.S.R. remains intact.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014): They were here before us, 65 million B.C.E.
The fourth installment goes back much further than the moon landing; turns out it was the Transformers, rather than a meteor strike, that wiped out the Dinosaurs, using something called “Transformium.” Curiously, we see a baby T-Rex get some of this Transformium on its back before disappearing off-screen. The film later features dinosaur-themed Transformers, but despite the clear and obvious set up, the baby T-Rex infused with Transformer gunk and the adult T-Rex Transformer end up being unrelated.
In fact, the Dinobots aren’t even from Earth, and the whole dinosaur prologue ends up unconnected to the main plot of the film, wherein Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) revives Megatron to fight Optimus Prime for a fourth consecutive movie. Oh, and Optimus, who thus far has needed accessories to fly, is revealed to have had rocket legs the whole time! The film ends with him fucking off into space to fight God. Somehow, this isn’t even the biggest existential question posed by the series; the fifth film is where things get really weird.
Transformers: The Last Knight (2017): Uhh… 4.543 billion B.C.E.
There’s just … so much. Here’s a list of things we find out in the fifth Transformers film:
- Megatron is back from the dead for a second time. This makes The Last Knight the fifth consecutive film to end with a battle between Optimus and Megatron (and Bumblebee the first one in which it doesn’t happen). Breaking the mold or ignoring a decade of tradition?
- In 484 A.D., the wizard Merlin (played by a returning Stanley Tucci) enlists the help of the Knights of Iacon, a group of Transformers, to assist King Arthur in his war against the Saxons.
- The Knights of Iacon gift Merlin an alien staff, before combining to form a giant dragon known as Dragonstorm and winning the war for Arthur. This was the better of the two King Arthur movies in 2017.
- Not only are the Merlin and King Arthur of British folklore real in the Transformers movie universe, but over time, mankind’s tales somehow left out the most fantastical parts of their story: giant, broadsword-wielding robots and a Transformer dragon.
- Optimus travels to the remains of Cybertron and finds Quintessa aka Transformer God, who turns him evil and sends him back to Earth to find Merlin’s staff.
- However, only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield the staff. “A-ha!” I hear you thinking. Stanley Tucci plays Merlin in this film. Stanley Tucci played a character in modern day in the previous film. The answer is obvious! Well, Merlin’s descendant turns out to be the film’s female lead, Viviane Wembley (Laura Haddock). Stanley Tucci’s character from the previous film doesn’t show up again.
- Stonehenge was created as an access-point to use Merlin’s staff.
- Mark Wahlberg is the “last knight,” which doesn’t mean much.
- Anthony Hopkins’ character Sir Edmund Burton — who has a robot butler named Cogman — reveals that the Transformers have not only been around on Earth forever, but that they’ve secretly been helping mankind through history.
- Burton is the last in a long line of historical figures to form a secret society, whose purpose is to hide the Transformers’ existence. For centuries, this group has been known as the “Order of the Witwiccans.”
- Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, also secretly a Witwiccan, is implied to be dead now. He seemingly died off-screen? All this is revealed to us through dialogue, delivered quickly over this photograph of Sam:
Wait a second. Was the Order named after the Witwicky family? Did Archibald Witwicky intend to find Megatron? Was Sam Witwicky inducted into the order during the events of the series? Was this also something his family had been involved in prior, or is this all just a big coincidence? Anywho…
- Stephen Hawking was a Witwiccan. Burton, by referring to himself as the last of the Order, implies Stephen Hawking has died. (Stephen Hawking was still alive when Transformers: The Last Knight hit theaters.)
- Also revealed to be Witwiccans: Charles Darwin, Copernicus, Einstein, Galileo, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V, Edmund Hillary, Antoine Lavoisier, Beethoven, Mozart, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Theodore Roosevelt, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, the Wright Brothers, Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and mass-murderer Christopher Columbus.
- Genocidal U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, responsible for intentionally starving three million Indians to death in the Bengal Famine, was also part of this secret heroic Order.
- Hitler was killed by a tiny clock Transformer.
- Also, Bumblebee fought alongside the allied forces in World War II. He killed Nazis with a sledgehammer. This is perhaps the second biggest loss to the series now that Bee arrives on Earth in 1987 and The Last Knight has been written out of canon.
- Harriet Tubman was part of the Order of Witwiccans. Did the Transformer have a hand in the Underground Railroad? Or were they also being protected by it? Where the hell is that movie?
- To tie it all together, the increasing importance of our planet in the Transformers series finally comes to a head with the revelation that Earth itself is slumbering transformer, Unicron, the living planet voiced by Orson Welles in the 1986 animated film.
Transformers: The Last Knight ends with the awakening of Unicron. The planet robot’s enormous Transformer claws dig their way out of the ground, but our heroes still save the day. A cliffhanger reveals that Quintessa, disguised as a human, is about to set her universe-spanning plan to destroy Unicron in motion.
Thanks to Bumblebee however, we’ll never get to see the impact of Earth having been a giant Transformer all this time. We’ll never get to see this gloriously silly alternate history unfold, and all we’ll ever have of the Order of the Witwiccans is the hints given to us in Michael Bay’s final entry. Bumblebee, a fitting update to E.T. though it may be, has robbed us of so, so many CG-augmented scenes of alternate history — the Transformers version of Forrest Gump, as it were — and I’m kind of mad about it! So, I did what any rational person would do.
A list of questions I’d have liked answered if the Michael Bay series had continued
- Did the Transformers’ existence influence Darwin’s view of evolution, since he was part of the Order of the Witwiccans?
- Were the works of William Shakespeare informed by the existence of giant alien robots? Was this universe’s Henry V really about Transformers?
- How did the Transformers showing up thousands of years ago influence human religion?
- Did Jesus, like Shia LaBeouf, visit Transformers heaven in his dying moments?
- Was Jesus a Witwiccan? He was, wasn’t he?
- Did a Decepticon kill JFK to stop the discovery of Sentinel Prime?
- Did Bumblebee of the original universe help America during the Vietnam war? Did he witness the Mỹ Lai massacre? Is that why his voice box was removed?
- Were the Transformers the basis for most human technology? How does Elon Musk feel about all this?
- Did the Autobots tear down the Berlin Wall?
- Did the Seekers build the Gardens of Babylon?
- Does Damien Chazelle still make First Man, and does Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong, a man obsessed with finding Transformers on the moon, win him an Oscar?
- Since the Transformers aren’t known to the public until 2007, does Michael Bay still become a filmmaker in the Transformers universe?
- Does Bay still go on to make movies about the Transformers anyway? Do the Transformers consider his works exploitative?
All these moments will be lost, like tears in rain…
Siddhant is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York and online.