Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Darker Side of Transformers #7

#7 Age of Extinction
The general concensus is that Transformers 4: Age of Extinction wasn't a great film even by Michael Bay standards but being a not very good film isn't enough to get you on this list. What gets AoE onto the list is what happened behind the scenes.

Paramount Pictures are one of the biggest movie studios in the West and are very aware of the Chinese movie market which has been predicted will surpass the US market, so Age of Extinction was their way of testing the Asian market. Casting Li Bingbing as a stereotypical aloof martial artist and setting the last third of the film in China and Hong Kong was Paramount's way of trying to appeal to a Chinese audience.

Michael Bolton Bay.

While there was a lot of publicity surrounding the attempts by Chinese gangsters to extort money from the production, including an attack on Bay himself, some of the other aspects of the production may have gone unnoticed. Paramount worked with Jiaflix Enterprises and China Movie Channel in order to film in China, but China Movie Channel is actually a state run outlet for the Chinese Communist Party because all films made in China have to have official approval from the government. Not only though was AoE approved by the government, it was mainly funded by them too.

Some Chinese Gangsters are awesome!

While in the Transformers series of films the American government has been portrayed as not always wholesome with the President being portrayed as weak and Kelsey Grammer's character as a warmonger, the Chinese government are depicted as being benevolent rulers who care about all their citizens. One line stood out in the film as Hong Kong was decimated - "We've got to call the central government for help." followed by the Chinese government vowing to rescue their people in Hong Kong. All sounds rather great unless you actually live in Hong Kong.

Giant Panda/Giant pander joke goes here.

The film premiered in Hong Kong on 19th June 2014 which angered some investors as they wanted the premier to be in Beijing, but nonetheless the film was a runaway success and became the highest grossing film in Chinese history. For the people of Hong Kong something bigger was happening.

Hong Kong residents were in the middle of an unofficial vote on political reform after Beijing started to take more broad control over Hong Kong. On July 1st an estimated 510,000 people took part in a pro democracy march in Hong Kong, 511 of whom were arrested. Tensions rose in August when China announced that democracy would still exist in Hong Kong but residents could only vote for between 2 or 3 candidates who were essentially hand picked by Beijing. At the end of September protesters began to congregate and occupy parts of Beijing in a movement that in some areas would last until December.

None of these people want rescuing by "the central government". Rescue from...maybe.

The protests would become known as The Umbrella Movement as protesters had started carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the large number of tear gas cannisters being fired at them by police. In surreal scenes, protesters would clean the streets each morning and were on the whole peaceful with police using excess force and even criminal gangs against the demonstrators. The Chinese government began having websites censored with any mentions of the occupation being removed, while annoucing on television that the protests would lead to violence and the death of protesters in a warning that came across as a veiled threat. On December 15th the last occupation site would be cleared by police and The Umbrella Movement brought to an end.

"They will never take our freedooooo...oh wrong movie."

While Age of Extinction was a 'popcorn movie' it also doubled as propaganda for China's government which is somewhat dismaying considering how the film and TV industry in the West has the freedom to portray it's own governments as they see fit. No one is going to watch a Michael Bay film for political commentary but it's alarming to see him, Executive Producer Steven Speilberg and an entity as large as Paramount concede so much control to a government in order to access a market. It's a precedent that has worrying connotations in regard to how "patriotic" further films aimed at the Asian market will be.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Darker Side of Transformers #8

#8 Mattel/IGA

Well, toys in general. Plasticos IGA SA were the company that produced Transformers for the Mexican market and while lead paint usage in children's toys had been banned in the USA in 1978, Mexico still allowed it. When the Transformers line flopped there the overstocks were shipped to the UK and Europe but laws here wouldn't allow them to be sold. The importers in some cases stripped the paint off entirely and repainted it but in many cases the offending paint was simply painted over. Badly.

Rise Ebola Prime.

You may wonder why this is a problem but in children's toys the paint invariably chips and flakes off with the child often eating the flakes. Lead is absorbed by skin and young children's skin is particularly absorbent meaning that handling a toy with lead paint can be enough to bring about poisoning, but consumption of the paint is far worse. Lead also builds up in the body so the affect accumulates and even small amounts can make very young children significantly ill while larger amounts can actually result in physical and mental development issues. The toys that never left Mexico still feature the lead paint.

Mattell on the other hand are unfortunate. In 1987 and 1988 Hasbro introduced sparking features into the Transformers line with the Sparkabots, Monsterbots and the Firecons as a simple gimmick; the toys were fitted with a wheel and flint like you'd find in a cigarette lighter and they'd spark away harmlessly. Or so you'd think. In small products aimed at young boys this wasn't a problem but in 1991 Mattel released Roller Blade Barbie which featured roller skates that would also produce sparks. The sparks generated by Barbie's footwear was a bit more significant than we saw in Transformers and these sparks would come into contact with something young boys don't generally use - hair spray. After young girls found their hair catching fire a product recall was issued for the whole line and sparking gimmicks were dropped until Hasbro resurrected them in 2014's Age of Extinction line.

The cold dead eyes and sick smile of a pyromaniac.

However, Mattel's misfortune didn't begin there and the biggest calamity they suffered massively impacted the toy industry and later the Transformers brand.

In 1977 everyone was going crazy over Star Wars and sci-fi was now the big moneymaker with film studios and tv networks clamouring to produce anything they could in order to capitalise. In August 1978 toys for an upcoming series were launched in stores and a month later, Battlestar Galactica debuted on September 17th 1978 depsite lawsuits from Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. By December the Galactica toyline was a huge hit, selling two million of their vehicles alone but instead of being able to celebrate, Mattel had a huge problem.

The missiles in the Battlestar Galactica toys were similar to those used in Shogun Warriors and were only an inch and a half long with a powerful launching mechanism. The problem was that vehicles were designed in a way, it was later argued, that children were likely to put the nosecones of the vehicles in their mouths leading to the trigger button on the nosecone being pressed and the missile being fired. As the launcher was based under the trigger that meant that children were accidentally firing missiles into their own mouths. Following 7 reports of children inhaling or swallowing missiles, Mattel added warning labels to their existing inventory of Galactica toys on the 8th of December but it was too late.

Tom Rosinski holding the missile that was surgically removed from his lung. (March 17 1977, Denver Post)

On the 29th of December 1978, 4 year old Robert Jeffrey Warren fired the missile from a Battlestar Galactica Cylon Raider vehicle (not the Viper as often cited) into his mouth with the projectile becoming lodged in his larynx. 4 minutes later he lost consciousness and was rushed to hospital where he suffered a massive cardiac arrest but was briefly revived after the missile was surgically removed from his throat. Two days later, on New Year's Eve, Warren sadly passed away.

That Christmas a number of children would be hospitalised by the missiles but these children were older and so the airway around their vocal chords was large enough to let the missile pass into their lungs. While they would require surgery the children made full recoveries. On January 11th 1979 Mattel announced a recall of the missiles and offered to replace them with a free Hot Wheels car but on both the 10th and 11th at least another two children (Christopher Auger and Michael Affanto) were hospitalised. At the New York Toy Fair in February redesigned non firing Galactica toys were unveiled but the meltdown was underway.

Redesigned non-firing Viper with sticker reassuring parents that the missile feature was removed.

On March 22nd 1979 the parents of Robert Jeffrey Warren filed a lawsuit against Mattel for in excess of 14 million dollars and on April 29th the final episode of Battlestar Galactica was screened after the series was abruptly cancelled. At this point 27 children had inhaled missiles from the toys. While unrelated to the missile controversy, there was a last victim when a 15 year old boy committed suicide due to the series cancellation.

While toy manufacturers scrambled to address the issue, the most famous of toys to be changed was Star Wars' Boba Fett which had been heavily promoted as a mail away figure featuring a firing rocket. The figure would be released with the rocket glued into place and the firing mechanism removed, making the prototypes of the figure the only rocket firing examples.

Kenner stock photo showing the filled in 'J slot' where the firing mechanism would have been.

When Transformers debuted in 1984 their launching systems had been neutered to confirm with US and European child safety laws and no longer were capable of firing missiles over a distance of feet like their Diaclone and Microchange predecessors could. By 1986 new Transformers no longer had missiles with only the last two Diaclone and Microchange designs still featuring them with either no springs (Ultra Magnus) or longer missiles that prevented choking (Metroplex, who was designed for the abandoned Diaclone Jizai Gattai line along with the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots). From 1987 onwards there were no Transformers designed for the Western market with launching missiles until the relaunch of the brand as Generation 2.

Reissues of Generation 1 toys now always feature the longer missiles to prevent choking and while adult collectors aren't a fan of them, Battlestar Galactica proved that they are essential.

Only a porn star could swallow the reissue missiles


IGA Prowl pic from author's own collection.
IGA red painted Optimus Prime picture courtesy of Maz
Barbie picture is a screenshot from the commerical
Tom Rosiniski photo is copyright The Denver Post
Battlestar Galactica picture comes from an unknown source
Boba Fett picture is from Kenner's stock photography
Optimus Prime missile comparison picture is from Fred's Workshop.

Transformers Takara Unite Warriors UW-04 Devastator (By Kodimus_prime_g1)

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Darker Side of Transformers #9

Continuing our look at the darker parts of the Transformers franchise and history...

9. Whirl
A part of the original Wreckers but seemingly only for their introductory story arc and two cameos, Whirl was portrayed as being calm and rational but IDW's reimagining of the character is anything but and is arguably the most tragic character in More Than Meets the Eye.

Whirl More Than Meets The Eye

Our introduction to Whirl comes in MTMTE #1 where following the conclusion of Chaos, Whirl has stashed the corpses of some Sweeps, including possibly Scourge himself, and is in the process of dousing them in fuel about to burn them. The corpses have been acting as a captive audience for Whirl as he's spent weeks ranting and raving about his frustrations as Cybertronians have returned home. There are two subtle things about this page which are easy to miss - 1. That Whirl can hear the dead bodies talking back and 2. Whirl himself is stood in the pool of fuel so it's possible that he's about to burn himself alive with them, a theory backed up later on when Whirl is taken hostage by a psychotic Fortress Maximus and begs to be shot in the head and again in the latest issue which would be spoilerific to discuss in detail.

Whirl's lust for violence and lack of concern for himself leads to him escalating the war between the Ammonites and Terradores by assassinating the Terradore leader on a whim. We discover that Whirl murdered his arch nemesis Killmaster (see image below) and that the reason Whirl was kicked out of The Wreckers was for trying to mercy kill a comatose Springer. Even more shocking is discovering that it was Whirl who, in a roundabout way, started the Cybertronian Civil War after beating a captive Megatron when the future Decepticon leader was simply a philoshoper on social change.
Whirl More Than Meets The Eye

However Whirl's story takes a tragic turn as his origin is revealed - bucking Cybertron's system where every robot has to perform the function of their alternate mode, Whirl became a watchmaker. His change of career didn't go unnoticed by the Functionist Council who had the watchmaker's business destroyed. Destitute, Whirl went on to become a drifter and skilled fighter, eventually being forced into service of the Senate as an enforcer. Under orders he was forced to commit horrific acts, acts he'd later be punished for by the Functionist Council as part of their elaborate revenge on him. Whirl's punishment was Empurata: a process where the criminal's head and hands are replaced to make an example of them. With massive claws for hands, Whirl's career as a watchmaker was now over.

When Cyclonus questions why 4 million years later Whirl hasn't had the process reversed, he simply replies that the anger at his situation drowns out his conscience and that if the source of his anger was removed then he'd have to face the acts he's committed.

Therein is the horror of Whirl - a peaceful being driven to commit endless atrocities in order to not break down at the thought of what he's become.

Whirl More Than Meets The Eye