I have seen and enjoyed the live-action Transformers a number of times now. There are things I would change but I find that one only bothers thinking these things if a movie is worthwhile to begin with. Its positives definitely overcome its negatives. This involvement in the retelling of the Transformers story has got me looking at the toys (both old and new) and at the history of this consumer and pop-culture phenomenon. I have been pondering both its origins and its longevity.
The original Transformers were a re-branding for an American audience of a number of separate and pre-existing lines of Japanese toys (particularly from the Diaclone and Microman ranges). Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Anime or Manga will know that the Japanese have a fascination with robots including robots that convert into other kinds of machines. In the case of transforming toys specifically I have a hunch as to why they became so popular...
You are a parent in the crowded and booming Japan of the 1970s. You have a growing but limited household budget. You have very limited storage space to put a growing number of modern conveniences into. Your child wants both a toy robot and a toy gun for his birthday. What do you do? Well Takara Co have just started selling toys that are both robot and gun in one!
So with a Transformer you have two or sometimes three toys in one product. But it is the transforming process itself that gives the toys much of their fascination. Some of the best-loved Transformers are those with interesting and elegant transformations. Many fans will never look at instruction booklets and insist on deciphering the process of a new toy themselves. In this sense the robot and car is also a puzzle of sorts.
A Transformer exists to be transformed and I look on the practice of keeping toys pristine-in-box with derision. Transforming the toy is stimulating but I also find can be relaxing. For some time now we have had Transformers designed specifically for adult collectors (e.g. 'classic' re-imaginings of original characters) so I think the next development could be 'Transformers: Executive' toys to supplant stress balls and other executive toys in offices.
Another aspect of the attraction of the Transformers was the characters which correspond to the toys. Originally the characters were based on toys but since then sometimes toys are based on characters (as with several from the animated Transformers The Movie of 1986). And there have been many re-imaginings of the characters and story since the original cartoon of 1984-87.
They are of alien origin and yet look and act a lot like us? Why? If I had anything to do with backstory development I would love to suggest that it was in fact humans who had been genetically engineered (possibly by the Quintessons) in the image of the Autobots and Decepticons!
Except humans cannot transform. Or can we? We do things to alter how we look and feel all the time. We tell tales of those with the power to seem different or truly be different: Mutants, Polymorphs, Animaguses. The gods and goddesses of old would take all kinds of forms from swans to showers-of-gold (ahem). We are in love with notions of exceeding the limitations of who and what we are and these fictions are simply a blatant and fantastic way of expressing such desires. Other more mundane expressions of it take the form of spy movies (in which characters assume alternate personae) or rags-to-riches adventures (in which characters transform the circumstances in which they live).
Change fascinates us whether we love it or fear it. The Transformers is just one modern form of our fascination with change. Once our protagonists could turn into lions or eagles. Now they can transform into sports cars and jet fighters. How much of a change is that?