Transmorphers

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: Maybe it’s that I don’t hang out in video stores nearly as much as I used to, but I only recently became aware of The Asylum, a studio whose work gets slightly more respect than the Girls Gone Wild series, and slightly less than backyard-wrestling DVDs. Perhaps you’ve seen one of The Asylum’s titles? The Day The Earth Stopped, maybe? Snakes On A Train? Sunday School Musical? Street Racer? No? How about The Da Vinci Treasure, Death Racers, or 18-Year-Old Virgin? Sound familiar? Well, of course they should sound a little familiar. Maybe even confusingly familiar.

Curiosity factor: I have a lot of affection for the B-movie tradition of exploiting whatever trends become hot in pop culture, an art perfected by Roger Corman—both as a director and a producer—from the ’50s through the ’70s. What are the kids into? Juvenile delinquents? Killer animals? Women in prison? Space battles? Crank ’em out, stamp a clever title on them, give them an amazing poster, and if time and budget permit, throw in some art too. The approach is part invention, part grift. It’s also something of a dying art, so I was happy to find a studio carrying on the tradition, albeit in a way that’s as much con as art. 

The viewing experience: My attempt to watch Transmorphers, released on DVD in 2007, was plagued by technical difficulties, only some of which can be blamed on The Asylum. About 10 minutes before the 85-minute movie ended, my copy started to sputter and die. I’d seen enough by then to realize that director Leigh Scott could sympathize with my technical difficulties. He made a movie in which lip movements rarely matched the dialogue, presumably not in the spirit of homage to badly dubbed Italian genre movies. Other sounds failed as well. Transmorphers seemingly takes place in a universe in which explosions occasionally fail to make any noise.


But hey, no movie’s perfect, right? And surely a gripping enough story can overcome some technical limitations. And to its credit, the plot of Transmorphers bears only a faint resemblance to Transformers (the movie, cartoon, toys, or what have you). It opens with evil aliens destroying civilization, presumably to make it safe for poor CGI effects:


What’s more, while its giant robots do occasionally reveal hidden guns and such, they don’t do much transmorphing. And why should they? They’ve wiped out human civilization and don’t need to hide anymore.

Or at least they wiped out most of it. Transmorphers’ human characters—a shouty, underwear-model-looking bunch—sadly dominate the film. They live in a robot-resisting part of the world, which, in spite of being dominated by metallic oppressors, has nonetheless turned into a sprawling, scientifically advanced megalopolis. But it’s hardly a utopia. The price of freedom is constant vigilance, which means stomping angrily through hallways lit by fluorescent bulbs, and constantly patrolling the same piece of soundstage-based urban waste.

Much debating on how to dwell with the robot threat ensues, some of which erupts into a catfight among the tank-top-clad female wing of the military. (There’s also a tender subplot about the stress military life takes on a pair of makeout-happy lesbians.) Eventually, it’s decided that only a cocksure rebel warrior sentenced to be frozen alive a few years back can save them. In a twist that anticipates Terminator: Salvation, he later discovers that he’s a robot too. “I made you too human,” an egghead scientist-type tells him. “I gave you the ability to feel. Care. Love. And most importantly, I gave you the one desire that the machines have stripped away from humanity: Hope.”

And what’s hope without a little fighting atop flying bikes? I felt like Transmorphers was reaching its climax when most of the cast—including the egghead scientist and a robot girlfriend seemingly designed to make good on a lifetime attraction to the Wendy’s logo—took to the skies to fight the killer robots. 

And then my DVD failed. Did they win? Presumably they didn’t lose entirely: Last year saw the release of Transmorphers: Fall Of Man.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? The experience was incomplete due to the technical issues, but most of it was still wasted time. While my curiosity was definitely satisfied, and while it warms the heart that The Asylum is out there finding ways to exploit the public’s desire to see cheap versions of what they’ve seen elsewhere, Transmorphers was actually pretty dull.

At any rate, The Asylum seems to have moved on, literally and figuratively. A post to the Asylum site in June announced, “We’ve decided to use some of the billions of dollars we’ve made ripping people off to move to a brand-new production facility in The Valley.” The studio also attracted a lot of attention via the buzz-magnet trailer for Mega-Shark Versus Giant Octopus, a rip-off of nothing in particular. Forthcoming titles include the stoner comedy Sexpot and 100 Feet, the latter featuring the positively respectable cast of Bobby Cannavale and Famke Janssen. Maybe they’re transmorphing, too.

More I Watched This On Purpose