Directed by: Nelson Shin.
Music by: Vince DiCola.
Starring: Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Lionel Stander.

Thirty years ago, the franchises and movies that would come to be celebrated many years hence were oddly not always the most profitable, but were instead full to the brim with creative vision. This franchise for kids had a little of both going on.

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Already a top-selling toy line, The Transformers had two seasons of a hit Saturday Morning cartoon tie-in under its belt. By 1985, the toy manufacturer Hasbro wished to dispense with the current line and introduce a new crop of changing robot characters to a new and existing customer base (parents really, as they hold the purse-strings). The decision was made to produce a slick animated movie for release in 1986, to give these new characters a truly dramatic entrance. On paper, it could have been a by-the-numbers battle fest following a similar ‘good v evil’ plotline to the TV show, and that might have been good enough.

It is probably down to this movie however, that Transformers is set apart from many of its peers in the eyes of lifelong fans, and taken a little more seriously.

This is hard-nosed for a film aimed at children, partly driven by the need to replace one generation of characters with a new one, which pushed the tone in a darker direction. We complain in pop culture circles about reboots making everything unnecessarily gritty, whereas Transformers The Movie probably helped to initiate that trend.

Everyone who watched the original show and badgered their parents for the toys during the first couple of seasons knows about grief. At the time, Hasbro decreed, wrongly, that fan favourite Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, should be retired along with others.

This proved controversial for a few reasons:
1 – Everyone (adults at least) underestimated how many children there were with a deep devotion to Optimus. So much so that they added a tag to the end of the film, stating that he would return.
2 – The prevailing arc of the show was very much the same as other ‘80s series, where both series heroes and villains remained the same after each conflict. Thusly, killing off many established characters was a massive shock for young viewers.
3 – Not content with leaving cinemas full of kids in a traumatised state, the film spins off into alien environments, as the remaining heroes are caught up in a galaxy-spanning pursuit for their lives. Adding terror of the unknown to trauma.
4 – THE START OF THE FILM DEPICTS A ROBOTIC PLANET DEVOURING AN ENTIRE CIVILISATION OF ROBOTS, IN WHAT IS LIKELY TO BE THE ONLY DEPICTION OF GENOCIDAL EXTINCTION EVER SHOWN IN CHILDREN’S ENTERTAINMENT.

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You know what? That last point alone is what makes the film so awesome! It was obviously way too much for audiences at the time, as the film was an initial financial flop by a margin of around $200,000. With DVD and VHS releases, they have easily moved into profit since then and the new Blu-Ray release has a lot of people excited. The reason being is that as much it traumatised, it also pulled no punches and felt like one of the most genuinely emotional entertainment experiences permitted for young people at the time.

Here is a brief plot overview, but if you wish to be unspoiled please skip past the italics:

A robotic planet with a bustling, peaceful populace finds itself facing an apocalypse from the stars, as a malevolent mechanical planet descends on them. With horned pincers it tears their world to shreds and pulls the planet into its colossal maw, and we see it’s inner workings break down a whole world into constituent elements to recharge its energy. Even escaping ships are pulled back by the leviathan’s gravity, unable to run from such a horrific fate.

The Autobots reside on Earth, their enemies the Decepticons having claimed Cybertron, the home planet of both robotic races. The Autobots have bases on two of Cybertron’s moons, building defences and a fresh offensive to retake their homeland. Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots sends a ship to Autobot City on Earth – for collection of a shipment of Energon cubes to power their weaponry. Having spied on these moon operations, the Decepticons board the outgoing vessel, slaughter the crew and fly towards Earth, aiming to slip by their enemies warning systems undetected.

Upon arriving on Earth, a young Autobot named Hot Rod uncovers the ruse, leading the Decepticons to attack the city while under fire. The city itself transforms into a massive armed platform, but alas only a few Autobots remain standing after the slaughter. Hot Rod, old-timer Kup, Earth commander Ultra Magnus, Arcee, Springer, Blurr, Perceptor, Blaster, and the human Daniel Witwicky (whose father is Spike, the Autobots’ original human companion) barely survive the battle that rages all night.

In the morning, just as all defences are finally broken, Optimus and the Dinobots arrive in their own ship, to answer an earlier distress call. In a display of incredible bravery and skill, Optimus defeats the Decepticon army and takes on their leader Megatron in a battle between the two titans. Both robots are left mortally wounded, and the Decepticons retreat, using Astrotrain in his shuttle form to limp into space.

As his life ebbs away, Optimus entrusts a powerful artefact, the Matrix of Leadership, to Ultra Magnus (though upon a weak Optimus dropping the Matrix, Hot Rod catches it first, passing the artefact to the commander afterward). Optimus states to the assembled survivors that the power of the matrix will light the Autobots’ darkest hour, and then succumbs to his wounds, turning grey and lifeless.

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Megatron and the wounded Decepticons are jettisoned at the hands of the treacherous Starscream, who has always coveted leadership. Discovered awaiting their fate, floating in the cold void of deep space, the Decepticons meet Unicron, a sentient cyber-planet and devourer of worlds from the film’s introduction.

Unicron promises Megatron a new body and troops to command if he will destroy the Matrix – which is the one thing, the only thing that can stand in its way. Megatron agrees under threat of destruction and is morphed by a reconstructive beam into Galvatron, the other Decepticons present being similarly revitalised into Cyclonus, Scourge and an armada.

On Cybertron, Galvatron disrupts Starscream’s coronation as leader and destroys him, then moving to Autobot City and an attempt to take the Matrix from Ultra Magnus. The Autobots flee this fresh conflict in star ships, which are damaged in the pursuit and land on various hostile planets – hoping one day to return with allies and the power to stop both the Decepticons and their new master, Unicron.

From the get-go to the climax, this film is a whirlwind of extremely detailed animation, kick-ass synth rock and galaxy-spanning adventure. The Michael Bay films of recent times, for both reasons of budget and capability, could not pull off something of this magnitude and intensity. More than the cartoon and toys ever could, the film sets a tone of true stakes that actually stands directly against everything that Hasbro had intended, though not deliberately perhaps.

In under an hour and a half, we see more character development, growth and world building than we got in the various seasons of the show, only matched by Marvel’s excellent line of comics from the same period (Marvel also had production input on the film). Those comics went on to describe full origins for the mysterious villain Unicron later on, but in a way rather mistook his impact and appeal.

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Let’s pause the review for a second and ruminate on the singular achievement of Unicron. It is a sentient planet that devours other planets, shown unflinchingly to be a destroyer of intelligent species, scientists and children alike. It moves silently and undetected until it is too late, despite being such a massive size. Imagine Galactus from Marvel’s own comics, but given no persona and a greater sense of unknown quantity. For the majority of this film, we see it only as a god-like object or monolith that goes completely unexplained almost as a perverted natural force, one who can see far into the cosmic reaches and project its will across vast reaches of space.

Let’s not be coy, Unicron in the film is a Lovecraftian agent, one that seems all but unstoppable and ancient beyond knowledge of even the Cybertronians themselves. In a film designed to introduce a new toy line, we get a villain that shares characteristics with creatures from the infamous Chthulhu mythos. Dead Space 3 tried the video game equivalent of this ploy only a few years ago, but in a way that stumbled where this animated film did not. Unicron arrives in the Transformers universe and we end the film with no greater knowledge as to its origins or history. That is the foundation of great horror writing.

Building on such an epic concept, Toei Animation really pulled out all the stops with the quality of their work throughout. Every computer panel has a crawling, glowing texture. Close ups of robotic faces go into absurdly fine detail of what a Transformer’s ‘skin’ would look like. Sequences of battle feature mechanical debris that must have taken months to render so richly. Not since has there been a Japanese toy tie-in that so closely matches the production values of Akira, Ghost in the Shell or Princess Mononoke (with exceptions due to production strain mentioned later on). That sentence has not a shred of hyperbole in it, and all animation aficionados should be aware of their achievements.

Of special mention is the soundtrack from Vince DiCola, which typically for the ‘80s features a mixture of rich synth keyboard work and driving metal/hard rock. Even the cheesiest moments, such as the unforgettable arrival of Optimus Prime on Earth to the sound of Stan Bush’s ‘You Got the Touch’ fit the tone perfectly. Weird Al Yankovic is featured as well, in what makes for a rather meta use of Devo parody song ‘Dare to be Stupid’, to illustrate frenetic battle with a robot race whose whole culture is based on reference and parody. It is hard to imagine the recent glut of Synthwave bands, such as Gunship, would exist without this and the soundtracks for Escape from New York and Terminator.

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The voice acting talent is rather eyebrow raising as well for its sheer bravery and budget-busting weight. This was Orson Welles’ final film, before he passed from a heart attack mere days after recording Unicron’s lines was completed. His last acting gig in a lifetime of accolade was to play a destructive planetoid, which there is some inkling of being of little consequence to him, due to interviews from the period just prior to his death. If Orson could only have talked to our generation, and seen the effect his immense voice had on many thousands of stunned children, he may have viewed it differently. Also of particular note is Leonard Nimoy’s energetic performance as Galvatron, with which he was obviously having a ball. Leonard clearly relished the chance to get illogical as he could, snarling and twisting his voice into maniacal contortions that could have served him well to repeat in his live action film career – such are the evil and at times feral qualities of his intonations, it serves to show how much more range and potential he still had to offer, even after so many years.

Perhaps nostalgia is too deep to fully decouple from the effect this film had, so finding fault is difficult. Critics of Transformers The Movie, even into the modern age with an average mark on Rotten Tomatoes, seem to find a lacklustre or average film here, despite it’s many praises from leading technology and geek culture voices from around the web. Sure, some characters are thinly drawn in the maelstrom of action, and the thin facial hair of Junkion warriors meant to ape Chinese visual convention from Kung Fu movies comes off as a little insensitive now – but things like this are present in all media from a period. Many children’s eyes didn’t notice the now obvious dips in animation quality and cleanliness in a few bridging scenes – signs of strain as the animation team from the movie struggled to produce it and continue work on the TV show simultaneously (A move on the executive team’s part that seems insane and counter productive). Viewed from a modern perspective, we can see flaws all the more clearly.

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What is more important is the lasting impact. Whereas, more immediately bankable movies have disappeared into relative obscurity, this film joins a list of initial flops/critical black sheep that turned into classics and spawned reboots or franchises – names on that list include Alien and Willy Wonka.

There was a ballsy tagline on cinema posters for Transformers that read, “Beyond Good. Beyond Evil. Beyond Your Wildest Imagination.” Damn right it is, and in narrative scale it is still unparalleled. Transformers The Movie will rock your face off.

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