Friday, August 14, 2015

Transformers: The Movie

In 1986, Hasbro released Transformers: The Movie.  This is obviously an entirely separate entity from the recent Michael Bay summer blockbusters, and I bristle a little bit any time I have to differentiate between the two.

Anyhow, I love this movie.  I remember how, before everything was available via Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon, the only way to relive this film was to rent it from the local video rental store (where I would later find employment).  I'm sure I had the record for the most rentals for that particular item.

The Plot

In the distant year of 2005 (I know, right?!), the Decepticons (bad guys, if you've not been paying attention) have taken over Cybertron, the Transformers' home world. The Autobots (Good guys. Pay attention!) are trying to get it back. A battle ensues, and Optimus Prime dies (more on that later), and Megatron gets roughed up pretty badly. Enter, Unicron, a Transformer god in the form of a giant planet, that eats other planets.  Unicron recruits the Decepticons to steal the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, the only thing that can destroy him. The Decepticons chase after a new crew of Autobots, but eventually, the sworn enemies team up (sort of) to defeat Unicron. Hot Rod, a young Autobot opens the Matrix and becomes Rodimus Prime, and in the process destroys Unicron.  The end.

Here is why I love this movie:

The Sound Track

This movie had a hilariously appropriate sound track.  At the height of the hair band craze, this movie featured Lion, N.R.G., and Spectre General. Add to that Weird Al Yankovich in his heyday and the beloved Stan Bush, whose hit, "The Touch" is forever (as well as he himself) linked with the Transformers. Also, this genius cameo in Boogie Nights:

"Take Seven."

I saw it in an actual theater. 

This was the first of the 80s toy commercials/cartoons to have a theatrical release. I saw this movie at the Broadway Theatre in my hometown; It still stands to this day.  Although I went on dates there, held hands there, and did things that make me cringe to this day there, the memory that sticks out the most is sitting with my mom and seeing all of my heroes on the big screen.

Swear word. 

It was both thrilling and terrifying. Spike, the Autobots' human friend, upon realizing he and Bumblebee's fate, utters the dreaded S-word.

Did I mention I was sitting next to my mother?

Did you catch it? A cuss word. In a cartoon! Some interesting trivia regarding this. For a "kids" movie, this one boasts a lot of violence. This includes point-blank executions, mass casualties, and of course the death of several beloved characters. The producers were a little concerned about a G rating, so they inserted this, and one other swear word purposefully in order to obtain a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Whatever the reason however, hearing these normally wholesome characters swear, definitely made you feel as though this was a high stakes plot.


What can be said about a Transformer the size of a planet? Add to that, the voice work of the legendary, Orson Welles (who was apparently not very impressed by this particular gig). Unicron added a whole galactic scale to the Transformers story.  He didn't just feed on Cybertron, but other metalic planets. Who knew there were such things? One scene close to the end shows him standing atop Cybertron, evoking a level of absurd proportions rivaling King Kong and the Empire State Building.

"You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another. The Japanese have funded a full-length animated cartoon about the doings of these toys, which is all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen." - Orson Welles1


For many movie goers, this may have been their first experience with death. And with none other than Optimus Prime, the gentle, peace-loving leader of the Autobots. Prime wasn't the only one. The death toll include most of the 1984 cast.  Really, the whole movie had the cynical task of clearing out an old line of toys to make room for the new one. There must have been some other way to do this, though, right?  Nevertheless, it was all of the death and loss that gave this movie a lot of gravity, and added significantly to the mythos in ways that other franchises have seldom reached. This was a story with real significance.

If I go for a couple of years without watching this scene, it still gives me chills. The music, the emotion in the onlookers' faces, the way Prime turns black.  My son still makes me fast-forward past it.  I'm okay with that. Interestingly enough, nearly every Transformers story since, has had some moment where Optimus Prime dies. Isn't there a song lyric about killing your inspiration? Singing about your grief?

The Matrix

The Autobot Matrix of Leadership; a magical orb inside a metal casing. Over the years it has been said to create new life, to hold the accumulated wisdom of the ages, to be the essence of the Transformers' creator, Primus, and of course, the one thing that could light the Autobot's darkest hour. It is a symbol of leadership that is passed down to each new Prime, making them the official figurehead of the Autobots. Of course, nobody had heard about this all-important artifact until the movie. It apparently had been residing inside of Prime's chest all the way through seasons 1 and 2, but apparently no one cared. Also, apparently every Autobot is walking around with a giant hole in their torso, just in case. Really, it was a MacGuffin-style device that helped to move the plot along. As a result of the movie though, the Matrix has become the most important artifact in the Transformers Mythos.

Failure and redemption

The protagonist of the movie is Hot Rod.  Voiced by Breakfast Club star Judd Nelson (I know), he makes an early attempt to help Optimus, but is coopted as a living shield by Megatron who deals the final blow to Prime.  Fortunately, Hot Rod proves his worth by resting a stolen Matrix back from Galvatron, and destroying the monster, Unicron. Hot Rod was vilified by a lot of fans for his role in Prime's death. And really, did Hasbro expect us to embrace a new leader who was arguably responsible for their favorite character's demise?

Behold: The flame-chested one. 
The idea of Hot Rod/Rodimus has always spoken to me though.  For one, the death, the matrix, the ascension of a new prime, it all added to the mythos in a way that nothing else had, and Hot Rod was there at the center of it.  All of these events still carry weight in nearly every story since. Also, he transformed into a giant Winnebago.

It exists!
So again, all of this was calculated to sell toys. But, the writers, producers, animators and voice actors, hit so many right notes in this movie, that it stands the test of time. I would still put it on before almost anything else.

Did someone order a Lion? Purrrr.

1Orson Welles: A Biography, p 522. 

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