Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Once the Transformers were a cornerstone of 80s childhoods, and at some point, they became Michael Bay's behemoths of destruction, piles of metallic shards vaguely taking human shape while Industrial Light & Magic slammed them into each other for the glee of the movie-watching public.  With "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)" scuttling yet another childhood memory of aging nerds, I felt a trip through time needed to be made.

I needed to come back to the beginning of this story before the masturbation jokes, before the minstrel show droids, to 1986.  This was "The Transformers: The Movie" an animated feature created by the original studio behind the 1980s cartoon, the first chance children had to see Optimus Prime and their other mighty morphing friends on the big screen.  Tranformers purists view this film as the alternative to the Bay era, an electric-guitar filled spectacle of robot violence and major turning points for the transforming characters.  However, what they would not like to admit is just how similar this movie is to its three-hour cousins.  I can see elements of this movie inspiring Bay's new tetrology of automaton action.

Much like the Ninja Turtles, the Transformers were not born of pious intentions.  The 1980s were an innovative time in children's entertainment, when drooling toy companies watched greedily at the extraordinary profits George Lucas was raking in with his "Star Wars" products.  Suddenly movies did not have to just be movies, they could be entire brands, coming with scores of T-shirts and dolls and the odd flamethrower.*  It was only a matter of time before Saturday morning cartoons stopped being merely cartoons, and became half hour long commercials for the toys based on the characters within.  The old Transformers line (later renamed by a crafty Hasbro ad man "Generation 1") was an elaborate scheme to reach into your heart and wallet.  What would make a better vehicle to sell toys than a show about steel heroes that transformed into vehicles?

Little did George Lucas or Hasbro realize that by hypercharging the marketing and turning their entertainment/toy lines into entire ways of life, they would wind up dominating the lives of an entire generation.   The franchises became much more than children's fables, they were almost a religion of fandom, with the old toys being totems of the Holy.  Where once adults could grow up learning to mostly ignore childhood heroes such as Flash Gordon or Tarzan, the modern Internet generation can hold onto its childhood forever, coveting the lessons and the fictional heroes of their past.  It continues even now, with college students rushing to capture the newest Pokemon generations, as entranced by Pikachu's bright cheerful call as they were in 1997.

However a cloak of faithful devotion to a product does not make for the most objective of judgments towards the quality of the original product.  For example, take "The Transformers: The Movie", an obviously-terrible film, which is rightfully mostly forgotten outside of the hardcore fandom.  But within that fandom, it is the pinnacle of everything Transformers represents.  You will even find people shouting righteously that this is what Transformers is supposed to be, this is the purest form of the series.  Yet remembering this was a movie made specifically to sell toys in the shapes of dinosaurs and other rubbish, how much purity can you find here?

Toys!  Toys!  Toys as far as the eye can see!
In terms of production "The Transformers Movie" was the high water mark of the Generation 1 era.  It came after two successful seasons of vaguely writing plots involving figures that would eventually end up in toy shops around the globe.  The film had a budget of six million, which was several factors larger than the production team, head by Nelson Shin, were used to for typical episodes.  Hasbro still retained vast creative control, specifying exactly which characters were to die.  This was not meant to test the dramatic weight of the series, but rather to get the children to buy new toys designed from the newer characters who would replace the old.  The more difficult and expensive animations were outsourced to Toei Animation, making for a jarring disconnect between the loving detail of the anime-esque mechanical designs of the ships, and the blocky lunchbox design of the mechanical stars.  (Their design were clearly simplified in order to more easily mass-produce the plastic homunculi of the heroes which would end up in the bedrooms of adoring fans everywhere.)

Television remained on the studio's mind, so the film was released in a Saturday morning-friendly 4:3 aspect ratio, while being written specifically so that the movie could be manageable cut into four episodes of the show.  In the version I watched, the editor left in huge black pauses between scenes where a commercial break could be included.

Ultimately the effect of the storytelling and the mercenary desires driving the production makes for a very odd kind of movie.  I find myself mostly sympathizing with the 1980s adults, wiping dried blood and cocaine off their noses** to take their children to this feature.  Before them lies a bizarre universe of robots of every color, all of them screaming names at each other which you can barely keep up with.  This was a movie made only for the Transformer-initiated; if you do not know who Starscream is by now, you're not going to have a good time.  Even stranger, the movie opens with what is essentially its climax, featuring what was intended to be the final battle of the villainous Megatron (Frank Welker) and the heroic Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).  Within half the running time the great conflicts of the Transformers universe (Optimus vs Megatron, Starscream's bid for power***) conclude, leaving the movie bereft of its soul.  Then it slows down for an interlude on a planet full of Shark-bots, before ending with yet another climax against a robot the size of a planet, massively multiplying the stakes, but missing out on even the small character element that existed within the show.

This moment of detailed Toei-made planet-eating clearly cost a hundred times as much as the other screenshots.
The plot of "Transformers" takes place in the far distant fantastic future year of... 2005.  (It sounded better in 1986.)  Megatron stages what he hopes will be his final offensive on the human-friendly Autobots on Earth.  Meanwhile, a monstrous planet-devouring creature, Unicron (Orson Wells in his final performance), finds itself interested in the Transformers home world, Cybertron, with plans to conquer the bots, good and bad, and then make a tasty meal of them all.

In the final battle of the Autobots and the Decipticons, both leaders fatally wound each other.  Optimus Prime passes on his job to a trusted lieutenant peacefully on his deathbed, while Megatron finds himself kicked out of the airlock and usurped by the ever-scheming Starscream, patron saint of the traitorous second-in-command.  Neither successor lasts long, as both of the fallen leaders are reborn by the greater powers in the universe.  Unicron recruits the dying Megatron as his commander, upgrading his form to Galvatron, and his voice actor to the great Leonard Nimoy.  And Hot Rod (Judd Nelson, a name that meant a lot more in 1986), a cocky Autobot, finds the glowing orb of power, the Matrix, and is reborn into Rodimus Prime, whose power destroys Unicron and saves the universe.

It is pretty obvious Michael Bay or Ehren Kruger or some ghostwriter for the new Transformers movie saw "The Transformers" at some point during their research.  It seems they were especially taken by the violence, which remains shocking even today.  You would expect such crude little tin men to fight with relative restraint, yet early on Megatron murders ten metal people, then goes out of his way to brutalize Optimus Prime with early dirty trick at his disposal.  Prime mocks Megatron's bid for mercy with the movie's best line "I thought you were made of sterner stuff", previewing his psychopathic rampages from the modern series.  The final climaxes of Bayformers are mind-numbing war scenes, lasting for up to an hour, which all originated here, which actually opens with thirty minutes of terrestrial and interstellar battles long and complex enough to inspire the blood-soaked fantasies of any special effects-obsessed director.  It was exhausting back in 1986, it remains exhausting in 2014.

Megatron is just a slab of gray.  Compare this simplicity to his fractal-like modern ILM design.
Heck, even the terrible comic relief characters are predicted by a quote-on-quote "wacky" robot played by Eric Idle who speaks in nothing but advertising lingo.  Listen to him jabber on long enough, and you can almost see how Skids and Mudflap could have made their way into "Revenge of the Fallen".

One key difference though:  humans.  In this entire movie there are exactly two creatures with blood not oil flowing through their veins, a father and son who just happen to hang with the Transformers.  They are so unnecessary to the plot they are not even granted the status of POV characters, they remain extraneous background figures just along for the ride until the very end.  Oh, and they ride huge power armors, which I'm sure also found their way onto store shelves.  This was the one area that the Michael Bay team felt it best to "improve" upon, opening up the flood gates to the new movies which completely reverse the perspective.  The Transformers now are background characters to raunchy high school comedies or industrial thrillers, with the mammals front and center.

Ultimately, "The Transformers: The Movie" is not a very good film-watching experience, even when compared to the alternatives.  The animation is inconsistent and often muddy, the pacing is all over the place, and the characters are simply too broadly-drawn, overpopulated, and underwritten to make for a truly exciting film.  There is a lot movie here crammed into only ninety minutes, and the effect is delirious.  The highlight clearly is the Megatron and Optimus Prime battle, putting to rest two seasons-worth of animosity and a lifetime of rivalry.  Yet the movie continues forward, losing more steam every time it sacrifices a character for Hasbro's merchandising engine.  Unsurprisingly none of the character deaths in this movie actually took, either fan reaction or writer malaise had Starscream, Optimus, and Megatron back in action within the next season of the cartoon.  At only ninety minutes "Transformers" is an incredibly slow-paced slog, unable to capitalize on what could have been a very exciting story, and far less able to properly establish the new figures in its universe.  Too much space had to be given for the other toys, they could not waste valuable running time making Unicorn or Hot Rod sustainable characters on their own.

King Starscream unfortunately is a minor figure in this movie.
However, there is one positive I have yet to mention:  the soundtrack.

Nothing, as far as I'm concerned, really compares to a glorious 1980s hair metal ballad.  I'll admit that musically they are the equivalent of eating Instant Ramen, lots of very complex manufactured carbohydrates and nothing of substance, but I do not care.  "The Transformers: The Movie" might be the greatest statement ever put forward for cheesy electric guitar solos, loud screaming lyrics, and synthesized riffs.  "The Touch" is like the awesome training theme to some lost Rocky film made between "Rocky IV" and "V".  You just want to get outside and jog up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  "Lion", the remix of the Transformers theme, has an absolutely filthy guitar section, along with lyrics so warped and screamed as to be almost inaudible.  Then for some reason a Weird Al song made it into the mix, "Dare to be Stupid", and it appears nobody to this day is exactly sure why.

With nostalgia being the 21st century drug of choice, Transformers will never be put down by its fans.  Hollywood, of course, has not ignored this lesson, and the current paradigm of endless reboots and remakes comes straight from this trend in nerd culture.  If you can get them bitching on the Internet about what you have done to Optimus Prime's face, you have already won.  There is no such thing as bad publicity, after all, the marketing feeds itself.  "TMNT (2014)" might have been savaged by every online outlet and every Ninja Turtles fan, but it still managed to become the number one movie in the world, beating even "Guardians of the Galaxy".  And if you can sell more toys from the new version, why, you've only doubled your market.

Somewhere out there, as deranged as it sounds, children are falling in love with the Bayformers.  They're worshiping that crap just like children of the 80s worshiped this crap.  Watch, twenty years from now, when nostalgia has properly set in, Michael Bay's interpretation of the Transformers will be revered enough that Hollywood can start the process all over again.  A new generation of toys, a new generation of lunchboxes, T-shirts, and dolls.  I'm not going to hold out much hope for a very good movie, though.

*  "Mwerchandising!  Mwerchandising!  Where the real money from the movie is made!"

** In the 80s of my imagination, everybody is on cocaine.  Even Megatron.

*** There are really only two great conflicts in the entire Transformers legendarium, and only three characters with any real personality at all, let alone depth or dimension.  That does not say much for the quality of writing in this franchise.


  1. Ho Boy
    *Sits down because this is going to be a long one.
    Now as a long time transfan I admit the tv series can be really mixed at times.
    The original generation cartoon, Robots in disguise,Armada and Cybertron are all pretty mixed.
    Energon and most of the japan only G1 series are pretty awful.
    Only Beast wars/Beast Machines, Animated and from what I've heard Prime are the only ones with any quality story telling to them.
    But its a bit unfair to write the entire franchise as lacking depth and dimension.
    Once again I point to the 90's Beast Wars tv series and IDW's Transformers More then meets the eye as being the prime example of how to do a transformers where they excel in memorable 3 dimensional characters that grow, great humor, great action scenes, a heavy dose of mythology and discussion of their religion, deeper themes of class oppression and the nature of a transformers birth and their role is society ( hell the IDW comics have in their backstory a period of apartheid) and enough nightmare fuel to traumatize kids for years.

    Its not a perfect franchise ill give you that, there are many sins *coughs Energon, *coughs, all hail megatron *coughs kiss players *coughs .
    But there are some gems hidden among the garbage.

    As for the 1986 movie...... yeah its not perfect, yeah it was designed to sell toys and yeah there are some depressing similarities to the bay films.
    But I like to see it something like the 1980s flash Gordon , gloriously so bad its good, with cheesy dialogue and setpieces, groan worthy jokes, over the top hammy actors , for flash brian blessed and for transformers orson welles ,leonard nimoy and eric idle and rockin 80's rock and roll and metal.
    Its stupid but I see it more as a so bad its good cheesy fun, as opposed to the bay films which are just bland action blockbusters with no soul.

    That's just my take and you are entitled to your own opinion and I respect you for that.

    And now just to play it safe, *Flame shields up

    Sword Of Primus

    1. No need to defend yourself and for the most it's true. You get the good with the bad with any long running franchise. Especially during the early years when it's first starting out. Transformers came in that sweet decade gap between the late 80's and early 90's that said anything can go. Transformers got into that period and hit all the sweet spots that made it such a pop culture corner stone. I will attest that Prime is pretty good, although it doe's suffer a bit from the human characters.

      Anywho yeah the 86 movie is dumb as hell if your over 8 years old. It doesn't hold up very well once you've realized you've seen better robot fighting movies.

    2. Look its not a perfect movie, no doubt.
      But I still attest its has more energy and fun then the bay films.
      As for prime... yeah people keep singing its praises . But the pilot was a bit of a turnoff especially with the human characters. One of these days he should try it.
      However, I have no clue what the libraries are like in New Jersey/New York where Bluehighwind lives. But if he can get a hold of some of the IDW transformers comics he should give it a shot, especially anything my James Roberts.

      But to each their own.
      Sword Of Primus