I’ve written a lot about how the movies I grew up watching — ones marketed as being for “kids” or “families” — were often incredibly dark, scary, and violent. (Read about when Disney did it, as well as other examples!) When I look back at them, I ask myself whether I should have been more scarred by them than I was. Perhaps no film in recent memory has made me think about this more than 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie. Shout! Factory is releasing the animated classic on September 13, which I was lucky enough to get early, and… you guys, this movie was made for children?! It’s the most violent and weird thing I’ve ever seen!
Toy companies need to sell toys. That’s job number one through nine on the “To-Do” list of a toy company. Having a television show made specifically to promote said toys was the best way to accomplish this, and few did it better than Hasbro. Many will point to G.I. Joe as being the prime example of this, but it was Transformers that proved to be the king. So instead of simply unveiling the new toy line and weaving it in to the upcoming third season of the cartoon, Hasbro and their business partners decided to make a movie where the old characters would go away and new characters would take center stage to move some units. But did anyone assume that would entail murdering pretty much ALL of the show’s beloved characters? I sure as hell didn’t!
The movie was written by Ron Friedman and directed by Nelson Shin, both of whom had been with the show for a while. They both seemed, in their own way, like they were attempting to make something more adventurous and edgy than just a simple movie based on a cartoon based on toys. They also wrangled a strange, eclectic group of actors to provide guest voices for some of the new characters, including Robert Stack as Ultra Magnus, Judd Nelson as Hot Rod, Lionel Stander as Kup, Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, and Orson Welles as Unicron. I can’t imagine any of them had the slightest idea of what they were talking about and why anything was happening, but they do a great job, all things considered.
The movie takes place 20 years after the events of the first two seasons of the show.The Decepticons have taken over the Transformers homeworld. Spike Witwicky is now an adult working with the Autobot forces on Cybertron’s moon, and his young son Daniel has befriended Hot Rod. While Unicron, the living planet, begins engulfing Cybertron, Megatron and his Decepticon followers intercept an Autobot supply mission to Earth’s Autobot City. And, well, they murder four well-known and beloved Autobots. Just up and kill them. Ratchet gets his arm blown off; Prowl gets riddled with blaster bolts and we get to see his eyes glaze over; Ironhide (who was always my favorite character growing up) gets shot several times, and then, as he tries to crawl back to his feet, Megatron shoots him point blank in the head, excution-style. And this is like the 10 minute mark of the movie.
From there, the Autobot base on Earth is attacked and several other good guys get killed or badly wounded, while the Decepticons use the Constructicons to try to break in to the base. Luckily, the Dinobots are there to fight them off, (Honest to God, it sounds so ridiculous when you just explain what happens) but then we get to the part where Optimus Prime comes down to fight Megatron. It’s a super awesome fight sequence, but at the end of it, both are mortally wounded. The Decepticons escape, Starscream takes a vote, and they decide to jettison the mostly-dead Megatron into space. Back on Earth, though, Optimus needs to give the Matrix of Leadership inside his chest to another, and he chooses Ultra Magnus to take over (but don’t get too attached, guys). And just so we all know that Optimus has indeed actually died, his eyes go dark, his head turns on the slab, and his body turns grey. GET IT GUYS?! He’s DEAD!
The movie — which is less than 90 minutes, you guys — just keeps getting weirder, with Unicron intercepting Megatron’s body, regenerating him as Galvatron, and giving him an army to retake control of the Decepticons and crush the Autobots, in exchange for total loyalty and the promise of destroying the Matrix of Leadership. When Bumblebee, Jazz, Cliffjumper, and Spike get sucked up into Unicron, it leaves only a paltry force of Autobots–Ultra Magnus, Hot Rod, Kup, Arcee, Springer, Blurr, Perceptor, Blaster, and Daniel in an exo-suit–to attempt to defeat Unicron. Galvatron continually tries to stop serving Unicron, but he’s compelled to keep going. Maybe if someone ELSE were the leader of the Autobots everything would be okay…
To me, The Transformers: The Movie is a lot more than a super complicated plot and a series of brutal cartoon character deaths (though those things are delightful and nutso); watching it this week with Shout!’s gorgeous new HD widescreen presentation, I think the movie is an LSD-fueled art film. The explosion of metal-on-metal destruction and whizzing colors and shapes feels like a precursor to the 1988 anime classic Akira to me, and the metal heroes and villains going up against a literal living planet feels somehow like a demented Isaac Asimov story. It’s tremendous, and even though the bits with Wreck-Gar (voiced by Eric Idle) and the other trashbots drag on considerably, it’s a film that should be studied for the insane mixture of art and commerce it truly is.
And I would be wholly remiss if I didn’t talk about the music, which has become just as popular as the movie itself in fan circles. The amalgam of pop and rock songs chosen for this movie — again, a movie based on a toy — is astonishing. Stan Bush wrote the song “The Touch” for the Sylvester Stallone action movie Cobra, but when it wasn’t selected for that, it was brought in to Transformers. Other standouts include Bush’s other song Dare; the NRG track “Instruments of Destruction”; and, of all things, the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “Dare to be Stupid.” I’m in awe of the choices made there. Add in a friggin’ awesome electronic score by Vince DiCola and a version of the theme song by Lion, and you have a soundscape weirdly befitting the movie itself.
The Transformers: The Movie was a big ol’ flop upon its release in theaters, largely having to do with poor marketing and distribution, but it has since become a massive cult classic, thanks in no small part to the deaths of all those characters, most notably Optimus Prime. The makers of the show and the film never expected kids would have that big of a connection to the Autobots’ leader, but they did, and he was subsequently brought back. While there’s nothing against
Hot Rod Rodimus Prime, he just doesn’t have the same gravitas that Optimus had. “One shall stand, one shall fall.” Well actually, Optimus, many shall fall. But I’m kind of glad they did; what a trip!