Cult Culture Archive: Transformers: The Movie

From the archives (2006): A review of the original 1986 Transformers movie.

And the best movie of my generation?  The film that affected us the most, shaped our perception of the world, and caused us all to look deep inside and reevaluate our lives?  The movie that made us the men and women we are today?

I take you to 1986, and into the AMC 3 to sit down beside me and watch… Transformers: The Movie.  That’s right.  This is the movie responsible for all the good and bad things that my generation has done since that date, and will continue to do until we pass the flag to those who inherit our world.

Imagine my consternation when I discovered that this movie is reviled by many.  It ranks 40% on www.rottentomatoes.com.  One review shocked me the most:

“Basically, The Transformers: The Movie features rancid animation techniques, a story that will bore anyone over age 10, and a few overpaid celebrities essaying the lead voices.”

Bore anyone over the age of ten?  I think not.  In the first 90 seconds, we witness the destruction of an entire planet, and not in the pull away and blow it up style that most movies would do.  No, the planet is, literally, devoured by Orson Welles.  It’s sucked up into the eager maw of Unicron, the character he voices, and torn to pieces.  We watch as robot women and children (who we first see playing and laughing and chatting happily with each other) are whipped up into Unicron’s gaping mouth, screaming in terror as they’re chomp-chomp-chomped by grinders and then thrown into digestive juices.  We see their faces, we hear their voices, as they die.  I’m still disturbed by that opening scene.   I would never show this film to someone under 10 years old.  Especially if, like me, you had watched and fucking loved two and a half years of the after school cartoon starring endearing, heroic characters who are all, within the first 15 minutes of the film, brutally murdered.  When this movie came out, children were led out of the theater, in tears, before the second act.  People sobbed uncontrollably, parents demanded their money back, my mom was horrified and shaken when the single most heroic figure in cartoon history – Optimus Prime – was defeated by one of the worst enemies above even Cobra Commander.  And not just losing a battle and tumbling off a cliff or something.  No, he’s shot, fucking kicked and mocked, and, then, shattered, dies slowly on an operating table.

But the death of Prime hardly registered because, right before, in an almost casual manner, most of the generation one Transformers were killed in an ambush.  Some of the favorite characters from the cartoon, and treasured toys, were taken out within the space of a few seconds of screen time.  And need I mention the coup de grace shot?  A critically wounded Ironhide grabs Megatron’s leg.  Megatron turns slowly, sneers down at him:  “Such heroic nonsense,” then, with his big fuck-off arm cannon, he obliterates Ironhide.  The screen fills with the smoke and body-parts from the blast.  End scene.  Audience sits in cold, breathless silence.

It doesn’t stop there.  Later in the film, the graphic death of everyone’s favorite rabble-rouser, Starscream (who, during the brutal, corpse-strewn, night-long opening battle, was forced to shoot off his foot to get out of a tight spot), is just icing on the relentlessly violent cake.  Twenty years later, and Transformers: The Movie remains one of the cruelest films I’ve seen, if only because the destruction of the generation one characters was so unforgiving that the hollowness left in my soul is still raw and painful.  I went home and hugged the toys to my chest and stared into middle space for a few hours.

And then there’s the soundtrack.  From 80’s pop to heavy metal to dreamland synthesizer to Weird Al Yankovic’s unforgettable “Dare to be Stupid.”  To child minds already ripped to pieces by the death and destruction of loved ones, the seemingly random and wholly offensive soundtrack is an assault that many only barely survived.  To this day, I catch myself humming songs from the movie.  You’ve got the touch!  You’ve got the pooower!

My personal favorite is the update to the theme song.  From the grating TV version, we move into the 80’s metal version by “Lion,” a Whitesnake clone never heard from again…thankfully.  The theme song, on the soundtrack (and during the end credits), takes a bizarre turn after two minutes with screaming guitar solos, inexplicable lyrics, and an epileptic on the synth.  We all know “more than meets the eye” and “robots in disguise” and what have you, but then they go on to screech the following verses:

“It’s judgment day and now we’ve made our stand
And now the powers of darkness
Have been driven from our land

The Battle’s over but the war has just begun
And this way it will remain till the day when all are one”

And:

“Strong enough to break the bravest heart
So we have to pull together
We can’t stay worlds apart”

And several others.  It leaves you sitting there trying to wake up from this strange dream.

The coke-addled theme song is followed by the big opening number: “Dare” by Stan Bush (who did most of the music).  One of his albums was titled “Dial 818 888 8638,” which was his fan hotline.  Ain’t that a hoot?  Kinda makes you want to, you know, shoot this man.  The Ozzie Osborne-inspired “Instruments of Self Destruction” plays over the stunningly violent battle scene where everyone who isn’t going to die (that’s the second round of terrible deaths, by the way) still gets a brutal thrashing.  Stan Bush returns with the heroic finale number “The Touch,” which is the tooth-achingly poppy theme song for our little hero.

What really numbs the audience is a scene that can only have come from a deeply demented mind.  On the planet of junk, running for their lives, the last remnants of the Autobots encounter Wreck-Gar, voiced by Eric Idle, and his squad of junk-bots who speak only in catch-phrases from popular commercials yet somehow manage to hold a conversation.  It frightens me that we’re so steeped in television that a character can speak like that and make perfect sense.  When the battle commences, we get Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid.”  And, yes, you can come to my house and drink with me and, no matter the situation, I will eventually run around the living room singing this song.

In fact, it’s set on a loop as I write this.

But enough about violence and fringe music from the 80’s.  What’s Transformers: The Movie really about?  Once I recovered from the shock and absolute despair, what really got deep into my 12 year old mind as I sat there in the theater?  Sex.  Yeah, that’s right.

Arcee.  My girl.  Blue eyes, slim waist, long legs, hips, tits, power!  She was the pink Transformer voiced by Susan Blu, who’s been doing cartoon voices, along with the occasional bit parts in TV shows, since the 1960’s.  Her biggest live action role was as Amanda Shepard in Friday the 13th Part VII, which is one of more gruesome entries in the franchise.  Lacking the typical comedy of the Friday the 13th series, the seventh part is just a stalking exercise in body counting.  She gets a spear in the back and, as a corpse, is used unsuccessfully as a shield.  Oh!  Arcee!

Now, don’t sniff your nose at me because I’m sexually attracted to a Transformer.  When Unicron’s eating worlds, we see child robots and couples.  So we know that the Transformers procreate just like we do.  And that means Arcee is fair game.

In the end, Transformers: The Movie sprung from a simple idea: It was rebooting the franchise, wiping out characters that weren’t selling well, and clumsily introducing a whole bunch of new characters.  So who the hell decided that, hey, we’ll retire the old line by going fucking insane and killing the characters in the worst ways possible?  What focus group thought that was a good idea?  The movie is the greatest example of how disconnected the entertainment industry has become.  They forged into it thinking that, if the toys weren’t selling well, then the fans must not care about the characters.

Released as a big summer cartoon movie, the shelves would then be glutted with all the new toys that children the world over would be screaming for.  A good fall and winter for Hasbro!  Or…not.

What they met was controversy so far reaching that it spelled the end of two major toy franchises.  It ruined the GI Joe movie, being made by the same folks, and, pretty much, cooled the heels of the Transformers franchise.  The cartoon series ended a year later, after a clumsy post-movie era that saw feeble attempts to raise all the characters from the dead and try to clamor back to the pre-movie glitz.  Spin-off series (mostly repackaged from the Japanese TV series) managed to keep breakoff fans, but the ga-ga wildness of the franchise had collapsed.  The GI  Joe movie marked the end of that series, and was quickly rewritten to remove the violence.  The failure of Transformers, both critically and in the box office, meant that the GI Joe movie lost its theatrical status and ended up on TV on a Saturday afternoon, sanitized and left for dead.

Now, GI Joe was always weak and mindless, but Transformers was cool.   They’d built a nice little world there.  Both series barely reflected what the comics were doing, sadly, but Transformers had more depth as a cartoon series.  The characters were likable, the story was a bit more darker — no matter the rules where good always had to defeat bad, the fact was that the Autobots were refugees from a war lost thousands of years ago and, pretty much, fighting a hopeless battle.

That’s why the movie is so confounding.  There’s almost pure hatred on the part of the creators.  A resentment for the kids who loved these characters.  But, fine, because all things considered, the movie is amazing.  The Autobots have finally made headway.  They’ve got a beachhead after all these years of fighting and are preparing for a D-Day style invasion to kick the Decepticons asses and it all goes wrong.  Megatron ambushes them, crushes them, and the handful of survivors, split into two groups, flee into the stars.  Along the way, they discover their creators, and battle as best they can to survive.  On top of all that, a great, ancient enemy to all of their kind has returned.  Leaderless, the Autobots fumble to destroy this archenemy and save the day.  They throw themselves without hope against the mighty, satanic power of Unicron and fight for their very existence.  We’re finally shown some of the back-story that had been built up in the comics for years:  Robot worlds, unrelated to the Transformers and their homeworld of Cybertron, and some secrets of the Autobot leadership.

But, beyond all that – Leonard Nimoy!  Orson Welles and Scatman Crothers in their last films (both would die within weeks of completing the movie).  Robert Stack, Eric Idle…  The weight of their voices make the movie something seriously worth considering.

It’s an insane fantasy that came out of corporate minds so twisted on God knows what that it can’t help but be good.  It’s nostalgia, it’s drunken sing-along cartoon trash, it’s strangely absorbing, it’s a war movie, a questing movie, a snapshot of my generation.  It’s who we are.  The ultimate theatrical release and greatest betrayal of years of anticipated Christmas presents, glowing plastic and cardboard on the shelf at Toys R Us, long lines eagerly awaiting Optimus Prime on the silver screen, and tiny little hearts broken as Prime chokes on his last breath.

Goodnight America.  The moneymen shot themselves in the foot in a desperate attempt to make even more money out of what was, really, just a flash in the pan.  And, yet, in 2007…another movie.  So, will this one rape us as hard as the last?  More importantly, will it remain with us as long as the last?  Will it have as strong an impression?  Will I remember every scene?  20 years after the 2007 movie, will I still feel both repulsed and enthralled?

Nacho’s lonely Saturday night rum rating:  Four stars, of course.  Violence, death, struggle, renewal.  Did they, somehow, perhaps unintentionally, create a grand Buddhist journey?

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.