The year is 1986. Transformers are the world’s most popular toys, spawning a successful animated TV series. The decision is made at boardroom level to introduce new toys to the market. They need to make space on the roster for the new toys, so devise a joint strategy with G.I. Joe to kill off the existing characters in big screen versions, while introducing the new ones. By chance, the perfect storm of an animated movie is born. Now let’s dig deeper in the first of our Formative Films series.
When looking back at films, that had such an impact on you as a child, it is easy to get carried away with nostalgia. Things don’t live up to your memory and now seem outdated and embarrassing. With Transformers, everything is different. Designed as a stunt to sell action figures, it now deserves to be held up as an early example of scripting and tone that was a forerunner to both modern film and video gaming culture.
To begin with we have to look at the first 25 minutes of the film. This is up there with my most memorable openings along with Saving Private Ryan and The Empire Strikes Back. We are introduced the the main antagonist of the film Unicron, in a harrowing scene where he destroys a planet populated by another robotic race. We clearly see even in this brief beginning the tone for the film. It is dark, especially for a film aimed at children, the literal genocide of this planet takes place in minutes and then we are treated to the opening credits. The heavy rock soundtrack and menacing narration, lead us on to the establishment of the world state we are in. What makes this section so chilling is the callous nature of the first encounters between the Autobots and Decepticons. Set 20 years after the animated series, we no longer see the humour and slapstick antics from the Decepticons. Megatron, a figure of fun in the series, intercepts a transmission meant for Autobot city on earth. He decides to ambush a shuttle and use it to get past the defences.
What happens next is something that remains shocking to this day, Megatron boards the shuttle with other high-ranking Decepticons and begins blasting away at the Autobots on board. As we are familiar with all characters on board, we presume that this is going to end in stalemate with no casualties. Instead the Decepticons, ruthlessly murder all the Autobots on board, including main series characters Ironhide and Ratchet. Without pausing we are taken to Autobot city to prepare for the attack, this small piece of calm sets up new characters and therefore new toys Hot Rod and Kupp. Forgetting the commercial reasoning behind this and concentrating on this as a film, the new characters bring a sense of relief to proceedings, they are stereotypical but likeable and against a fantastic soundtrack of Dare by Stan Bush the shuttle descends.
The next 10 minutes fly by as the two sides fight it out over Autobot city, we lose more animated series stalwarts, such as Wheeljack, who isn’t even given a death scene, we just see his body being piled up with the other dead. Soon the battle is over and the Decepticons have broken the defences and are about to win. Enter pop culture icon and leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. At this stage in the 80’s Optimus Prime was on a par with Hulk Hogan, Rocky and other icons. I remember being unable to get the toy for many years, settling for my Megatron figure. Prim descends and accompanied by another Bush classic The Touch, single-handedly lays waste to all the enemy forces except Megaton. We are set for a normal battle between these two leaders. But there is a palpable sense that something is different. There is a darkness and sense of finality, that was never in the series and the immortal line ‘One shall stand, one shall fall’ lets us know this is the final battle.
The fight leaves the viewer drained and the combatants both mortally wounded. Megatron is carried away by his minions and Prime is left on the operating table. The following scene shows Prime’s death as he passes the Matrix of leadership to Ultra Magnus, as it falls Hot Rod is bathed in light, foretelling his role in the rest of the film, but we don’t really pay attention at this stage. The death of Optimus Prime is such a shocking moment that I still remember crying the first time a saw it. This is akin to Rocky dying instead of Apollo in Rocky 4. The whole appeal of the series was based on this iconic figure and now he is gone after 20 minutes of the film. We see main character death like this in Game of Thrones nowadays, but back in 1986 this was enough to traumatise a generation. Megatron is rebuilt into Galvatron effectively killing him off and we lose Starscream minutes later. In 25 minutes of screen time we have lost the three main protagonists of the whole series.
If you think that over for a moment. How many other successful series can kill off their main characters and survive? This sense of shock is used expertly in the middle section of the film. Like modern classic The two towers or the classic Zulu, the film builds to a climactic battle. We see the failings of the replacement Ultra Magnus, the growth of Hot Rod and the exposition of Unicron and Galvatron, voiced brilliantly by the late greats Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy. The numbness the viewer feels, opens them up to be more receptive to any shred of hope. Unfortunately the middle section is a further descent into darkness.
Out of the darkness must emerge the light and this film is no exception. The matrix of leadership, having been stolen by Galvatron, is said to light the darkest hour. This soon approaches as Unicron reveals himself to be a transformer and changes into a giant robot to devour the transformers home planet of cybertron. Hot Rod and Kupp lead the last remaining transformers into battle deep within the body of Unicron, where we get our moment of redemption. Hot Rod fights Galvatron and opens the matrix. He becomes Rodimus Prime and defeats Galvatron as the power of the matrix destroys Unicron. We are told Optimus Prime will return, something for parents to pacify heartbroken children with.
After 84 minutes the emotional roller coaster ends. How did they expect us to feel? The intention was to get the children of the world to buy new toys. What happened, had more far reaching effects. How many games and movies were influenced by the harrowing effect of those first thirty minutes? For me it remains a profound film. The fact I spent most of this piece, writing about the opening and not the rest is intentional. The feeling of shell-shock improves the rest of the film, allowing it to be action heavy without becoming tedious. The action is all necessary and tells a larger story, but it passes so quickly compared to the beginning. The soundtrack is still relevant as are the performances of the actors. This film taught me to appreciate both these qualities from an early age. I learnt that, the hero is never invulnerable, the enemy is sometimes the best character and above all else, story is more important than action. I learnt this all from a film designed to sell action figures.
What are your memories of this film? Are you sad that the children of today will have to put up with the Michael Bay version? Sign up or follow for the next of our formative film series.