The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot’s home planet of Cybertron. But, from secret staging grounds on two of Cybertron’s moons the valiant Autobots plan to take back their homeland.
FROM JASON’S ENERGON STOCKPILE — Blah blah blah, Optimus Prime Dies. Youngsters crying. Childhood trauma. Yada yada yada.
There. It’s out of the way. Now let’s get down to some far more interesting aspects of one of the most memorable movies of the 1980s.
Watching Transformers the Movie (again) this week on my 42-inch plasma, I was shocked by how good this 23-year-old ‘toon looks. Each cell is a mash-up of deeply-inked shadow and ambient electric light washing over hard metal, and all of it comes through in the same supra-bright color I remember drinking in as a six-year-old.
The terrestrial backdrops are breathtaking, and even more amazing are the emminently-intricate planetscapes of Cybertron, Junk, Lithone, and Quintessa. This isn’t some minimalist Nicktoon. The depth of detail really is staggering: Each scene is filled with all the ports, exhaust grids, data banks, gears, axles, and metal plating you’d expect from enormous robuts.
Sure, some of the sequences have a ropey Scooby Doo feel (watch Soundwave carry Megatron’s body away from Autobot City). But there is more anime than Hanna-Barbera here — which makes sense, since Matrix Forever (as it’s called in Japan) was made by Toei Animation.
Toei is the powerhouse studio behind some of the most memorable anime and cartoons of the past three decades: Galaxy Express 999, Sailor Moon, Inhumanoids, Robotix, G.I. Joe, Mazinger Z, Voltron, Dragon Ball, Getter Robo, Fist of the North Star, Captain Harlock.
And through it all, Transformers the Movie is a spectacle of pure size. Everything is huge — not just Cybertron and the planet-sized Unicron, but the size of the cast, the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the assault on the Autobot stronghold, the galaxy-spanning plot and civilizations, Devastator, the shock of the many, many deaths, the impact of Starscream’s demise, and the rise of a new leader to take season three and beyond in a completely different direction.
Who doesn’t want to see a showdown between the Constructicons and the Dinobots?
And then there are the subtle touches that send us nerds into an orgasmic froth — like when Megatron pulls out his laser sword. Because any Star Wars devotee will know that director Nelson Shin designed the lightsabers for Episode IV: A New Hope.
Speaking of which, one IMDB dweeb really made me smile by drawing character comparisons between Star Wars and Transformers the Movie (of course, they are fairly standard Campbell-ian archetypes):
Hot Rod = Luke Skywalker
Springer = Han Solo
Arcee = Princess Leia
Optimus Prime = Obi-Wan Kenobi
Galvatron = Darth Vader
Unicron = The Emperor with the Death Star as his body
Junkions = Ewoks
All that Arthurian “hero’s journey” nonsense aside, I still think that 1980s cartoons made villains more appealing than the heroes, just like with G.I. Joe.
While the Autobots were chunky, moralistic, painted in prime colors (no pun intended), and slightly boring, the Decepticons were sleeker, all angles, and secondary colors. They also had a far more dynamic range of models — where the Autobots were, well, autos, the Decepticons were tanks, jets, guns, and even motherfucking astrotrains.
The Decepticons also had much more social intrigue, with the morbid comedy of the Starscream vs. Megatron rivalry. None of the Autobots tried to usurp Optimus’ authority, but on the other side there was constant scheming and power-shifts.
Need more of an argument? Let’s consider the worst Autobot: Perceptor.
The robut-cum-microscope was the only Transformer my parents ever allowed me to have, saying he was non-violent and (even worse) educational. He doesn’t shoot. He just talks a lot and sees things from far away. Great power, douche-bot.
He would never have survived as a Decepticon. Megatron would have crushed him under heel for being a useless turd.
Other Autobots go down like punks in the film, taking a single shot to the chest and oozing black smoke from their lifeless corpses. Ironhide, Brawn, Ratchet, and Prowl are decimated in a matter of a 20-second space battle. They barely pull their guns.
The only other real criticism I have is that the 1986 flick suffers from a distinct lack of Megan Fox.
Oh, and that Rodimus Prime is a glorified Winnebago. WTF?!