Talk about a movie I could write about while standing on my head! I really got into Transformers around 1986 and remember somehow having gotten Optimus Prime and Cliffjumper just before REALLY getting into it, but even with the UK being behind on things it still meant that my toy collection was comprised more heavily of figures from season three and beyond than season one or two. I had Arrival from Cybertron/More Than Meets the Eye on tape but at the time it didn’t feel like my era, even with my only real exposure to the movie being the Ladybird Books adaptation of it.
Then, in 1989, my folks went shopping one day at the big new supermarket nearby and traipsed across to what I’d find out was a video rental store. They came home telling me of all the different videos that were available there, including this one, which must’ve been the first we took out for the weekend. And when I saw it… Mind. Blown.
So, this is set twenty years in the future from season two of the series, but produced early in alongside season two, hence why there’s an omission of the combiner teams and Omega Supreme and the like. It’ll be weird in 2025 when we’re further away from when the movie is set than it was when the film came out (in 1986). The Autobots are based on Earth and Moonbases orbiting Cybertron, while the Decepticons have gained control of Cybertron. Optimus Prime sends four of his best out to get some energon to power the forces for an attack on the enemy, but as they’re being spied on they get blindsided, leading to a climactic battle for one era of Transformers while launching a whole new adventure for new ones, including the biggest threat to all that they’ve ever met before.
If you’ve watched the movie before you’ll be able to tell the beats of the story by lines like “All we need is a little energon and a lot of luck.”, “Such heroic nonsense!”, “There’s a hole in the shuttle!”, “The Deceptions are really blitzing Autobot City – don’t know how much longer we can hold out!”, “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die!”, “One shall stand, one shall fall!”, “NEVER!”, “Till all are one.”, and so on. In a way, as I commented on in the review of G.I. Joe: The Movie, it should get a lot of revolt from fans going “Not only do they not use the characters I already knew, but they kill them too!”. Just goes to show how over the new characters got in such a short time.
It’s really retire the majority of the first two waves of the toyline and push the new wave, which means as much as we see of Wheeljack or Windcharger is one sad shot of them dead on the floor, but nobody is exempt. Megatron is beaten and battered, necessitating an upgrade into Galvatron, along with some others that become Cyclonus, Scourge and the Sweeps. Next, out goes Starscream, burnt to bits by Galvatron for his final treachery. He’d be back in season three as a ghost.
But, the biggest loss in the movie is the famous death of Optimus Prime, so unpopular that they had to bring him back by the end of the next season, and rightly so. Optimus Prime is a character that almost transcends Transformers. I’d dare say he’s a more popular character these days than Superman and all of the DC characters bar Batman, and it’s because we all need a dad. He’s the father figure, the leader character, the one that everyone looks up to. A shame in the way that Michael Bay made him bloodthirsty, because the moral compass on the one we know best is aligned to “I don’t want to shoot to kill, I will if I have to, but it saddens me if I have to”. Fair play, they gave it a good go with Hot Rod as Rodimus Prime, and Rod isn’t worse off for being the leader who was then wasn’t, but it’s like doing Masters of the Universe without He-Man – there are just some characters you need to have in the show.
There’s an awesome soundtrack and score by Vince DiCola. I’ve had the good fortune to see Stan Bush perform in person and it’s a two song show with Dare and The Touch. I hope I get to see DiCola play some day on his keyboards and synthesizer in front of selected clips from the movie. The revelation to me that Unicron’s creepy theme is Ivan Drago’s theme reworked from Rocky IV was a revelation to me, but something that made so much sense.
And now I’ve named Unicron, who is the big bad of this movie, a Transformer that’s neither Autobot or Decepticon, but thoroughly evil and the destroyer of worlds, to the point of ripping them apart and eating them. Orson Welles is effortless in his performance of him, meaning he put very little effort in, but still plays a great role. There’s the talk of him going home and putting an entry in his diary about playing a role in a film where some good robots kick and punch some bad robots, plus having a career that kicked off with Citizen Kane and then ended with this, but nobody could do it better than him.
Other guest stars are Judd Nelson, popular at the time from the Brat Pack, as Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime. He’s good, but has never been able to reproduce the role in subsequent tries. Lionel Stander is Kup, the grumpy, old warrior that we’ve not seen before, who gets to build to the moment of telling all his old war stories and then still stand in wonder as he looks at Unicron (“Never seen anything like this before.”). Robert Stack is fan-fucking-tastic as would-be Autobot leader/ultimate warrior Ultra Magnus, a guy that’s probably too kindhearted to be the boss but gives it a go anyway. I dare say that there was a connection between him pulling off this role and then being the voice of Unsolved Mysteries, equally able to tell us to go to bed and not have nightmares but also having scared us to death before we got there.
Non-Autobot, but Autobot-aligned, we have Eric Idle as Wreck-Gar in a great, goofy role that was never done better. I’ll get back to him when I look at Transformers: Animated soon. Definitely non-Autobot is Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, relaunching Megatron as this new character with skill. He’s both sneeringly powerful and opportunistic without showing off any weaselly side of himself, which is a tough one to achieve. As good as Frank Welker is, his Galvatron, made insane, wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first.
What else to talk about? What isn’t there to talk about? Beautiful animation. It wasn’t until I got my first DVD copy of this around 2001 that I could pick out all the beautiful details, even down to the red and blue stripes on the respective shuttles. Great, iconic battles, including between the Dinobots and Devastator, even though it’s pretty much over in thirty seconds. Lots of little adventures on places like Quintessa and the Planet of Junk, setting up new characters and groups for the third season. Even though the focus shifts away from robots in disguise in the third season (because who could look at Rodimus, Kup or Blurr and think it was really an Earth vehicle?), they really made the most of building a new world and setting for the ongoing battles and strengthened the characterisation.
I sound like a broken record, but I love this movie. It’s designed and produced in such a way that it’s a thrilling experience to be a part of if you let it. We’re now almost 35 years on from it and it’s still held in reverence by the fan community, not an old shame. In a way it’s an aberration, the time they tried Transformers without Optimus Prime or Megatron, but it stands strong and gave so much more than it could ever take away.