If, like us, your childhood mainly happened in the ’80s, there was really only one choice of toy obsession for you: Transformers. On a practical level, they were great for kids because you essentially got two toys for the price of one. Whichever type you got – a car, a plane, a truck, a…. er… cassette – it also turned into a robot and generally they all look pretty damn good in either form.
There was also a whole industry behind them when it came to media. The problem was that this was all pre-internet and so you had to wait for your Transformers fix. The comic came out weekly but was kind of short and the cartoon, in the UK at least, was shown in daily five minute increments on a TV show called Wacaday which was otherwise absolute shit and was hosted by a hyper-chromatic twat.
Eventually a full-length movie came out. This was a revelation. It wasn’t just feature-length, it actually got released in the cinema and it had a strangely heavyweight voice acting cast too. It was an animated film which looked just like those cartoons we’d been watching rather than that Michael Bay bollocks that we get now. Things were looking good.
Watching the film in 2016, thirty years after it came out, is an odd experience. The immediate impression is that they spent literally no time on the animation itself. The film looks ropey as hell, as if it was just a regular cartoon for television that got pieced together into ninety minute feature. Given how slick (and, in our opinion, soulless) CGI animation looks now, it’s quite something to see a legit cinema release look this bad.
Get past that initial impact and the film is actually pretty interesting. Coming at the end of second season of cartoons, it tells the story of a war between the Autobots (good guys) and the Decepticons (bad guys) and the war isn’t going well for the Autobots at all.
The Decepticons are running the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron, and the Autobots are relegated to a couple of little bases on Cybertron’s moons (because the Autobots were basically pussies). They need energy supplies and send a shuttle back to Earth. Unfortunately, the Decepticons are all over that tactic and they take over the ship killing four major Autobot characters – Brawn, Prowl, Ratchet and Ironhide – which was an absolute shock to viewers.
You have to understand, back in the ’80s on TV no one died. Take something like The A-Team, they were shooting rifles and throwing grenades but no-one ever died, they just got sent flying through the air. In slow-motion. So, to lose four major characters in one scene? That was Game of Thrones levels of shocking.
The Decepticons then use that shuttle to infiltrate past the Autobot’s Earth headquarters and start kicking off. Now, it was never really a fair fight in the Transformers because where the Autobots were generally cars and trucks, the Decepticons tended to be planes. So they always had the advantage.
As the battle at Autobot City continues, Transformers: The Movie prepares its next shock. After a vicious battle between the Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Decepticon leader Megatron, Optimus Prime is killed and young hearts are broken. There are still traumatised forty year olds who can’t walk past an articulate lorry without wincing.
At least Prime managed to get his licks in and Megatron is heavily wounded too which gives his second in command, Starscream, the chance to fling him out into space, presumably to die. Along with a few other wounded Decepticons.
As bad as all that is, there’s a much bigger problem waiting to be faced. A giant robotic planet called Unicron is floating towards Cyberton and it has a thing for EATING ENTIRE PLANETS. This entirely bad news spherical bastard fancies munching down on the Transformers’ home planet and with Prime dead, there’s not much anyone can do about it.
The Autobot ‘Matrix of Leadership’ is passed by Prime, in his dying act, to Ultra Magnus – an entirely rubbish character who was a cheap rip-off of Prime in his toy form – who promptly fucks up entirely and loses it to Galvatron after trying to use it without about as much success as us trying to power tools.
Galvatron? Yup. Nearly-dead Megatron is found and repaired by Unicron and turned into Galvatron whose first order of business is to kick the tits clean off of Starscream and to establish himself as the new Decepticon leader. The problem is, you can’t trust Megatron in any guise and he decides he’s going to take on Unicron who at this point has ordered Moons of Cybertron for his starter and is about to tuck into a main course of Cybertron and chips.
It turns out that Unicron has one weakness, the Matrix of Leadership, and so he sent Galvatron to Earth to kick the remaining shit out of the Autobots and take the Matrix from Ultra Magnus. The surviving Autobots scatter out to space.
So at this point, the Matrix is lost, Unicron is about to eat Cybertron – oh and he transforms into a massive robot – and the Autobots are about as much use as a fucking hamster in this situation. Not to mention that some of them have crashed on a junk planet and the rest are on some weird prison planet run by floating heads called Quintessons who like to hold kangaroo courts and murder robots with sharks. Shark robots actually.
Still, that’s ’80s movies for you. They have to get the good guys down to their absolute lowest point and so from this point it’s all progress, baby. Kup (the oldest Autobot) and Hot Rod (a cocky, young upstart) kick the shit out of the Quintessons with the help of their strong but dumb chums, the Dinobots, and the other Autobots make friends with the Junkions – a robot race of tramps who live on the junk planet – and get given a handy spaceship. Nice!
They crash it directly into Unicron’s eye, just to piss him off, at which point they and the Decepticons have to concentrate on the bigger picture, Unicron. But of course Galvatron can’t help being a twat and ends up getting into a scrap with Hot Rod which he’s winning easily. However, at a loss at how to actually use the Matrix, Galvatron has taken to wearing it as a blingy amulet and as soon as Hot Rod touches it, it activates.
Hot Rod turns into, uhhh, Rodimus Prime (HA!) and flings Galvatron out into space (because it isn’t his time to die yet, I guess) before using the Matrix to destroy Unicron from the inside out. Causing Unicron to whimper and go all squeaky. Not so hard now are you, prick.
The story is much like any other action film aimed at kids. In fact, it pretty much draws direct inspiration from Star Wars for a start. But Transformers: The Movie does stand out for a few reasons against other animated films of the time. Firstly, it does get a bit dark there for a while. Major characters are killed, planets are eaten and characters are murdered and betrayed. As far as a ‘mild sense of peril’ goes, this was a little rough for the young ‘uns back then.
The cast is also surprisingly weighty. Hot Rod is voiced by Judd Nelson (the bully guy in The Breakfast Club), Eric Idle turns up as Wreck-Gar, the head hobo leading the Junkions and Leonard Nimoy voices Galvatron. The biggest coup was them getting Orson Welles, the legendary actor who died a mere five days after his last recording session. By all accounts, he was so weak during recording that they had to beef his voice up with synthesisers. He described this ‘one for the mortgage’ role brilliantly.
“You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”
Special mention goes to the soundtrack which is a collection of ridiculous rock songs which culminates with the film’s most memorable song, Stan Bush’s ‘The Power’ which is remembered fondly even today and shows up in games and films quite regularly. It’s the most anthemic piece of music outside of a Rocky movie. It was originally meant to feature in the Stallone film Cobra, despite that being a film about a maverick cop and a twisted murderer. Not the sort of thing that needs a bit of cheesey rock music in it.
Coming back to Transformers: The Movie all this time later was actually kind of fun. The story is pretty good, there are some moments of comic relief in there and the characters are reasonably well fleshed out given how badly they are drawn out and how many of them there are. The cast and music add a bit of quality to the overall presentation. Soundwave is underused but that’s always the case. We’ll check back to see how this looks in 2046. Oh god, we’re so old.