by Thom Yee
When I was growing up, I had a lot of friends. Some good, some not so good, some who would eventually become bitter enemies. But they all had ambitions. They wanted to be somebody. Some wanted to become policemen, some firemen, some wanted to work with computers. One of them, even as a child, knew that he wanted to go into investment banking. And even in my wavering, barely conscious understanding of who I was and who I was supposed to be, even I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up:
I wanted to be a Transformer.
I saw Transformers the Movie at just the right time for it to leave an indelible mark in the psyche of my older-on-the-inside young soul. It’s a movie that I remember every part of almost word-for-word. It had massive battles. It had the hero’s journey in all of its reluctant-hero, supreme-ordeal, seizing-the-sword glory. It even had undertones of romance as I’m sure there was something going on between the Autobots Springer and Arcee (the only canonical female Transformer that I’m aware of).
Most importantly, it had stakes. The fate of Cybertron, Earth, and eventually all worlds were at stake as our heroes faced down the overwhelming, unmatchable threat of Unicron. Actually, scratch that — most importantly, Transformers the Movie features the last voice work of everybody’s favourite orator, Orson Welles! And you can really feel his presence as he utters lines like, “…For a time… I considered sparing… the wretched little planet Cybertron. But now… you shall witness… its dismemberment…!”
At the same time, I’m pretty sure I’ve got blinders on when it comes to Transformers the Movie and critical objectivity. That’s why I was curious to see what people who had grown up far away from my background think of it. So Grace… it is to you, old friend… I shall pass the job of criticism, as it is was passed to me… knowing that one day a reviewer will rise from our ranks and use the power of the GOO Review to light our darkest hour.
It is the year 2005…! Even while the Autobots attempt to take back Cybertron from the evil-for-evil’s sake Decepticons, a greater threat lurks in the outer darkness. A shifting, enigmatic force of destruction known from the few who have escaped its grasp as… Unicron! As the Autobots must overcome their greatest loss and the emerging threat of Galvatron, the new leader of the Decepticons, they must also find a way to unleash the power of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership and save us all. Featuring the voice work of Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack and Orson Welles, Transformers the Movie will take you on a journey beyond good, beyond evil, beyond your wildest imagination! Well, your imagination at least. Not mine.
When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was more than a little odd, and I was a lot antisocial. But when I was in the third grade, I did have one friend, who for his dignity and mine I will call Terrence. Terrence, like me, was a bit of an odd duck, and he loved to play with Transformers. So at recess, rather than trying to ingratiate myself with the playground prepubescents, I could most often play Transformers with Terrence. We weren’t particularly good at it, as I couldn’t figure out how to move the different parts without snapping things off that were supposed to remain on, and he lacked the imagination for decent storytelling. But we had good times for a while—until Terrence moved away, taking his Transformers and any tentative interest I had in them with him.
So when Thom informed me that I would be watching 1986’s perennial classic Transformers The Movie, I was less than thrilled. I’d barely been able to sit through Michael Bay’s iteration, and its sequel, which I’d heard described as Ass Crack of the Moon, had remained unwatched. But after watching this cocaine trip/fever dream of a film, I’ve formed some pretty definitive opinions of the Transformers franchise and the eighties in general.
The story begins in the year 2005 (apparently; I was watching pretty closely but didn’t hear a reference to the year) with an ominous Death Star-looking thing named Unicron destroying a city full of robots. And then there are more robots hanging out in space, using their headquarters on a couple of moons to retake their homeland (more Star Wars), and for some reason they’ve got a human with them, and then we’re on Earth (I think) and the human’s son and an Autobot named Hot Rod are just kind of hanging out and fishing. Then they’re road-tripping it to a city that I’m pretty sure wasn’t on Earth eight years ago (and neither were all these Transformers, and I’m positive our human population is more than two), and it’s attacked by Decepticons in pretty short order, because those guys are fighting the Autobots all the time because good versus evil, that’s why.
The battle rages all night and is actually fairly brutal for a kids’ movie. It results in the victory of the Autobots (sort of; they actually ditch Earth and head into space), the death of Optimus Prime (who dies more than Captain Jack Harkness, it seems), and Optimus performing self-open heart surgery to remove the Matrix of Leadership so everyone can play Hot Potato with it for a minute before it’s given to… um, I actually don’t remember his name because I kept mixing him up with Prime, but it was a guy who looked exactly like him, and I don’t think that makes me a racist.
After the failed attack, Megatron’s buddies dump him in space, and because space is a vast, unfathomable ocean that stretches to the farthest ends of the universe, he runs into Unicron in about thirty seconds. Unicron is super obsessed with the Matrix of Leadership, even though it’s obvious that he’s a big-ass robot who doesn’t need jack sh*t to be in charge of things (obviously I don’t even know what this Matrix thing actually does), but he gives Megatron a makeover, a new name, and a team of sidekicks with oddly specific names and purposes, who I’m sure ended up in the 1986 Toys ‘R’ Us catalog.
And that’s the point where I’m no longer able to follow the plot. The Autobots end up on a planet with Insecticons and Sharkticons and f*cking robot fish, and then they escape, and they fight Megatron, and they destroy Unicron, and then they’re all super happy about everything even though like half their army is dead, including some characters I’m sure were pretty iconic in the eighties.
It felt like the fight scenes and transformation sequences were animated first and then followed by the hasty writing of a script to tie the scenes together into a halfway coherent story. But for me, it wasn’t coherent; I had a hard time keeping up, and to be honest, I was somewhat distracted by a profound misunderstanding of how science works.
To preface this, I’m a writer. I’m not a student of physics or a master of space. But I have a high school education, I watch a lot of sci-fi, and I follow Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter, so I think I’m reasonably qualified to make these judgements.
First off, how does Unicron make chomping noises in space—or talk at all, for that matter? If he’s simply transmitting this stuff to everyone in the vicinity via radio waves or whatever, that’s cool, but there’s nothing for the sound to bounce off of and thusly no way for him to project his voice across the vacuum of space.
How does a robot the size of a person become the size of a stereo or a handgun? There’s literally no room to put all that extra machinery, unless these guys have a lot of empty space on the inside, which I guess would actually make sense seeing as they all have flying VHS and animal robots kicking around in their chest cavities. But that’s why you switch to DVD and buy a damn leash for your robot dog; keeping that stuff inside your chest is a recipe for bad things.
On that note, why do the robots turn into human devices anyway? I assume they came to Earth like that so they could be inconspicuous for a while, but they spend most of their time chilling in their regular robot form, and the Autobots only transform when they need to travel 50 metres. And for all that, why are Transformers’ regular forms shaped like humans at all? They’re robots. I’m sure there’s a more efficient shape than the one we have, and they’ve been in space long enough to figure that out. Even the car shape would be more efficient, although the animators of this show don’t seem to know how cars work, ‘cause they execute some near-impossible turns and drive on terrain that would challenge the greatest existing off-roader. And these guys are shaped like racecars.
Now let’s look at gravity. One of Megatron’s lackeys can turn into a rocket-powered train (which is pretty b*tchin’), but he starts complaining about how everyone is so heavy and he has to lose some of the weight. He is in space; there is no weight. And yet they’re just sitting around in there without floating weightlessly at all. So my only conclusion for this scene is that somewhere in his chest cavity, Soul Train is keeping a grav generator.
And once they’ve dumped Megatron into space, we see that he can move around in space instead of just drifting, and he can actually stop moving when he wants to. So this begs the question: why the f*ck do they need spaceships? If a robot like Megatron can move around like that, what possible need do they have for ships? It’s not like they breathe or anything, so my only assumption here is that they like having navigation and a place to sit and a battery of guns. And that’s what made Megatron’s disappearance into space at the end of the movie so insignificant: he’ll resurface whenever he wants, no worse for wear.
A fight scene with giant robots and they don’t dent f*cking anything. They bleed electricity and yet are totally cool being underwater. They can play trumpets without any lips or oxygen. They can start up complex spaceships in like six seconds. They can “invert the polarity” to fix damn near any problem. Every planet in the universe has robots except Earth, which has two whole humans and not even a woman to account for the existence of one of them. Helicopters don’t f*cking work in space.
As far as characters go, they’re maybe a little bit better, although I’m not going to address all of them because there are too many and I don’t even know all their names. Unicron is a robot the size of a planet, which made me question why that’s necessary. It also made me question why he needs to eat, or if that’s something he just likes to do, or if it’s the most efficient way to wreak havoc on places when you’re a Death Star with an electromagnet. He’s voiced by Orson Welles, who I know did War of the Worlds, but I only recognized his voice because somebody mimicked him on Futurama that one time. I guess he makes a reasonable villain, but there’s no insight into his motivation, which takes a lot of the villainy out of it and just makes him kinda campy.
Leonard Nimoy is Megatron. Leonard Nimoy is Megatron, you guys. He plays a decently brutal character who’s fond of point-blank gunshots, is incredibly deceitful and backstabbing, and is a coward at heart who will do whatever it takes to stay alive. Everyone knows Megatron as the number one enemy of the Autobots, and I liked how, even when he had the opportunity to partner with Hot Rod to take down Unicron, he hated the Autobots enough that he would never, ever ally with them. He was willing to die just to preserve that hatred, and there was something really great in that. Also, there’s some fairly obvious sexual tension between him and Optimus, which is kinda weird in a kids’ movie.
I actually liked the little kid character, Daniel. I questioned his fashion choices but promptly forgot about that when I saw that he had a hoverboard. He was an improbably clever kid, too; he even noticed the hole in the shuttle, which gave away the fact that the Decepticons were invading. He wants to help whenever things are going south, he saves his dad’s life, and he gets… kinda emotional, actually, over the death of Optimus Prime. Did they even know each other, or is he just overly in touch with his feelings?
There were a few other characters I wanted to mention, too. Starscream had the shortest rule ever and now is dead forever, which I thought was hilarious. Eric Idle plays a mustachioed character who… I’m not actually sure what he and his clones do. That was a weird moment. I asked myself why Hot Rod would possibly want to go fishing, and I still don’t have an answer for that. And I actually know who Grimlock is because of a webcomic, but why would you even need dinosaurs? At what point would dinosaur form help you to blend in, and why is he a complete idiot who can’t use grammar? And don’t tell me it’s because he’s a dinosaur, because he’s not a real dinosaur.
And now let’s take a minute to discuss my least favourite character, and if you know me at all you saw this coming: Arcee. Why the hell is she pink? With boobs and little feet and f*cking lipstick? She doesn’t do her job of appealing to girls, if that’s what her purpose was, although I’m actually wondering if she was meant to be little boys’ first exposure to women and a spark for their uncomfortable feelings about cars. She’s overly maternal about Daniel, she makes poor decisions (like running in her robot form instead of her car form, which would have ensured she wouldn’t be left behind and need to be rescued), and she asks dumb questions the audience almost certainly has so the male characters can answer them (“Did we have to let them detonate three-quarters of the ship?” “Go do some laundry; men are working here.”). There’s also some sexual tension between her and Hot Rod that was never explored, which was the only thing that could have possibly saved this train wreck of a character. At least then she would’ve been the Romantic Interest rather than just the Token Female.
Finally, we need to talk about how great the music was. It was a non-stop aural assault of synth and crooning male voices, telling me I’ve “got the touch.” I don’t even know who Stan Bush is, but I now need to buy every single song he’s ever performed. There wasn’t a single second of non-scored movie, and for some reason I liked it. Granted, it meant there was no time for emotional depth, but I don’t think you’re looking for depth when you’re watching this movie.
Thom, I know you’re going to love Transformers the Movie until “all are one” (seriously, what is with all the sexual innuendo?), but I don’t think I can appreciate what you can about the movie, and I don’t think I ever will. And that’s too bad, because I know a few people who love this movie, too, and I feel like I’m doing both you and them a disservice by not liking it. I watched the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Scooby-Doo cartoons, as well as a number of others I can’t even remember at the moment. Maybe it’s because I was born in the nineties and didn’t start watching TV until the 2000s, but I didn’t like them, either.
I wish I could justify your love of this movie, but I don’t think I can. I don’t think I’m equipped for it. Maybe I’m just judging it as a kids’ movie when it’s meant for a wider audience, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s happening here. I’m sure it’s a cultural gem, but the point of these reviews is to give my opinion, and I didn’t like it. So next week, feel free to bash on Moulin Rouge! as much as you’d like in return.
Final Grade: C-
- When they fight in car form, it’s like The Fast and the Furious up in here.
- There’s a lot of cheesy dialogue in this: “Prepare for extermination”; “I got better things to do tonight than die”; “Why would you throw your life away?” “That’s a question you should ask yourself, Megatron”; “If you get space sick, you’re gonna walk home.”
- This is a pretty pro-gun film. Everyone’s got them, and everyone likes to use them wherever and whenever possible. Even though they all die.
- So many establishing shots. Just… so many.
- When Transformers fire missiles, are the missiles Transformers, too?
- If you’re at war, why wouldn’t you keep your awesome military city transformed into its impenetrable shell all the time rather than wasting all that time switching modes? Unless your goal here is to show off your badass city and how awesome it looks when it’s transforming.
- Weird Al did a song on the soundtrack. Weird.
- They said “sh*t” in a kids’ movie. That is all.