Super Serial – Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Transformers The Movie

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Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

In a move probably awaited by no one (because no one suggested it), I’ve decided to turn the first few Super Serials‘ attention towards the brief set of films starring our favorite robots in disguise, the Transformers. There are a couple reasons for that: first, with the impending release of Dark of the Moon it seemed topical (indeed, my final post in this series will be a DoTM review). Second, it’s a short run of movies that doesn’t require too much critical attention, so it’s a good way to ease myself — and any readers out there — into the more significant projects I’ll be taking on as Super Serial progresses.

Though the it’s set apart from the other three films to bear the Transformers name, I felt it was important to begin with a critical look at 1986′s Transformers: The Movie, directed by Nelson Shin. This movie marks a halfway point for the original 1980s Transformers cartoon; it falls between seasons two and three of the show and completely alters its status quo — for instance by jumping ahead in time 20 years and killing most of the original cast. Critically and financially, the movie was something of a failure. It currently sits at 47% on Rotten Tomatoes, and according to IMDB it took in only $5.8 million in its 5-week theatrical run (for comparison, the year’s top animated movie, An American Tail, earned $47.5 million). Additionally, it traumatized a good portion of the audience it hoped to win over thanks to its grisly murder of heroic leader and icon Optimus Prime. Though among Transformers fans critical appreciation of the movie has generally grown quite favorable through the years, it’s a fair bet that the general public probably doesn’t know this film exists, and probably wouldn’t care for it if they did.

I’m going to argue, though, that Transformers: The Movie has been misunderstood by just about everybody. In fact, I don’t think it’s a movie at all. What it is is a weird, action-packed, gorgeous heavy metal music video that happens to feature some semblance of plot and character development. It’s Optimus Prime by way of MTV, and it’s kind of awesome.

Don’t believe me?

There’s a lot worth talking about in that television spot, but they key line comes at the end, when the movie’s referred to as an “incredible rock and roll adventure.” When I first saw the spot (included on the 2007 DVD rerelease of the film, now out of print) it totally changed the way I look at the film, I think for the better.

If you watch Transformers: The Movie carefully, you’ll notice that its music never stops. There are, maybe, ten seconds of film without some kind of score behind it. The music’s also given a fair deal of prominence in the sound mix — we’re meant to pay attention to it at all times.

In typical movies, music underscores the emotion of a scene, giving viewers audible hints as to what they should feel at any given time. In Transformers, the opposite happens — the score doesn’t obey the film’s emotions but dictates them. You can notice that in the way that the soundtrack doesn’t have typical dramatic beats like most scores do. There are numerous points in the film, for instance, where characters deliver an ominous line of dialog that music would usually match — consider the opening siege on the Autobot base, when the heroic Arcee exclaims “Hot Rod and Kup are trapped outside the city!” and the camera cuts to a dramatic long shot of the two robots racing to safety. In any other movie, the music would dip low into bass tones to make sure you felt the impact of Arcee’s words. Here, the synthy rock score just plows on through the scene, not adapting to any dialog or camera movement. We have no time to think about the specific words coming out of the characters’ mouths — their only function is to convey basic plot details while the score sweeps us away.

As it happens, there are practical reasons why the movie’s structured that way. The 2005 reissue of the film contains an interview with composer Vince DiCola (Rocky IV), who details the process behind its scoring. DiCola reports that for the first time ever, because the film was animated, he wrote music to storyboards, not actual movie. You can imagine, then, he’d have no idea how to time specific dramatic beats — he could only guess at the feeling of a scene as a whole and write a piece that hopefully conveyed it. DiCola also notes that Transformers‘ producers were very hands-off and gave him a great deal of freedom. For what it’s worth, I think DiCola does an excellent job. Transformers is a true testament to his aptitude as a hard rock composer; it’s basically an 84-minute demo reel on which he can strut his stuff.

If Transformers owes its debt to any other piece of pop culture, it’d be 1981′s Heavy Metal. Clearly Transformers has its sights set on a much younger audience, but it retains Heavy Metal‘s basic formula: stunning animation (here courtesy of Japanese studio Toei) coupled with hard-rock setpieces. See, for almost any critical action scene in Transformers, DiCola’s score drops out, replaced with an actual heavy/glam metal song, lyrics and all. The result: robots beat the shit out of each other while you hear the wailing of now-defunct ’80s bands like NRG and Spectre General. Hilariously, the TV spot posted above gives the film’s top musical billing to “Weird Al” Yankovic, the only artist on the soundtrack to really have a career long past Transformers (unless you count Marky Mark doing Stan Bush’s “The Touch” in Boogie Nights).

Here’s another key thing about Transformers: the whole movie is very alien. As a kid I remember not wanting to rent the film because I saw the box art (the first picture in this article) and didn’t recognize a single character on it. To me, it wasn’t Transformers. From the very opening scene, in which the monster robot Unicron devours a whole planet, this film seems to want you uncomfortable. The height of that, of course, is the movie’s brutal slaughter of all your favorite Transformers characters from season one and two of the cartoon, culminating in the death of Optimus Prime. For more than two-thirds of the film, the cast you’re following is almost entirely new. The sole exceptions are the Dinobots, ferocious warriors the film recasts (quite well, I think) as comic relief. But other than a few jokesters that look like robotic dinosaurs, viewers seeing this film in 1986 would have no idea who its protagonists and antagonists were, even if they followed the Transformers cartoon religiously. That’s a marked difference from Michael Bay’s outings, which, like most popcorn movies, want to hold your hand so you never, ever feel uncomfortable.

All of those interesting stylistic choices save Transformers, because if you strip away the soundtrack and the MTV vibes you’re left with a pretty unsatisfying movie. Lots of things in the film make no literal sense. Plot holes abound, characters talk at instead of to each other, and the conclusion comes far too easily. In fact, even given this film’s not-really-a-movie status, I can’t get over how conveniently the ending hits; it’s really sloppy that the film equates defeating a bad guy with bringing a new era of peace to the Transformers race (even though the third season of the cartoon would swiftly turn around and erase this).

However, even aside from the music there’s some solid stuff in Transformers. I stand by my assertion that the animation is top-notch, especially for 1986. It sounds morbid, but some of the massacre scenes are my favorite. When Decepticon leader Megatron murders the Autobot Prowl early on, flames literally billow out of Prowl’s eyes and mouth before being extinguished. It’s a creepy, cool visual befitting the scene. Nelson Shin’s directing, too, is kinetic, full of swift cameras and canted angles; the fight scenes proceed with amazing choreography befitting the action-packed nature of the film (I’m particularly impressed with the Autobot City battles). Finally, some of the acting is great, though perhaps it doesn’t reach the heights you’d expect from this marquee cast (of which, interestingly, Monty Python‘s Eric Idle is top billed). I especially love Lionel Stander (Hart to Hart) as the cranky old Autobot Kup; besides the Dinobots, his war stories provide the film with its best comedic (and human) moments.

No, Transformers: The Movie is not a great film. For people who aren’t fans of the property, it’s probably not worth watching at all. However, if you A) like ’80s heavy metal, B) like cool animation of robots fighting and C) can turn your brain off for an hour and a half, it’s a really solid, fun experience. In fact, in many ways it succeeds where Michael Bay’s films fail horribly… but we’ll get to that next week.

NOTES:
-This movie’s full of quotable lines. Among them: “The Insecticons are in our way.” “Wrong! They’re our way in!”
-Another: “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die.”
-There’s a great animation gaffe (or is it?) when Sludge the Dinobot fights the massive Decepticon Devastator. Devastator smacks Sludge to the ground, and Sludge’s eyes take a second longer to fall than the rest of his body. Total Warner Bros. moment.
-I will say, as a fan I find the Optimus Prime/Megatron showdown that closes the first act of this movie spectacular. For a few minutes the film gives in to what fans of the cartoon always wanted to see, and even though it ends tragically, it’s a great display of Optimus’ power — especially when we see him kick about ten Decepticon asses as a warm-up.
-”One shall stand, one shall fall.” How many times do you think we’ll hear this in Dark of the Moon?
-Why does Prime turn grey when he dies? Why does his head move spastically? His death scene is way weird.
-I have to give credit to sound editor Jim Blodgett. He does an impressive job mixing throughout this film, but nowhere is that more clear than in the scenes featuring Unicron, which film geeks will know as Orson Welles’ last role. The effects applied to Welles’ voice make Unicron a truly terrifying presence… at least, until he transforms at the end of the movie (more on that later).
-As a Transformers fan, I really hate the scene on the Decepticon shuttle where the healthy robots dump all the damaged ones into space. Obviously Starscream would happily jettison Megatron, but there’s got to be some loyalty amongst the Decepticons. For instance, how could Soundwave not object to throwing Megatron out the airlock? How could no one care about ditching Thundercracker and Skywarp? I feel like in this scene the movie tries to hard to convince us how evil the Decepticons are.
-That said, Megatron and Starscream have some great dialog in that scene. “Wait… I still function.” “Wanna bet?”
-And the follow-up, where the Decepticons duke it out for leadership, is kind of hilarious. “No one would follow an uncharismatic boor like you!” “Hey! Nobody calls Soundwave uncrasimatic!”
-I absolutely love the first meeting between Unicron and Megatron, which lets veteran voice actor Frank Welker play off Orson Welles. For fear of quoting too much, I’m just going to post the scene from YouTube.

-A couple more notes about that scene: the reformatting animation is great, and isn’t it weird when Leonard Nimoy replaces Welker? Finally, that moment breeds one of the great banes of Transformers fans — what happens to Cyclonus’ Armada??
-I’ve always wondered — do any of the Decepticons know/suspect that Galvatron is Megatron? I’m surprised the cartoon never did anything with this. Or maybe it did and I forgot.
-Thanks to Jazz (Scatman Cruthers), the word “ginormous” gets one of its first pop culture appearances in this movie, though not the first.
-Gotta love Spike’s “controversial” “oh, shit!” line.
-Something it took me like 100 viewings to notice: once the Dinobots are introduced, they basically stay in dinosaur mode the whole movie. I guess a robotic t-rex is funnier than a robotic person.
-Despite character development being kind of light here, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) does get a few pretty nice moments (though not enough to earn him his boon at the end of the movie).
-In the “Escape from Autobot City” scenes, Kup and his war stories really get to shine. My favorite part: “These are just like the Shrikebats of Dramadan.” “How’d you beat them?” “I’m trying to remember; there were an awful lot of casualties that day.”
-”Kup and Hot Rod just bought it!” “I can’t deal with that now!” Transformers fans have accurately pegged Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) as a giant dick.
-If you want proof of Heavy Metal‘s influence on Transformers, look no further than the sequences on the planet where Kup and Hot Rod crash.
-Human kid Daniel’s scenes in the exo-suit are super weird. It looks really uncomfortable for him to transform.
-Speaking of humans… their presence in this movie is seriously reduced. We really only get Daniel as a minor sidekick, plus fleeting glimpses of his dad. This is another place where Nelson Shin proves the opposite of Michael Bay.
-All the Junkion parts kind of bother me. I feel like a movie could use pop culture-digesting, hive-mind machines much better than Transformers does. All told, these sequences are kind of nonsensical.
-The movie kindly lets viewers know the universal greeting, in case you ever make first contact: “Bah-weep-Graaaaagnah wheep ni ni bong.”
-Besides the Junkions, Wheelie seems like another wasted character. Why is a little Autobot kid running around on a strange planet? No one ever asks him why he’s there or why he wears a Transformer emblem.
-In a nice bit of plot structuring (maybe the best Transformers pulls off), one of the aliens from the Unicron prologue shows up on Kup and Hot Rod’s planet, a refugee of Unicron’s holocaust.
-”Open, damn it, open.” That’s what Robert Stack said.
-An exceptional piece of animation: Hot Rod punches a Sharkticon and its teeth slowly fall out.
-There is definitely some homosexual robot action going on here. During the ludicrous Junkion party scene (why the hell is everyone partying?) one of the Junkions kisses Grimlock on the nose, prompting a reply of “Me Grimlock no kisser, me king!” Had the kiss been welcome, of course, his royal title would’ve changed.
-I don’t know if this is a plot hole, but it seems like it: why can Ultra Magnus be blown to bits and then brought back to life by robots made out of literal junk, but Autobot science can’t resurrect a very whole Optimus Prime? I’m sure there’s some internal/external divide thing going on (like a car that has cosmetic damage versus a busted engine), but it seems kind of stupid.
-One place where Jim Blodgett does not do a good job is in mixing the Junkions’ dialog. You can’t understand a damn word they say. Actually, the Junkions just totally suck. Sorry, Eric Idle.
-The movie really starts to unravel for me late in the game. The Junkion scenes come as a solid first blow, and then Unicron’s transformation hits. I feel like this scene and visual should be cooler than it is. I personally find Unicron more menacing as a giant planet than a robot with weird back appendages and an unmoving mouth. Plus, did anyone not guess he’d end up adopting a more human shape?
-The background artistry in this movie is incredible throughout. For that, we must thank Pat Agnasin. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Unicron’s treacherous interiors which, while totally impractical, are really cool-looking (By the way, have you ever noticed Unicron’s monitor room? It’s very MTV, isn’t it? I told you this was a music video).
-The scene where Spike screams at Daniel to save him using a piece of technology Daniel doesn’t understand is… troubling. Imagine the therapy bills if the kid had failed.
-I do like the final Hot Rod/Galvatron fight, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the Optimus/Megatron brawl earlier.
-Unicron’s destruction scenes are also pretty well done.

-Not related to the film itself, but I caught this gem on the DVD extras. Check out the horrifying way Hasbro tags this commercial:

Check back next week for an analysis of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007)… if you dare.

tags: nelson shin, super serial, transformers, vince dicola

  • Anonymous

    By the way, I’d like to thank everyone for their suggestions of material I could write about. I’m planning on using most, if not all, of them pretty soon. Most of the suggestions I got were comic-based, so I get the feeling that’s what you all want to read. Therefore, I’m going to make sure I do comic posts at least every other series, and you can look for one (that was suggested to me) after I wrap Transformers.

  • Marc Alan Fishman

    Well put RebelRikki. While I find the idea that they killed off Optimus very cool as an adult… it’s hard NOT to think it was essentially a move to sell new and more toys. And one that I’m positive wouldn’t happen in today’s day and age, given how much more PC kids films tend to be on the “hard” topics.

    All that being said I just got the full series of Beast Wars, my personal favorite TF property… so, bee bop grraaaaah whatever to you!

  • http://twitter.com/Doubting_Tom Tom

    This was a great post, and not just because I’ve had every bit of this movie branded into my brain for years. At some point in the future, I’d love to see you take on G.I. Joe, maybe hitting the major 5-parters before tackling the two movies.

  • Anonymous

     Marc, thanks for bringing that up. You’re right on… it was 100% to sell toys. The 2007 DVD features an interview with the film’s producers, and they say that most story decisions came purely from a marketing motivation. They also pointed out that they had no idea Optimus was an icon to kids, and that even though his death gives the film some of its resonance, they probably wouldn’t do it again if they had the choice.

    Beast Wars is my favorite TF series, as well. Enjoy!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tom! GI Joe, eh? Interesting! I haven’t seen the 5-parters in years, and I still haven’t watched the 2009 movie. Definitely gonna keep this idea in my pocket, though. 

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