Transformers the Movie - Transforms from questionable motion picture to rose tinted nostalgia and back!
In 2007, the live action adaptation of Transformers was a surprise
hit. Sure, there had been a lot of hype and fan discussion but I
recall most people expecting it to be a flop, something that would do
well enough as summer popcorn fare and nothing more. To our surprise,
the movie created hype for the franchise which may not have even been
matched since its prime (no pun intended) in the 1980s.
Some people loved this. Transformers being popular again meant an
increase in media and toys and for some perhaps personal vindication
against those who had mocked their hobby so long ago. However, there
were those that did not follow that course of action. Admittedly I’m
not the biggest fan of the Bay movies, but for some it went far
deeper. They hated how their hobby suddenly ‘sold out’ and gone
‘mainstream’. As a result, they clung to past entries in the
franchise in an attempt to say “I liked it before it was popular!”
…I’m sure I don’t have to point out the folly in this.
As the originator, it was the Generation 1 animated series which
was the most prominent focus in these attempts. Reactionaries claimed
everything should have been exactly as it was in 1984, yellow
hardhats and all. Of course, for a direct comparison the greatest
example soon became the original 1986 animated movie. It is an
argument wrapped around the shade of rose-tinted glasses and a overly
wistful feeling of nostalgia.
Back when the G1 series was at its height, Hasbro decided to
produce a big screen Transformers adventure which would bridge the
current status quo with an updated cast and setting for the show’s
third season and toyline. Fairly understandable, and if it was
handled with care it could have been an exciting teaser for what
awaited kids after they left the theatre. Instead, we got one of the
most infamous learning experiences in toy history.
The movie is set 20 years after season two, in the then far flung
world of 2005. The war has not gone well for the Autobots, forced
back to Earth in the wake of a Decepticon controlled Cybertron. How
this happened given any number of past embarrassing defeats for the
Decepticons is never really explained but I guess we can chalk it up
to 20 years of not having to play by Saturday morning guidelines.
The Decepticons seek to end the war once and for all by hijacking
an Autobot shuttle, then slipping into their Earth city, then
summarily performing a massacre on its inhabitants… Yes ‘massacre’
really is the best word to describe their ultimate end.
Consider who this movie was aimed at: kids. These kids probably
loved watching the cartoon and were ecstatic to hear that a movie was
coming out, starring all their favorites in an adventure that was too
big for a television screen.
Now imagine finding out it was only too big due to the pile of
corpses being mounted way too high to fit on a TV set.
As I said before, the movie was intended to introduce new
characters into the existing mythos. It makes room for these
characters by killing off nearly all the established ones. Gone are
the stalemates of the TV series as the two sides blast chunks out of
one another in surprisingly graphic death scenes. Anyone the young
audience knew or had sitting in their toy box was being written out
in the harshest way possible.
Matters come to a head with one of the most famous action fights
in action animation – Optimus Prime versus Megatron. Arriving to find
the city in ruins, Prime hunts down his arch enemy and the two duel
to the death. It matches the previous action in tone, with the two
throwing punches and blasts at one another with brutal accuracy.
Megatron barely hobbles away whilst Prime is taken to a deathbed for
easily the most depressing scene in the entire movie.
In the years since, there’s been a lot of talk regarding why the
massive cull occurred. The generally accepted explanation is all the
toys that had been available since the start were discontinued so
Hasbro ordered their fictional representations to likewise be
removed, barely understanding just how much attachment the audience
held to these characters. I’m not going to say this was some
unforgivable travesty (poor Flint Dille in particular seems to have
had to force an over wrought apology to nerdier fans more than once),
but it is an incredibly bleak way to open a movie aimed at children
and is a hurdle the movie never really recovers from.
No sooner is Optimus dead then the movie’s ‘real’ plot
begins. It is almost a marker for the change in tone of the following
season – gone is the war between the Autobots and Decepticons for
energy. Instead it is replaced with cosmic horrors and Autobot
The new cast is not bad. In fact, one could easily argue they are
better written then the ones lost. The problem is that they are
forced upon us in an awkward unpleasant manner, akin to shooting a
kid’s pet dog and responding to their wails with the overtly happy
command to ‘Enjoy your new kitten!” The audience’s emotions are
too focused on the shock and grief, which leaves them with little
desire to welcome characters they probably did not even pay to see,
no matter how creative they are.
The main plot of the movie is a coming of age tale for the central
new character, Hot Rod. The giant planet sized Transformer Unicron
seeks to destroy the only thing that can threaten him – the Autobot
Matrix of Leadership, an ancient talisman that doubles as the seal of
office for their leader. With the Autobots devastated and Prime
himself out of the picture, Unicron sees this as the perfect chance
to snuff out the Matrix along with the bewildered survivors. He makes
a deal with Megatron to revive him as the even more powerful
Galvatron and reanimates his fellow wounded Decepticons into a
personal army for his new herald.
The central problem is that the remainder of the movie acts as a
primer for the show’s third season more than a standalone story.
We’re introduced to an array of new characters and settings, all of
which would go on to be explored better in the following season.
Maybe this makes sense for a movie which, by the writer’s own
admission, was written unabashedly for folks who would be
going in already familiar with the story up to that point,
but the movie rushes along at a break neck speed, generally only
pausing long enough to highlight a new toy before moving on to the
next locale. Indeed, the speed of scene changes and the swarming,
often error laden, battle scenes could be directly compared to the
ones in the live action movies. Hot Rod does manage to have something
of a complete character arc in his ascension to Rodimus Prime, but it
is fairly clear that, much as the UK added narration claimed, this is
just one major battle in a still ongoing war. It is somewhat
respectable when taken as one part of the larger Generation One story
but when combined with the big shake up it brings, it is hard not to
feel like an emotional punching bag. The trailers for the movie make
it out to be an animated classic, with claims such as ‘bringing
audiences back again and again’ and ‘you’ll need to see it
twice’. I think those have got to be some of the boldest
promotional claims I have ever heard for a movie.
What am I ultimately trying to say? Essentially, don’t let
nostalgia blind you. It is great to have your memories and personal
favorites, but these should never be used to claim some sense of
entitlement or ownership over things. Like any big franchise,
Transformers is going to have multiple iterations and no fan is quite
likely to enjoy every single one. But just because you do not enjoy
one of them does not make this an absolute. First generation fans had
the groundwork laid for them. But like the robots themselves, the
brand’s best moments have come from change and transition. The
animated movie gets on board with that, taking some big risks. Some
work, some don’t but there’s no denying it took those risks and
changes and the ones that worked have stuck. We are on the verge
right now of the third and possibly final live action movie being
released. I’d be a liar if I said I was expecting a masterpiece
but be it good or bad, all fans should at least be able to respect
the achievement it represents: the fact that a kids toyline from the
1980s, backed up by comic books and a cartoon show, would 30 years
later still be highly in demand and profitable. Have preferences and
wish to offer critique? You are certainly welcome to, but as fans,
do not bury your head in the sand and miss out the exciting reality
the franchise has right now. A reality which has even gone out of its
way to reward the oldest of fans with toys of characters they never
thought they would see. Toys that are likewise released because
Transformers is a product. It may have been lucky enough to have been
shaped by folks who cared about good stories and compelling
characters but Hasbro likewise sought out such an approach because
they were looking to attract a big as market as possible. It was
never some indie brand aiming for cult elitists.
If anything let us remember how the movie introduced the Autobot
mantra ‘Til all are one”. I think that’s an idea we fans should
take to heart too.