“Three years of silence comes to a halt when the Autobots have to face the Decepticons upon Megatron’s return, only this time they have three human kids to protect along the way.”
I watched this five-part pilot only once and never looked back until recently. I’m glad I took that route, because time heals many wounds and my initial mixed feelings have largely vanished. All five episodes flow naturally from one narrative to the next, the action doesn’t lug around to cheaply cover a lack of plot, and the script is surprisingly tolerable. The series will eventually fall victim to an endless torrent of cheesy dialogues, exposition, and obvious statements that diminishes the its quality, but “Darkness Rising“ delivers otherwise and any aforementioned fault can be justified as the writers starting out and finding their comfort zone. For what it’s worth, this series has one heart-stomping opening.
Taking a cue right out of Joss Whedon, main character Cliffjumper (a character heavily advertised prior to the show’s premiere) buys the harp farm a mere five minutes into the intro. It’s a smart move that immediately grabs the audience’s attention, as well as giving an ndication of just what kind of ride we’re in for. “Darkness Rising“ is violent, graphic, and brutal. The animators were clever to take advantage of the transformers’ robotic appearances; they give plenty of leeway for them to chop or decapitate foes without merely implying what Character A did to Character B. It presents a genuine threat and provides a convincing reason why our heroes are hardened and traumatized over the sacrifices they have had to make. Though if it were up to me, I’d have kept Cliffjumper around for at least the full first episode to get a better handle on his character. The impact would have been greater. It’s a minor complaint because the surprise was effective and his death is a constant source of Arcee’s character development.
For that matter, this advantage presents legitimate excuses for the show’s main villains, the Decepticons, to deliver some serious punches. Megatron himself is a big brute and Soundwave is delightfully subtle, but it’s Starscream who steals the show (as Starscreams often tend to do), and takes his cake and eats it, too. Simply put, he’s magnificently evil. He crossed the line murdering Cliffjumper and goes further beyond it through torment and manipulation. My personal favorite moment is when Arcee, Bulkhead, and Bumblebee has him at gunpoint, yet he still refuses to back down and continuously threatens Agent Fowler’s life. It’s a fantastic moment for his character and a blatant declaration that he is evil, competent, and awesome.
The human kids are interesting concepts, not for what they are (target audiences for the demographics, always a primary staple of the Transformers franchise), but who they are. Each of the three possess a personality trait that, in all regards, represent how an Average Joe would react when they see giant alien robots. Jack is cautious, reliable, and keeps a safe distance because he understands the impact of a human in a robot’s world. He doesn’t instantly warm up to them and quits at one point because it’s not as ideal as fiction makes it out to be. Miko has a completely opposite and positive response. Addictive to the adrenaline to compensate for her boring existence, she embraces it and unquestionably leaps into danger despite the consequences. Her mannerisms come off as so extravagant that it borders on parody (presumably on the Kid Sidekick archetype). Unfortunately, this also makes her the most useless at best and downright annoying at worst. I lost my patience with her by the end. Rafael is the middle ground: he wisely stays back, but easily accepts the extraordinary purely through the innocent eyes of a child. Arguably, you don’t even need to be a kid to find them relatable (I know I’d behave exactly like Jack). The most telling moment occurs during the battle aboard the Nemesis. There’s a brief moment where music drowns most of the sound out and the camera erratically moves around; the scene is meant to drive home the point that this isn’t some Saturday morning cartoon. Being caught in-between a giant alien battle is dangerous and horrifying.
The backgrounds and humans are presently bland and/or average for the most part; the latter looks like molded silly putty put together. However, the robot designs are amazingly stylish, and we’re all here for them anyways. Taking the best parts of Transformers Animated and the live-action movies, they’re remarkably detailed without feeling clunky or overbearing. I don’t think they’re as unique as they were in Animated, but they really work the designs and the effort pays off.
As fun as the pilot is, it’s not all sunshine and roses; Arcee gets the lion’s share of attention compared to the rest. This isn’t necessary terrible. For one, I generally like her portrayal. She is both a formidable warrior and
a guardian, and she is neither the cocky Tomboy who must “prove her
worth to the boys” nor the usual “motherly” role main female characters
are often stuck with.
Her angst and complication with new “partner” Jack is well-handled without making her whiny. However, all of this comes at the expense of the other four Autobots to the point where they’re barely worth mentioning. They each have their own basic personality, but they aren’t as well-rounded as her. The only Autobot that sticks with you is Ratchet, whose sarcasm and disdain for humankind is an endless source of amusement. Jack’s sudden departure also comes too quickly with barely any resolution, and I find it hard to suspend my disbelief that Raf can hack with the likes of Soundwave despite the latter’s advanced alien technology. It would be better if his skills grew over the course of time, rather than him cheaply possessing the ability to read Cybertronian schematics right off of the bat.
So, this is not a perfect opening. I still think Transformers Animated’s “Transform and Roll Out” three-part pilot is much stronger in terms of character and story, but Prime’s opener is still a solid start. So much so that it’s almost painful to watch the current season, because a good half of the episodes are really average in comparison—“Darkness Rising“ ends up as beginner’s luck in retrospect. But it’s a testimony to the great potential this show has, and it will successfully suck you in from the beginning.