I felt a little bit of trepidation when I first saw the box of Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand. The character designs looked like the characters in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Bayformers. The first Bayformers movie is the only movie that I’ve ever walked out in the middle of, and seeing the rest later on cable did nothing to improve my opinion.
It uses a few elements of the movies, including design aesthetics, ultra-violent shaky-cam fights, slo-mo, a Bumblebee that can’t talk, and lotsa Baysplosions, but it melds them with a respectful and thoughtful take on nearly thirty years of Transformers history and characterization. This is about as good as it gets for a show about giant robots turning into cars.
One Shall Stand is seven episodes of the show, from the tail end of season one and the beginning of season two, edited into one, long 154-minute movie. The compilation is not exactly seamless; it’s really two stories, one about the awakening of the evil Transformers god Unicron and one about the amnesia Autobot leader Optimus Prime suffers after defeating him.
The Unicron story was created as a slam-bang first season-ending event, and it is the most intense and interesting of the pair. It deals with something that’s surprisingly prominent in a show about robots: religion.
Unicron was created as a big planet-sized robot for the Transformers to fight in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but over the years many creators, most notably superstar Transformers comics writer Simon Furman, have expanded upon Unicron as the center of a Transformers theology.
The way it’s told in Transformers Prime, in the beginning there was Primus, who was good, and Unicron, who was bad, and they struggled until Primus was finally able to cast Unicron out by creating the first 13 Primes: powerful robot warriors. Primus becomes Transformers home planet Cybertron, and gives birth to all the Transformers. Optimus Prime is the most recent Prime. So where did Unicron go?
As evil Decepticon leader Megatron discovers, he came here and formed the core of the earth itself. Yes, we’re stomping around on the rocky covering of the robot devil, and are for all intents and purposes his children. Not that he’s a good daddy: he sees us as parasites and plans to shake us off. The movie is an epic fight to keep this from happening.
I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say the good guys win and keep the entire earth from transforming into a giant robot. That is actually a little disappointing, because although we see Unicron’s creepy insides and avatars, we can’t see him turn into his iconic evil planet form.
The fight is not without cost, however, and it causes Optimus to lose his memories and revert to his pre-Optimus form, the peace and social justice-loving archivist Orion Pax. Pax gets recruited by Megatron for nefarious purposes, and the other Autobots work to find a backup of the Matrix of Leadership and reboot him while Pax feels his own innate heroic nature asserting itself.
The CG animation in the movie is mostly excellent. There are a few suspect textures and wonky movements, but it’s amazing this was created on a TV budget. The robots show nice little touches like dings and scratches, and the fight scenes are choreographed with a fluidity and surprising brutality.
Sound is also great, with pros like Peter Cullen turning in solid voice work. There’s also stirring music and convincing sound effects for even little things like robot footsteps.
If I had a major complaint about the movie, it’s that things are a little too unrelentingly dramatic and serious. If I’m going to sit down and watch a two hour and thirty minute movie, it’s tiring if there’s barely anything to lighten the mood. Even The Dark Knight Rises had a few jokes. I counted two jokes in the movie that mildly amused me: man of science Autobot Ratchet hemming and hawing over one of the finer and more outlandish points of Transformers theology (whether Dark Energon is literally the blood of Unicron); and kid sidekick Miko confusing Unicron with Unicorn.
Yes, kid sidekicks. The movie features three. They aren’t as annoying as Spike from the first Transformers series, but you have to swallow your disbelief pretty hard to believe that the Transformers would take them along on giant robot fights. In fact, one of the kids nearly dies in the movie, but because the Autobots save him from a second attack on his life the main human authority figure lets it slide. I guess that evens things out?
She goes as far as letting the oldest sidekick, her son Jack, travel to Cybertron to reboot Optimus after Optimus carefully sets things up so only Jack can do so. Jack saves the day, but I kept thinking it sure would have been a lot easier if Optimus had just given the key to his Matrix to Ratchet or Bumblebee instead.
The DVD has only two extras, but they’re both of high quality. The first is a round-table discussion with the writers and staff of the series about the movie. It’s self-congratulatory and back-patting, but you can tell these are guys that want to make the best show they can within the limits of TV animation. The second is an animatic for one of the episodes. It’s not a snippet, it’s a full 22 minute animatic.
So if you’re a longtime fan of Transformers, don’t let the specter of Michael Bay scare you away. The cartoon part of the franchise seems to be in good hands.