Pictures in motion! These are opulent times.
#1: Transformers: The Movie
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve either seen or heard of this film. Most people know about it. Some even call it a “cult favourite”. I wouldn’t really know; apart from the odd livestock mutilation and ritual sacrifice, I stay away from cults.
Anyway, I’m not quite old enough to have seen TF:TM in the cinema. Not that it mattered much, even if I had been older my parents wouldn’t have let me see it. We didn’t have much money, so the cinema (or, “the pictures”) was a luxury we couldn’t afford, along with Coca-Cola and toilet paper. A couple years later, I was in the supermarket with my mum and I nonchalantly walked over to a rotating wire rack with various Tempo and Video Gems cassettes hung on it. Right away, my eyes locked onto the Transformers box.
I remember the wonder and awe with which I stared at it – the cover picture was hardcore. Explosions and robots and spaceships…! There was this big robot with his back to me. I didn’t know who he was, but being a precocious and observant child, I could tell that he was a goodie. Clearly on the back foot, something serious was going down, and this red and blue champion was fighting back. It’s that picture alone that got me hooked on Transformers. It’s funny to think how big a part of my life they would become.
I read the text on the cover aloud – “Transformers the movie – Beyond Good. Beyond Evil. Beyond your wildest imagination.” It sounded epic! I had to watch this film! So I begged my mum. She must’ve had a coupon or something, because she actually bought it. I got home, tore the wrapper off, and put it in the player.
I was never the same.
The animation was so fluid and clear, the music so exhilarating and atmospheric, I was instantly absorbed. So when, two minutes into the film, a planet gets eaten, I was shocked. A robotic planet it may have been, but it had life – a civilisation. The giggles of children, the busy work of the populace, all of it snuffed out in a cataclysmic apocalypse – their planet torn in half and eaten by a monster they saw coming but were powerless to resist. Still reeling from this, a pulse-pounding drumbeat leads us into the opening titles, where they let rip with a heavy metal version of the iconic Transformers theme tune as an impressive optical effect takes us through the movie logo and into a Star Wars-esque title crawl.
Victor Caroli narrates the text, explaining the plight of the heroic Autobots as they plan to retake their home planet from the occupying Decepticons, and then the movie proper begins. We see the Autobots launching a shuttlecraft bound for Earth – the music swells in a hopeful and spine-tingling crescendo, the noble warriors full of optimism. Ironhide gives a cheeky smile, Prowl dutifully mans the controls. At this point, I was smiling. The Autobots are gonna save the day, I thought.
Then Megatron tears through the hull of the ship with his bare hands and murders them all. Stone cold, fucking murder.
The film cuts to a peaceful mountain lake on Earth, the sound of death still ringing in our ears. The film’s main protagonist, Hot Rod, is fishing with a small boy. He misses his dad, so Rodders cheers him up by giving him a ride to the top of the mountain to watch the shuttle land. It’s wonderful. Unlike the new Michael Bay films, the Transformers aren’t presented as monstrous creatures, they’re just people. Big, and made of metal, but arguably more human and full of character than Bay’s real cast, certainly more so than Megan Fox.
Anyway, the soundtrack once again breaks out into a rock and roll power anthem, and I defy you not to be grinning from ear to ear as Hot Rod races up the mountain pass. He skids to a halt, transforms, and observes that the shuttle has been overrun. Sure enough, Megatron and his Decepticons burst out of the shuttle like a swarm of angry hornets and the killing starts again.
Sounds like a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, doesn’t it? Bear in mind that this is just the first ten minutes. I won’t go into any other plot details, they can be found elsewhere, so we’ll move on. Oh, wait, there is just one more thing – Optimus Prime dies.
You could argue that I hadn’t known Prime for very long. But take it from me, he was cemented in my mind as the hero. And I believed, as many children do, that good always wins over evil. The hero never fails, never dies. His fight against Megatron is a valiant one; Prime throws the powerful villain around like a rag doll, but the dastardly Megatron cheats. He takes a hostage, and a helpless Prime can only stand there and be cut down.
Later, as Optimus lies on a table, dying from his wounds, I couldn’t get my head around it. The baddie can’t win! Not like that! Prime will make it, he’ll recover! He has to!
He doesn’t. I managed to hold it together for all of two seconds before I burst into tears. I think I cried for a week. A year, maybe. It was without question the most disturbing thing I had ever witnessed. I suppose it was a lesson I needed to learn – sometimes, being good, being right, just isn’t enough.
What movie would have the sheer balls to do that, these days? Especially a movie aimed at children? They just wouldn’t. I love cinema, but I can say for sure that films aren’t what they used to be – they’re vague, inoffensive, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. For example, compare Alien, Terminator and Robocop with their modern iterations. I need say no more.
Back to Transformers.
The movie continues, for the most part, as it began. There’s great music, some awesome action, and some unexpected twists and turns. Needless to say, the Autobots do eventually come out on top, and the universe is saved. As the end credits roll, you really do feel like you’ve witnessed a tremendous struggle of good versus evil.
I have only a handful of complaints, some small bugbears, that prevent this from being a true classic in my mind. But to balance it out, I’ll list my favourite things along with the bad –
- The animation. The standard is superb. In this age of computer rendering, animation of this quality will never be seen again. It has fluid movement, vibrant colour and shadow, parallax, rotoscoping, the works.
- That soundtrack. Perhaps with the exception of Weird Al’s Dare to Be Stupid, the music is perfect, and will stay with you for a lifetime. Not that I have anything against Weird Al. I’m rather fond of him.
- Hot Rod and Starscream. Voiced by Judd Nelson and Chris Latta, these two are probably the best characters. Hot Rod is petulant and sardonic, but also brave and kind. He transforms into a sleek racing car, and can kick some serious ass. Proper hero material. Starscream, on the other hand, is whinging and cowardly. But you love to hate him. He gets his comeuppance in the end, and you’ll probably weep for him just as you did for any of the goodies. Life isn’t fair, Starscream, it’s just not fair.
- Verbal tics. As was the trend at the time in children’s shows, characters were often given overt (and ridiculous) idiosyncrasies. It was easier to write, easier for the voice actors, and it made the characters stick in kids’ minds. Although this phenomenon isn’t present in the main cast, some of the supporting players will drive you nuts. Add to that the heavy flanging and synthesis added to the voices, and it makes one or two characters impossible to understand.
- Tail draggers. Again, this is a product of the thinking of the time, not really the movie itself. I’m talking about the Dinobots. These powerful Autobot warriors were portrayed as bumbling cavemen, not as the terrifying and capable guerrillas they were described as in other fiction. Clearly, the writers thought “Dinosaurs are stupid, right?” and so reduced the robots to so much comic relief. A crying shame. The release of Jurassic Park a few years later would see dinosaurs in cinema get their dignity back.
- Censors. A last-minute change to the script leaves a scene making little sense. An attempted execution of a character was deemed too gruesome, so it was hastily re-animated to have him “humanely” blown up instead. The said character’s survival of this is quite baffling to my adult mind.
All said, a good movie that well deserves its place in the hearts and minds of every kid born in the seventies and eighties. Despite its small inadequacies, it still displays guts and a creative vision that doesn’t exist in cinema today. Although Transformers are my favourite thing ever, it may surprise you to learn that this isn’t my favourite film. But it is an important film, and I’m sure in many ways it helped to shape me into the person I am now.
“Gives a cheeky”