I love the cheesy aesthetic of 80’s media because they are often shamelessly dumb and driven by the Rule of Cool. Transformers could not have come out at any point before then. The high concept — giant alien robots that transform into vehicles, forever locked in an eternal war between two factions — is mind-blowing to a ten-year-old and amusing to the kid-at-heart. But there is such a thing as moderation and after a certain point, even brainless entertainment can grow tedious. I say this because the 1984 Transformers cartoon is awful and I can’t sit through it. Fortunately the 1986 movie exists as a nice self-contained antidote, for better or worse.
In the (then) far, far future of 2005, a surprise attack from Decepticon leader Megatron forces a final confrontation between him and the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime. The good guys win, but at a heavy price. Optimus perishes, but not before passing on the Matrix of Leadership to his brethren with a prophecy that one day, a chosen one will bear the artifact and lead the Autobots. At the same time, a giant planet-eating entity named Unicron threatens the galaxy. The fate of the universe may rest in the hands of a young rebellious Autobot named Hot Rod.
It goes without saying that Transformers: The Movie isn’t exactly high quality. The story is cliché and loosely connected by a series of events randomly pulled out of a hat. Characters are one-note and indistinguishable outside of their appearance and a specific gimmick. The more cynical viewers will see this as nothing but eighty-five minutes of product placement guaranteed to get screaming kids to their local Toys R Us. They’d be correct, of course, but it wasn’t exactly a hoot with the fans either. Unceremoniously killing off older robots in favor of new ones is an unnecessary step when the in-story twenty-year gap between the TV show and the film could have allowed a simple Passing of the Torch scenario without the gratuitous body count. The Matrix of Leadership is a MacGuffin that does absolutely nothing until the last minute, Unicron’s goals are only vaguely explained, and whoever thought of Wheelie should be locked in a room with loud speakers perpetually blaring his squeaky, ear-piercing voice.
It’s a banal, mediocre movie with very little meat to chew on, but if you have the right mindset for it, Transformers: The Movie is a surprisingly workable film. It’s certainly more ambitious than the TV show: genuine effort is put into forming a cohesive space opera with legitimate stakes and a unifying sci-fi theme in spite of the randomness of the obstacles our heroes encounter. The twenty-year time jump means the movie can serve as a proper introduction to Transformers for any newcomers without relying on the TV show that preceded it. No doubt someone will ask who This Robot or That Robot is, but you’d have to possess a caveman’s brain to not recognize the heroes and villains. While he lacks motivation, Unicron is a perfectly serviceable Eldritch being: soft-spoken, arrogant, and otherworldly. The film ends on a graceful note with implications of a new era of peace, leaving it within its own little pocket even if the cartoon continued onward after the film’s release. The animation is a noticeable improvement from the budget-limited TV show. The robots look blocky and dated by today’s standard, but the shadows are fantastic and the backgrounds are exceptionally detailed, surreal, and ladled with 80’s-era spikes and bright colors. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t compliment the epic, fist-pumping score by Vince DiCola and the equally catchy songs by Stan Bush. At its highest point, Transformers: The Movie is more than the sum of its parts, carried by its enthusiastic need to be as awesome as possible.
Whatever feelings you have for the movie, it’s a significant part of American media. Before Transformers Prime (and for that matter, the Michael Bay films) made it into an art form, this level of violence and death was unexpected for a toy-driven kid’s franchise. Many cartoons of its kind played it safe to almost saccharine levels back then, leaving the movie’s edge to seep out in ways that shocked both kids and parents alike. Optimus’ demise had every grade schooler crying within a thousand mile radius, stunning even the creators with the impact this truck/robot had on contemporary Americana. The film is also a versatile field of “firsts” for the Transformers franchise: the first Optimus death (latter incarnations kept this as a reoccurring element), first attempt at gender equality with Arcee (though not the first lady bot, she’s certainly its most iconic), first instance of the Matrix of the Leadership, first appearance of Unicron, and first Starscream demise, to name but a few. Even without the pop cultural context, it’s a historical database long accepted by the fandom and continuously referenced in later Transformers work.
The 30th anniversary Blu-ray release from Shout Factory comes packaged with two discs containing a widescreen and a full frame version of the movie. Commentary is provided by Director Nelson Shin, Story Consultant Flint Dille, and actor Susan Blu (who voiced Arcee). The commentators keep saying it’s the movie’s 20th anniversary, giving away the fact that it’s recycled from the previously released DVD edition ten years back. “‘Till All Are One: Looking Back at Transformers: The Movie” showcases several voice actors, writers, and musicians fondly reminiscing their roles in both the movie and the overall franchise. It’s a particularly endearing feature because they sincerely understand the legacy Transformers left behind. I especially love the bewilderment they felt when they first realized how loyal the fanbase was. Very few toy-driven products can claim to garner such respect from both fans and professionals.
“Transformers: The Restoration” is a short, but fascinating seven minute featurette that talks about the process of restoring a thirty-year-old film. “Rolling Out the New Cover” interviews Livio Ramondelli (a reoccurring artist for the current IDW Transformers comics) who was tasked with drawing the cover art for this release. Most of the other featurettes seem to be carry-overs from previous releases of the movie. These include “The Death of Optimus Prime:” a short interview among the crew about an icon’s passing; “The Cast and Characters,” which talks a bit about the voice acting and the characters in the film; and “Transformers Q & A,” a three-minute short where the crew answers generic questions (what’s your favorite scene, who’s your favorite Transformer, etc.) Other extras include storyboards, a deleted scene, and trailers.
Transformers: The Movie is a stupid, stupid piece of cinema, but I love every minute of it. Don’t come in expecting a meticulously layered sci-fi flick. This movie is mostly flash and little substance. If you can turn your mind off for an hour-and-a-half and appreciate it for what it is, you get an epic, silly adventure. Sometimes a dumb film can be enjoyable without scrutiny, especially one as memorable and culturally relevant as this one.