Wednesday, 10 August 2016


Back in the autumn of 1986, when I was seven years old, I was addicted to Transformers. These were the original toy releases, Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, Prowl, the Dinobots and so forth. As well as putting up with me playing with the toys all day and the watching the cartoon series, my long-suffering parents also bought me the UK Transformers comic every week. It was the comic that taught me how to spot the differences between writing styles: Bob Budiansky's American-written stories were (mostly) terrible and Simon Furman's British-written stories were totally awesome.

"One shall stand, one shall fall."

In the summer the comic started previewing an upcoming "big event" series. This was surprising, as the comic had just done a big series of event stories unveiling the combiner teams: the Aerialbots, Stunticons, Protectobots and Combaticons, four teams of five Transformers who could combine to form much bigger robots. But what was coming up was bigger still, a single story spanning eleven issues, roughly equal to six-and-a-half monthly American comic book issues. Target: 2006 was a huge time travel epic tying in with the upcoming Transformers: The Movie, and it was awesome.

Wait, there was a Transformers movie coming out? Back in the the mid-1980s kids toy franchises didn't get movies. You got a bunch of toys, a comic and maybe a badly-written, even more badly-animated TV show that lasted one or two seasons at best. But Transformers had become a worldwide phenomenon, successful in the United States, South America, right across Europe and in Japan as well. Saying it was the "Pokemon of 1984" (as one superfan claimed on a DVD special feature) was perhaps a slight exaggeration, but not by a huge amount. Hasbro felt it was more than worthwhile to take the story to the big screen in an animated feature film.

They organised a big, multimedia event to sell the film. New toys were released - of course! - including Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Ultra Magnus, Galvatron, Cyclonus, Scourge and Wreck-Gar (although not, to much irritation, of Arcee, the first-ever female Transformer, or the film's villain Unicron) and Simon Furman wrote what is sometimes still regarded as the greatest Transformers story ever. Slightly embarrassingly, Target: 2006 was, if we're being honest, a much better story than Transformers: The Movie itself (#UKreprezent), partially because it didn't brutally murder all of the audience's favourite toys (only Skywarp, and he kind of got better later on), but mainly because it didn't talk down to its audience and resolved the story by discussing temporal paradoxes in a surprisingly mature and well-thought-out way.

There's an extremely self-aware comic strip in which the Autobots, responding to feminist criticism, build Arcee. Unfortunately, they forgot to get any design input from actual women and ended up receiving further criticism for building a pink robot with a "differing upper chassis design". In fact, the whole thing was ripping on the very daft design of the character in the first place.

But the effort Hasbro's partner studio, Sunbow, put into the movie was impressive. The movie got a surprisingly raucous rock and roll soundtrack courtesy of artists like Lion (whose heavy metal-leaning version of the theme tune may be definitive), Weird Al Yankovic and the mighty Stan Bush, whose "The Touch" is sadly ubiquitous ("Dare" is actually a much better track). The voice cast is pretty bonkers: Judd Nelson, hot off The Breakfast Club, along with Eric Idle and Leonard Nimoy? But what was really crazy was the studio getting Orson Welles to play Unicron. It turned out to be his last role, with the venerable actor passing away a few days after finishing audio work on the film.

Transformers: The Movie was released on 8 August 1986 in the United States, but we had to wait until December before it came out in the UK. I made my long-suffering parents take me to the cinema to see it and I loved it: it was much stronger than the cartoon series (which I liked, but considered vastly inferior to the comics) and was stuffed full of quotable lines, as well as confirming that, for all the new characters, the greatest Transformer remained Grimlock.

Grimlock reviews Transformers: The Movie in an issue of the UK Transformers comic. Metafictional awareness in 1986!

The Transformers cartoon series has really not aged very well (as this NSFW sweary video attests, the storylines are very dumb), although the UK comics have fared quite a lot better. But the movie has aged quite well, being perfectly watchable (on the level of an entertaining kid's action movie) today. Although a healthy dose of nostalgia helps this, it is also reinforced by contrasting it to the utterly horrific Michael Bay movies we've seen over the last decade which lacked any sense of strong characterisation, clearly-defined storyline or emotional investment. Transformers: The Movie knocks the likes of Revenge of the Fallen or Age of Extinction into a cocked hat in these departments.

There's also the craziness of the movie, in which Optimus Prime dies for no real reason fifteen minutes into the picture and stays dead (the cartoon series would later bring him back in a half-arsed kind of way) and most of the original cast of toys is brutally wiped out so Hasbro can sell some new ones. But this ruthlessness heightens the stakes very well and Galvatron's entrance as a tremendously powerful, amoral and utterly ruthless being (he kills fan-favourite villain Starscream within a minute of meeting him) is tremendously effective.

"Such heroic nonsense." Megatron brutally executing fan-favourite Autobot Ironhide with a fusion cannon blast to the face. This movie is basically what would happen if you got George R.R. Martin to write Transformers.

The film also has little truck with cliche, with Galvatron's attempts to join forces with the Autobots to defeat Unicron (the traditional ending to such a story) being undone almost immediately. There's a very nice line in gallows humour throughout the film, such as Springer's world weary exclamation of, "I've got better things to do tonight than die," and pretty much absolutely everything Kup says ("I'm trying to remember what happened, there were an awful lot of casualties that day"). Clearly the writers relished the fact that they didn't have to abide by the quite strict codes of conduct that governed what they could put on screen at 8am on a Saturday morning and instead dialled up the violence quite a bit. For the first time on screen, the much-vaunted war of four million years actually felt like, well, a war. People died, getting shot by a massive laser blast actually hurt (in the cartoon series they tended to just shrug it off) and these guys really hated one another, rather than just indulging in wrestling-style trash talking. It's all very mild stuff for an adult, but for a kid it was a transformative (pun intended) experience.

Is it an objectively good movie? I have no idea, I'm way too close to tell but I suspect not. The animation veers between brilliant and awful (sometimes in the same scene), the soundtrack is ridiculously 1980s and it relies on pre-existing knowledge of the franchise (otherwise at least half the deaths mean nothing). But it's one of the stories (alongside the comics) that had the biggest effect on me as a kid, and to see it getting an expensive, elaborate 4K/HD remaster for its 30th anniversary raises a smile.

1 comment:

Silent said...

Still the best Transformers movie hands down.