This is not a review. I’m not sure I could review Transformers: the Movie. What this is, somewhat curiously, is almost about why I can’t do that. I’ve been reluctant for similar reasons before,¹ there’s probably nothing on this Earth (or, presumably, any other) that can hold a candle to this movie.
I attended a screening earlier this year. I’ve owned multiple DVD copies of it (I gave the first edition away to one of my oldest friends, though), and I’m known to claim (with, I admit, some exaggeration) that I can simply recite the movie from memory. I have the score–not an official copy from that BotCon that I’ve never been to, but one I cobbled together–that I spread out into a playlist (and two CDs) to emulate the entire runtime of the movie (including some repetition…). Lines are so ingrained in my subconscious that they are reflexive responses to scenarios (“Open! Dammit, open!”; “Guilty or innocent? Innocent!”), or even just randomly wander in–literally last night I was talking to myself about beryllium bologna. Not that I can tell you why that occurred to me now. It was alleged to me that the copy I near-wore out as a kid was a recorded one placed next to Harry Nilsson’s The Point as bait to get me to watch that movie, because I watched this one so relentlessly. But maybe it was just timing, or something. I don’t know.
But there’s something very weird about it all, that was brought home by moviebob’s Really That Good on it. In it, he attempts to examine how this movie, of all of the “extended toy commercials” so rife in the 1980s managed to remain a touchstone–I mean, remember, I just said I attended a screening earlier this year. That screening was sold out. I haven’t seen almost anything almost sold out since moving here that didn’t have an extra catch, like an attending creator (and plenty of those couldn’t drum up full support). It’s a solid watch, and an interesting examination. There’s something very curious about it as he begins to dissect who and how it was effective though, and a few points that struck me for their complete disparity from not only my experience as compared to his, but compared to many.
I’ll call myself “generationally displaced” on many occasions: my parents were older than most when they had me, and, indeed, especially older than most of my friends’ parents, it seemed. So the media I grew up with–though it also included Achtung Baby and Graceland and The Kids in the Hall and plenty of contemporary touchstones–was heavily saturated with media that predated my very existence by decades, not as a matter of “retro” or belated appreciation by my parents (though my father continues to dig in decades past to this day) but part of their own life. Sometimes I suspect this has simply left me reaching backward to try to match up to this.
So I didn’t see this movie as a childhood fan of the television show–it started the year I was born, and this was released when I was two. It’s possible that it aired in syndication and I saw some of it in that fashion. I remember getting my own Optimus Prime (nope, didn’t take care of it, though I distinctly recall the peg for his trailer breaking and lodging into his figure, and later attempting to manually disassemble what was broken and left of him), and I remember things like the Ultra Magnus voice changer I believe came from one of my dad’s friends.² I remember, too, my endless fascination with Transformers themselves as years went on. I got the first few issues of Generation Two, I colleceted a handful of figures from that era, and later Beast Wars. I have a collection of the Hasbro “Masterpiece” figures both here at home and even Thundercracker sitting on my desk at work.
I honestly don’t know how that all happened. In my mind, in my memory–it stems from this movie. Maybe the later seasons were on when I was extremely young, or just a bit later in syndication. But I remember first seeing the commercials and hearing the television theme and feeling I’d never heard these before. And here’s where we turn to the strange perspective I have:
I was not a kid anymore, loved the soundtrack to this movie…and man, did that theme sound bad. Of course, it’s because Lion’s rockified version was all–so far as I can recall to this day–that I knew. Which is not, in itself, consequential–but it points to far larger matters (in the context of this movie) than itself. The aforementioned Really That Good on this movie begins listing the strange things about it, in terms of the deaths of almost every single character from the series up to that point. It references the immortal touchstone, the inevitable “I cried in the theater when Prime died”. The relentless mockery of Hot Rod (a sad trumpet sound and a text overlay of “Hot Rod Sucks” accompanies most mentions of him in the video).
That’s the thing, though–none of that meant anything to me. For one thing, I didn’t know who Prowl, Brawn, Skywarp, Thundercracker, Wheeljack, or any of the rest of these dead characters were. I sort of knew Ironhide, but that’s because he says, “But Prime–” and Prime responds, “Listen, Ironhide, we don’t have enough energon cubes to power a full-scale assault.” Most of the other characters who die are never named. And, of course, that tenuous link wasn’t that helpful, as I didn’t exactly recognize him when he was killed. Hell, I was young enough to not quite grasp the deaths in general (except Prime)–these were seemingly faceless, meaningless cannon fodder in a cartoon. Plus, robots. Death had death scenes. This was slaughter (“Let the slaughter begin!”–even if that comes after that shuttle lands). There was the editing, too: my recollection, at least, is that we do not actually see the explosion of Ironhide in the un-restored version, just the infamous line from Megatron and him firing (“Such heroic nonsense…”). So–these did not affect me. Prime, though I obviously liked the character, and the way Peter Cullen voices him, the way that he’s portrayed (everything following, “Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost.” will always be hair-raisingly inspirational, whatever cheesiness the unfamiliar might here in “The Touch” be damned) meant that I cared that he died and found it sad, but it wasn’t a character I’d just spent two years loving.
And that puts me in a situation I always wonder about: there’s often a sense that “X makes no sense if you haven’t been following things.” Many of us make that claim–generally only from the position of having been following things. moviebob is claiming this movie requires awareness of what came before. I watched this movie hundreds of times before I saw the series in any way–about, oh, ten years ago. I never felt confused. Everyone and everything seemed clearly, subtly established to child, adolescent, and young adult me in all my re-watchings. Autobots good. Decepticons bad. War between them raged on earth. Autobots befriended humans. Optimus Prime is the ultimate leader. Megatron is the ultimate bad guy. Starscream is a complete asshole (“Wanna bet?” and that smirk. Good lord.) The interesting flip of this is, I suspect that it informs a lot of other things, beyond just the suspicion that it would make sense to anyone unfamiliar. Everyone I know who hates Hot Rod saw this movie as a fan of the series. Without that, I always liked Hot Rod. Sure, I was young and he’s placed as the protagonist, so there’s encouragement and a lack of discernment at play, but I don’t know if we could ever get an opinion on the character from an old fan that didn’t involve the original series–maybe they’d still like him, maybe even like him more, but it will never be the same as walking in and being told, “This is the hero of Transformers” from what is (for you, or rather, me in this case) “the beginning.”
There’s not some deep revelation in the fact that different perspectives breed different opinions, but there is something legitimately fascinating in the notion that a movie beloved for its place within can also be loved for itself, particularly when it’s saddled with accusations like Leonard Maltin’s decrying it as a toy commercial, one of the first reviews I remember reading–which probably helped disassociate me somewhat from needing to like “the right things” and understanding Maltin is someone who would never understand what was appealing about it. I don’t doubt, either, that there are others like me, who knew the Transformers largely or almost exclusively from this portrayal, but it seems like an encapsulation of so many aspects of what defines my perspectives and tastes that there is something interesting in that.
This movie would never have cult status without the surrounding mass of existing fans. Yet, it’s one of my favourites despite being outside of that–somehow having this one weird subset of all of it dropped in my lap and informing me about this wider story in all the “wrong” ways, about who was important, how things looked and sounded (much like the theme, returning to the lower budgeted series is a rough trip). I’m defensive of Transformers and the appearance,³ and espouse a level of fandom that acknowledges that, realistically, I’m a fan of this movie, not the broader concept. Except Beast Wars, because it’s amazing.
¹Which also turned into an object lesson on how I view formative media, how I view genre film, and a few other notes that are similar to what’s intended here.
²This is an early enough memory that I’m quite possibly jumbling things up. However, this is definitely the man who introduced me to Crystar. Additionally, his extra LPs from a fascination with music are allegedly how I ended up with my now-signed Goblin records. Considering my dad’s response to seeing Suspiria theatrically included enthusiastic clamour about the soundtrack despite having owned it for decades (though he had gifted it to me by then), I feel reasonably comfortable in the recall that they came from that friend.
³Inevitably asked about the Bay movies, my response is always the same: I loathe the designs, as they speak to the worst trends in modern design, being overly, obnoxiously busy rather than simple and iconic: because technology allows us to put all those little gears and bits into a model and then only worry about the endless work of animating it, rather than having to re-create all of it frame by frame, there’s something lost in it. Point being: I’ve never watched a single one and don’t plan to.