Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Transformers: The Movie" (1986)

Starring Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles
Written by Ron Friedman
Directed by Nelson Shin

I'll be honest, the only reason I love this movie nearly as much as I do is out of a sheer sense of nostalgia.  I don't recall the first time I ever saw it, though my father tells me I wept like a baby (I was four) when witnessing the death of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).  This is not surprising, as the Transformers were a huge part of my childhood, and the greatest hero of them all was Optimus.  But watching the movie now as an adult, it's those hazy childhood feelings and memories that keep this movie alive.

As the film begins, we're told the year is 2005 (heh) and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron (Frank Welker) have conquered the Transformers' home world of Cybertron.  Optimus Prime and his heroic army of Autobots have retreated to secret bases on Cybertron's moons, where they prepare for an assault to retake their planet.  Optimus Prime sends his lieutenant, Ironhide, to Earth to secure a shipment of Energon cubes that will power the assualt.  Unfortunately, Megatron learns of Prime's plans, and intercepts Ironhide's shuttle en route.

On Earth, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) and Spike Witwiki's son Daniel are fishing.  When the shuttle approaches, Daniel, excited at the prospect of seeing his father once again, rushes to view it.  He notices the battle damage, and Hot Rod opens fire, signaling to the Autobots that something is amiss.  Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) orders a distress signal sent to Optimus Prime.  The battle does not go well for the Autobots, as they fight the Decepticons through the night and into the next morning.  Optimus Prime finally arrives, and manages to turn the tide of battle pretty much by himself.  This leads to a final confrontation between Prime and Megatron, and when all is said and done, Prime lays on his deathbed, and Megatron has been carried off in retreat.

While all this is happening, a massive, planet-sized Transformer known as Unicron (film legend Orson Welles, in one of his final roles) is making its way toward Cybertron, eating other planets in its path.  Unicron knows that the only power in the universe capable of stopping it is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, which, with the death of Optimus Prime, has now passed to Ultra Magnus.  After Starscream jettisons Megatron into space to usurp control of the Decepticons, Unicron transforms Megatron into Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy) and sends him on a mission to destroy the Matrix.

Frankly, there's not much in the way of a plot to this movie.  It moves from battle to battle, with little time to breathe in between.  The story, such as it is, spans several planets and includes a lot of random characters.  Characters seem to know things they can't possibly know just so that the "plot" can be moved along.  Probably the most offensive part of it all is the wholesale slaughter of the original TV show cast - y'know, the characters that were beloved to children everywhere, myself included.  Characters that had survived massive battles and dangerous adventures in the TV show are disposed of within the opening moments of the movie, including favorites like Ratchet and Ironhide.

The movie's purpose, therefore, is obvious: to introduce a new series of characters, and therefore, a new line of toys to replacing the aging existing product lines.  Why this had to be done by outright killing everyone, often in circumstances that are far too simple or easy, is beyond me.  It seems almost like the writers thought to themselves, "Well, we gotta do this.  So, fuck you, kids."  It's sort of weird to say that Michael Bay's 2007 live-action adaptation, "Transformers," holds up far better as a film than this one does.

Another huge problem with the movie is the shoddy animation.  Sure, the animation in the original TV series was pretty damn awful (which you never notice as a kid) but with the movie there was a chance to really knock it out of the park.  Some scenes really look great, with fluid movement and lots of detail.  Unfortunately, for every good moment, there are two or three crappy ones.  Characters are painted the wrong color, shots have ultra-low framerates, and certain parts are just poorly drawn in general.

The voice cast really is quite an impressive gathering of stars.  Orson Welles has a great, creepy voice for Unicron, and Leonard Nimoy brings a lot of menace to Galvatron.  Peter Cullen, in his sadly small role as Optimus Prime, is a legend. Monty Python legend Eric Idle, on the other hand, as Wreck-Gar the Junkion, is pretty obnoxious, with dialogue comprised of obnoxious TV commercial catchphrases.

But the best part of the movie, by far, is its incredibly cheesy 80s soundtrack, with songs from Stan Bush like "Dare" and "The Touch" which are just full-on pop ridiculousness.  There's also a pretty hilarious hard-rock rendition of the Transformers Theme, and even a song by Weird Al Yankovic.  I got this soundtrack on CD years ago, and I still listen to it when I'm in the mood for something a bit ridiculous. 

It's these songs that give a lot of the movie's sequences what little heft they've got going for them.  Watching Optimus Prime slag Decepticons while 'The Touch' is rockin' the speakers always brings a grin to my face.  It's just too unfortunate that a terrible script and shoddy animation can't make "Transformers: The Movie" anything more than a curious bit of nostalgic fun.