To some, Transformers: The Movie — which was released thirty years ago today — was seismic. It features what was, for many, their first confrontation with death as a concept. For others, it provided an array of new characters to champion and toys to obtain. And for at least a few of us, it introduced Orson Welles into our consciousnesses.
In hindsight, the film is born of a fairly cynical prompt: clear the deck of the original Transformers characters to make way for the 1986 line of toys. But in turning that edict into something presentable, writer Ron Friedman, story editor Flint Dille and director Nelson Shin created a film which resonated with the property’s young fans. Well, once they got over the death of Optimus Prime.
And the deaths of Ironhide, Brawn, Prowl, Cliffjumper, Wheeljack, Starscream, Kickback, Thundercracker …
It was pretty courageous of the team to make a film so top-heavy with death and despair. Its opening moments establish the tone with a beautifully animated sequence in which a planet-sized Transformer, Welles’ Unicron, literally eats a smaller planet. The film pretty much keeps that going by shooting down character after character until one is reassembled by a group of robots who talk TV lingo.
But in clearing the deck of characters from the first two seasons of the television show, the film also introduced a number of characters who are as indelible as anyone in the initial lineup. Personally, I immediately empathized with Hot Rod, the sarcastic “kid” who ends up the new Autobot leader. But I also remember immediately enjoying the new core team; which featured new additions Ultra Magnus, Kup, Blur, Arcee and Springer. The fact I remember these names long after I sold the toys to a neighbor kid says something about the strength of their personalities. Combined with established Autobots like Perceptor, Grimlock and Blaster, the new group found a place in my heart almost immediately.
While it’s telling how much I identified with the Autobots at the time, the villains are certainly a key feature of the film. Megatron settles both of his long-standing feuds with Optimus Prime and Starscream; though the latter is really settled by his new Galvatron persona. Leonard Nimoy gave the reformatted character a colder edge, even while under the yolk of Unicron.
Though ailing, Welles is nonetheless powerful as the film’s true antagonist, a force of destruction beyond anything the Transformers had faced before. According to Shin, Welles’s voice performance was weak and wheezy. He put the recordings through a processor which gave the performance an added haunting quality. Though perhaps not his finest work, Unicron inspired a life-long fascination with Welles for me.
The film also introduced the Quintessons, an intriguing alien race even their brief appearance in the film. With a twisted sense of justice that made sense even to an eight-year-old and their Sharkticon goons, they presented a new and different kind of adversary for the Autobots. Sadly, they never emerged in toy form, so I and my friends fashioned some out of plastic Easter eggs and cardboard.
Dille once called the project a “Frankenstein of different drafts and ideas and people.” An early draft unearthed in 2010 revealed key elements like Unicron and the Autobot Matrix of Leadership did not coalesce until after production on some scenes had begun. But to watch it now, everything feels natural and deliberate as the film hurtles into a literal transformation from the show’s established status quo.
And perhaps that’s why this is the one Transformers project I’ve kept coming back to over the years. I’ve tried to watch the original cartoon and some of the subsequent series, but none of them evoke the same connection as Transformers: The Movie. The film features a real progression in the story, ending the Autobots fight to regain their homeworld and establishing a new generation of heroes. In its way, Transformers: The Movie is about the inevitably of change and how one survives it.
Which, as it turns out, involves kicking a robot Orson Welles in the ass while a Stan Bush song plays in the distance.
The film will be released in a new Blu-ray edition September 13th from Shout! Factory.