homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Robots in disguise

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

Some faves are problematic; others are merely embarrassing. 1986’s Transformers: The Movie may be both, but leans towards the latter.

You have to fit into a very narrow generational window to love this movie. It was really for late Gen X/early millennial cuspers, with a little bit of a hangover into millennials proper because of home video. But for the most part, if you’re a little bit older or younger, you’re either completely baffled by this cartoon or mildly surprised that it isn’t total crap.

I saw this film in the theater with my two brothers, one older and one younger. My mom and older sister saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off down the hall. None of us had any idea what we were in for. I would contend that of the two films, Transformers should have PG-13. Mild scatological humor is no match for beloved toys cursing and slaughtering each other.

As kids who loved the TV cartoon, we were literally invested in these characters. To the extent that a child can have net worth, a huge percentage of it was tied up in these toys, and the characters they represented. Here they are getting killed off right and left — ominous smoke pouring forth from their mouths, my god — and all Megatron can say is “that was almost too easy.”

The best analogy I can think of is this: suppose you’ve read the first three or four Harry Potter books. Those are all that’s available. You hear that there’s going to be a Harry Potter movie. But instead of a film version of the books you love, the movie busts right into the story from books 5, 6, and 7. You jump forward in time to a creeping totalitarian state, beloved characters are getting killed off right and left by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and BAM! A half hour into the movie, Dumbledore is disarmed and blasted out of the tower.

You’re six years old, and you watch your Dumbledore die with Reese’s Pieces in your hand. Only instead of a wizard you read about in a book, he’s a robot that turns into a truck, and you have to go over your friend Davey’s house to play with him because he’s too expensive.

Then instead of a big funeral, you blast into outer space for another hour of heavy-metal soundtrack movie. More deaths. More metamorphoses. Planet-devouring robots. Cars who say “shit” and “god damn it.” “Dare To Be Stupid.”

On top of that, unlike Dumbledore’s underwhelming death in the film version of The Half-Blood Prince, the scene where Optimus Prime is killed is totally amazing.

I mean, that is almost Luke vs. Vader and the Emperor in Jedi good.

The problem with Transformers: The Movie (besides all of the problems with the movie and all the movies and TV shows that came after it) is really the toys. The whole show is designed to sell the toys. All the character deaths, the new generation introduced in the movie, and the magnificent decision to send the Autobots and Decepticons into exile in uncharted space, are all decisions made to create a market for more goddamned toys.

The toys, our physical proximity to them, the ability to shape and change them, and the ways we use them to play out narratives, are the mechanism for our affection. But they’re also intentionally disposable. It’s as far from respectable art in the traditional sense as it gets.

MovieBob’s Bob Chipman has a terrific video about this problem, specifically as it relates to Transformers: The Movie.

TL:DR — the decision to kill off most of the established characters actually forces the movie to make some compelling artistic choices. It’s a war movie where the generals and top lieutenants are killed off immediately, forcing a raw younger generation to make their own choices and mistakes. This in turn resonates with aging kids who’ve parents die and split up, who have either already faced or will soon face their own traumas.

The movie’s message — terrible things will happen, not everyone will make it intact, but you can find a way to go on — becomes a resource kids draw on as they grow up. Again, very similar to Harry Potter: just for us folks who were a little too old to catch the book before our childhoods ended.

Robin Sloan is a novelist, blogger, and media inventor. He’s also like three weeks younger than I am and grew up about three miles away. Unsurprisingly, he and I had very similar reactions to Transformers: The Movie.

I mean maybe it’s cliched to say this, or impossible with any credibility, but I’m pretty sure that movie was the most emotional experience of my life inside a movie theater? I can’t remember the whole experience with total clarity, but I do remember which friend I saw it with; I also remember my initial confusion — it didn’t announce its time-shift, so any young fan of the TV cartoon was initially like, “Wait… what?” — and, of course, THE DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME. What do you even say? Biblical, Shakespearean, and totally sci-fi, all at once. Megaton-scale. I wonder if the people who made the movie even understood what they were doing, what impact it would have.

Looking at it as an adult today. I think the movie is astonishing. Even for all its flaws, all the rough edges in its animation, sound, script, it just does *so much more than it had to*, particularly for a movie of that kind, of that time. The scale of it… I mean have there even BEEN any other movies with planet-sized robots? Has anyone else even DARED?

Maybe that’s what makes a movie — or any piece of media? — seem special: the sense that it isn’t merely “made to spec” but rather the special product of a confluence of people who cared, for one reason or another — and with a big dollop of weird luck thrown in, always — who made something sui generis. If Transformers: The Movie belongs in any category, it’s that one: Fully Its Own Thing.

Finally: the voice acting, including Orson freaking Welles, is outstanding.