MORE THAN MEETS THE EYEFor children who grew up watching The Transformers from '84-'86, Transformers: The Movie was the pinnacle of that cartoon and, in my case, of my 11 year old life up to that point; a gorgeously animated, ultra-violent, galaxy-spanning adventure about shapeshifting robots. The music and score are unforgettable. The dialogue is remarkably quotable. The violence remains unmatched for any mainstream cartoon aimed at children: the characters killed each other early and often. And most shocking death of all was the death of Optimus Prime.
To the best of my knowledge, Transformers: The Movie is the only movie actually set in the year 2005, which makes it the ideal choice to kick off Back of the Head's 2005.
"It is the year 2005. The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobots' home planet of Cybertron..."
The Plot: The evil Decepticon forces led by Megatron lay siege to Autobot City on Earth. Autobot Commander Optimus Prime mounts a heroic rescue mission and saves his fellow Autobots but Prime's final battle with his arch enemy Megatron ends in his tragic death. The Autobot Matrix of Leadership, passed on to Ultra Magnus, becomes the focal point of a conflict sparked by Unicron, a robot planet-eater, seeking to destroy Cybertron, the homeworld of the Transformers. Unicron recreates the dying Megatron as Galvatron and charges him to destroy the Autobot Matrix. With Galvatron's forces on their trail, the Autobots face their darkest hour and must race across the stars to save Cybertron before it is destroyed by Unicron. Along the way, they meet new allies and the Matrix is passed to their new leader, Rodimus Prime.
KILLING IN THE NAME OFJohn: The Transformers is the story of two bands of good and evil robots locked in a war that has raged for over four million years. Being weekday afternoon cartoon mainstays, the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons were violent but famously bloodless for sagas about armies trying to kill each other. Looking back, Transformers: The Movie was the transition point between the first set of Transformers toys that the cartoon was built around (quaintly referred to as Generation One today) and the next set of toys whose cartoon would follow the movie's release. The decision was made to literally kill off the popular old characters to make way for the new. Of course, at the time, we kids didn't know that. There was no warning for what we would see when we sat in the theatre to watch Transformers: The Movie:
Megatron: Die, Autobots!
John: Early in the movie, the Decepticons attack an Autobot shuttle headed for Earth. Megatron transforms into his gun mode and Starscream uses him to blow flaming holes straight through Prowl, Sunstreaker, Ratchet and fan favorite Ironhide. Even now, 19 years later - Holy shit, dude! Just like that, the Autobots were dead.
Megatron: This was almost too easy, Starscream.
John: No shit. It begs the question why the Decepticons didn't do that four million years ago. Before the shock of those cold-blooded murders could sink in, Ironhide, still marginally functional, makes a last, desperate attempt to stop Megatron and gets his head blown off point blank by Megatron's Fusion cannon.
Megatron: Such heroic nonsense.
YOU'VE GOT THE TOUCHOptimus Prime: Megatron must be stopped. No matter the cost.
John: With those words, Optimus Prime launched himself (literally) into a heroic action that blazed into my subconscious and remains there to this day. Prime singlehandedly barreling through the Decepticons, rocketing himself into the air, transforming in mid-air, and then shooting down every Decepticon in his way is amazingly bad ass. That action defined the Optimus Prime character for an entire generation and cemented him as an icon.
John: Optimus and Megatron then had their final confrontation. Even the dialogue is iconic:
Optimus Prime: One shall stand, one shall fall.
Megatron: Why throw away your life so recklessly?
Optimus Prime: That's a question you should ask yourself, Megatron.
Megatron: No! I'll crush you with my bare hands!
John: And he didn't. This fight was textbook WWE booking: the heel is totally outclassed by the babyface, the heel uses foreign objects and cheats to gain an advantage, there's outside interference, the face overcomes everything to win, but is never the same after the fight. By "never the same after" I mean "dies from" (the point where things differ greatly from the WWE.) Megatron takes advantage of Hot Rod's botched run-in attempt to grab a laser gun and uses it to mortally wound Optimus before being beaten to death by the patented Starfleet double sledge hammer.
John: A word about the music. Optimus Prime's theme song "The Touch" is one of the cheesiest and therefore greatest theme songs in all of cartoonland. Seriously, what fan of this movie doesn't hear this song and feel all a-tingle as visions of Optimus Prime fighting Megatron come rushing back? In 1997, "The Touch" showed up again in Boogie Nights. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to pull a fast one: Mark Wahlberg sings it in a scene set in the early 80's, which is a blatant anachronism as the song wasn't recorded until 1986 specifically for Transformers: The Movie.
ENTER THE MATRIXJohn: From the euphoria of Optimus Prime's heroism we immediately careen into the unfathomable sadness of his death. Robots and human children all cried together as Optimus passed away from his injuries, his metallic frame inexplicably and instantaneously turning to stone unlike every other Transformer who has died before or since.
Optimus Prime: Do not grieve. Soon, I shall be one with the Matrix.
John: The what now?
John: The biggest new concept introduced in Transformers: The Movie is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, something never before mentioned at any point in the cartoon but is suddenly the single most important device in the universe. Apparently, the Matrix is the nexus of all the accumulated wisdom of the Autobots and the source of all their power. The Autobot Leaders have this Matrix encased in their chests and their souls are stored in the Matrix when they die. The Matrix must then be passed onto the next chosen leader.
Optimus Prime: Ultra Magnus, it is to you, old friend, I pass the Matrix of Leadership as it was passed to me.
Ultra Magnus: But Prime, I'm just a soldier. I... I'm not worthy.
John: I'll say. Magnus, voiced by Robert Stack, proves that throughout the movie.
Ultra Magnus: What do you expect? I'm just a guy who solves Unsolved Mysteries. Actually, I don't even solve them, I just point out that they're unsolved.
SIZE DOES MATTERJohn: Of all the new characters introduced in Transformers: The Movie, the biggest, literally, is Unicron, the devourer of worlds.
Galactus: There's an original idea.
John: Unicron is a robot planet that eats other planets. Actually, it seems like Unicron only eats other robot planets since he is never shown attacking organic worlds like Earth. Which begs the question of how many robot planets are there in space? There have to be enough for Unicron to sustain himself. And if there aren't, what does Unicron plan to do when he eventually eats every robot planet? So many questions. Unicron also has a secret. Oh, here it is: Unicron, being a planet, transforms into a really big fucking robot. A fitting final role for the late, great Orson Welles. In a way, Unicron is a lot like a giant robot version of Charles Foster Kane, though don't ask me exactly how that is.
THE NEW MODELSJohn: The original Transformers, now mostly all dead, were redesigned into Earth-style vehicles and weapons when they crashed on Earth. In Transformers: The Movie, we meet all new characters, who are decidedly more futuristic-looking in keeping with the latest Cybertronian transformable robot designs. For the Autobots, there's Springer, the wisecracker, Kup, the cantankerous old Autobot with the wrinkles to show for it (robots get wrinkles when they age)...
John: Blurr talks and moves fast (but only in robot form - he doesn't drive extra fast as a car)...
John: Arcee, a hot female Autobot (who marked the first - but not the last - instance of me wanting to have sex with a robot)...
John: And most importantly, Hod Rod, the impetuous youth destined for greatness and voiced by Judd Nelson.
John: One big exception that bugs me is Ultra Magnus.
Ultra Magnus: What is it you have against me, son?
John: Nothing, really. But what I don't get is why Ultra Magnus transforms into a 1980's version of tractor car trailer when he wasn't with the original group of Autobots that crashed on Earth four million years ago who were redesigned.
Ultra Magnus: How do you know I wasn't?
John: I guess I don't.
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSSJohn: Following their defeat at Autobot City, Starscream egged the Decepticons to throw all their wounded bretheren out into space. All he was really after was an easy excuse to get rid of Megatron and finally become leader of the Decepticons, a job which he'd been scheming after for four million years.
George W. Bush: It's hard work.
John: After a brief power struggle that really pissed off Astrotrain, who they were all riding back to Cybertron in, Starscream got his way and tossed Megatron into the void.
Megatron: Wait! I still function.
Starscream: Wanna bet?
John: Much like Futurama's Bender, another evil robot who once drifted hopelessly along through space in the year 3002, Megatron encountered a god of sorts: Unicron, who summoned Megatron to him for a purpose.
Megatron: Nobody summons Megatron!
Unicron: Then it pleases me to be the first. This is my command: You are to destroy the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. It is the one thing, the only thing, that can stand in my way.
John: Megatron, who was in no position to make any demands, bitched and moaned at Unicron about every little thing. If I were Unicron, I probably would have just chewed him up and spit him out rather than deal with any more of his complaining, but Unicron is so afraid of the Matrix, he'd rather cut a deal with this asshole than do his own dirty work. You could already see that would be Unicron's fatal mistake right there. But instead, Unicron uses his crazy robot superpowers to give Megatron and his dying Decepticons life anew.
Unicron: Behold! Galvatron!
THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KINGJohn: The first thing Galvatron does is go to Cybertron and put the Decepticons' house in order. Starscream was in the middle of the coronation he'd waited millions of years to have for himself when Galavatron crashed it, transformed into a cannon, and blew Starscream to kingdom come. Stepping on Starscream's shiny new golden crown was just extra mean.
Galvatron: Coronation, Starscream? This is bad comedy.
Starscream: Megatron? Is that you?
Galvatron: Here's a hint.
John: I'm surprised Starscream recognized Galvatron at all. Along with looking completely different, Galvatron has the voice of Leonard Nimoy. But I guess when you've been kicked around and held down by your boss for millions of years, you'd recognize him regardless of what he looked like. Anyway, the fear of also being disintegrated guaranteed instant loyalty to Galvatron from the rest of the Decepticons. As my uncle once told me: What breeds loyalty? Fear. Fucking fear.
THIS I SWEARJohn: Unicron got hungry and destroyed the two moons of Cybertron, gobbling up several Autobots and Spike, their longtime human ally, who uttered something totally unexpected as his shuttle was pulled into Unicron's waiting orifice.
Spike: Oh, shiiiiiiit!!
John: In the scene selection screen of the Transformers: The Movie DVD, the scene with Spike saying 'shit' is actually titled 'Swear Word.' Quite an effective warning. Kids, you must heed the warning and skip over this scene. It will tarnish your fragile little minds.
FIVE BY FIVEJohn: At this point, Transformers: The Movie turns into a big chase movie where the Autobot forces head off into space to save Cybertron from this new menace trying to eat their planet. Galvatron and his shiny new Decepticons are hot on their tails and force the two Autobot shuttles to separate. Actually, this is where the movie starts to lose me a bit as the two sets of Autobot heroes meet annoying new friends.
Wheelie: Wheelie say find friends today.
John: Yeah, you. Hod Rod, Kup, and the Dinobots crash land on the planet Quintesson and meet Wheelie, a young, presumably male, Transformer. Yes, Transformer children. Not just Transformer children, but little orphan Transformer children. This is weirder than it already is. I'd like Wheelie a lot more if he were more like Tinny Tim. The heroes also run afoul of the mindless Sharkticons and their diabolical masters, the five-faced Quintessons.
John: We didn't know it at the time but it turned out the Quintessons were the original creators of the Transformers. Why did they create them? And who created the Quintessons? Youngsters, it's best to discover girls rather than seek the answers to those questions.
DARE TO BE STUPIDJohn: Meanwhile, Ultra Magnus, Springer, Arcee and Spike's young son Daniel crash land on the planet Junkion. Who lives there? Holy shit, more Transforming robots! The Junkions' leader is Wreck-Gar, voiced by Eric Idle. Wreck-Gar is quite a curiosity; a robot made of junk who transforms into a motorcycle, sports the facial hair of a 19th century Chinese opium lord, and who talks in outdated TV speak. Actually, now that I think about it, it makes sense; considering how long it takes a television signal to travel through space, I guess "And now the news. Don't touch that dial. Film at eleven" would be something retarded transforming robots who live on a junk planet would intercept. I still can't reconcile the facial hair.
John: The Autobots and the Junkions have little tussle set to Weird Al Yankovic's "Dare to be Stupid", one of the most endearingly inane songs ever recorded. When they were kids, Jeff and Lance used to listen to the song and try to do all the stupid things Weird Al describes, like squeezing all the Charmin they can and sticking their heads in the microwaves to get themselves a tan. You know, I bet they'd still do it if they hear the song. I should test that Pavlovian theory one of these days. Anyway, Galvatron attacks the Autobots and takes the Matrix from Ultra Magnus, who utters the first swear word ever heard from a Transformer while trying to use the Matrix on Galvatron.
Ultra Magnus: Open, damn it, open!
John: You kiss your robot mother with that mouth? Ultra Magnus finds himself literally blown to pieces by Galvatron, who takes the Matrix and, taking a cue from Flavor Flav, attaches a chain to it and wears it around his neck. In a way, I suppose Galvatron is a robot version of Flavor Flav.
John: Luckily, Hot Rod and his posse arrive on Junkion. The misunderstanding with the Junkions is smoothed over thanks to the "universal greeting."
Hot Rod: Bah weep graaaagnah wheep ni ni bong?
John: Apparently the producers of Transformers: The Movie decided to end The Jetsons' cornering of the market on gibberish ("Eep opp orp ah ah" means "I love you.") Take that, Elroy! After this meeting of the minds between the Autobots and the Junkions, they become fast friends. The Junkions repair Ultra Magnus and the entire band of merry robots spirit off to Cybertron for the big finish.
USURPER! USURPER!John: Galvatron, thinking having the Matrix hangin' round his neck makes him the mack daddy, mouths off to Unicron one too many times and pees his shiny metal pants when Unicron transforms into the aforementioned BIG FUCKING ROBOT.
John: How Unicron planned to eat Cybertron while he was standing on it is something I question. Unicron swallows Galvatron and then gobbles up the Autobots who had just arrived for the rescue. As the Autobots fight to survive in Unicron's bowels, Galvatron and Hot Rod go one on one, and the Matrix gets involved. Hot Rod, the chosen one, is transformed.
The Voice of Optimus Prime: Arise, Rodimus Prime.
John: Up to this point, I've refrained from discussing Hot Rod and his hated alter ego, Rodimus Prime. I never hated Rodimus. I liked him. I had his action figure. Now, Hot Rod was a cooler character, not just because he knew my nickname...
Hot Rod: Fish're jumpin' today, huh, Dano?
John: ...But because he was the young rebel who was on the cusp of becoming a great hero. His sudden transformation into Rodimus Prime, the successor to Optimus, and the new top dog of the Transformers was too much for most kids to swallow and they didn't like it one bit. After all, we'd just met Hot Rod in this very movie, and now he's supposed to take the place of our beloved Optimus Prime, the guy we just saw die saving the world? Most kids turned on Rodimus Prime the way the Madison Square Garden crowd turned on Brock Lesnar and Goldberg at WrestleMania XX. Eventually, they got their way as Optimus came back from the dead and Rodimus was demoted back to Hot Rod, but the damage was done.
'TIL ALL ARE ONE!John: Hang on, we're almost done. Rodimus Prime handlily defeats Galvatron in battle, tossing him out of Unicron the way Kevin Nash once used Rey Mysterio as a javelin on Monday Nitro. And then it was time for one last bit of crazy robot magic.
Rodimus Prime: Now light our darkest hour!
John: Unicron was already uncomfortable from all the robots fighting inside him. He probably felt a little like Mr. Slave does with Lemmewinks and Paris Hilton crammed up his sphincter.
Unicron: Jesus Christ!
John: Rodimus opens the Matrix and unleashes its awesome power. No wonder Unicron was scared shitless of that thing. It was the only laser light show in the galaxy that could blow up a giant planet-sized robot real good. And then it's over. The Autobots have won their greatest victory. The Decepticons have been defeated at last. Unicron is no more; even though Cybertron's moons are gone, Unicron's head orbits the planet, presumably correcting any meteorological issues Cybertron encountered from the loss of its moons. Everything worked out just great.
Rodimus Prime: Let this mark the end of the Cybertronian wars as we march forward to a new age of peace and happiness. 'Til all are one!
John: 'Til all are one what? Transformable robots? I'd love to be one. Whatever. One thing I do know: Transformers: The Movie is an awesome movie of the 1980's.