It is the year 2005. The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot's home planet Cybertron. Now from secret staging grounds on two of Cybertron's moons the Autobots plan to take back their homeworld. And as the best-laid plans of mice and androids will do, their plans went quite agley in the 1986 extended movie product Transformers: The Movie. At the risk of sending lexomatic wild I offer some thoughts of mine on recently seeing the movie for the first time since whatever the last Genericon I attended was.
The movie is particularly notable for being one my father referred to as ``an example of Japanimation,'' when we went to see it in the theater in 1986, and I have to wonder how my Dad ever heard of such a thing in 1986. Now and then he gives hints of being cooler than he actually is.
It's also remarkable just how much of this is a reboot of the Transformers, changing the characters, the setting, the specific interactions among the factions. These days there have been so many blasted Transformers reboots nobody has any idea what anything is, except they know Optimus is cool. Back then it was a lot more novel. Particularly, previously, new characters had just been slipped in, while painfully unsuccessful characters (like that Decepticon trio who turned into a camera -- but an evil camera) were just quitely dropped. But this was a bit disturbing; quite a few of the Autobots and Decepticon regulars get killed here -- not just Optimus, but a bunch on both sides. That's mighty dangerous, since you're supposing the new characters will be as well-liked as the old, but you have to credit them for deciding plunging ahead full and taking their chances. (Look at how much the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was swinging between clutching tightly to the original -- see ``The Naked Now'' -- or trying to run away from it -- see ``The Neutral Zone''.)
And that comes to the biggest characterization problem: the movie becomes the Coming of Age of Hot Rod, but since he's a new character -- alongside a slew of other new characters -- it's not so obvious why he has the seeds of greatness in him. He's not helped by how two other new characters, Kup and Ultra Magnus, easily outshine him and inspire much greater confidence. But when I first saw the movie I was irritated that suddenly this ``Matrix of Leadership'' thing we never heard of before on the show (it was in the comic book, sure, but heck, some human got that, and he used it to teach his blender to feel love) was the determinant of leadership, rather than my preference of the informed opinion of the population. Ultra Magnus seems like a good choice for new leader, but Hot Rod is also undercut by how it looks like he got the Matrix of Leadership because nobody else was around. Yeah, he has two (count them) moments of foreshadowing, but why is he particularly best suited to leadership? I bet the fanbase would've gone wild if Bumblebee had gotten the Matrix.
There's also the peculiar addition of new characters who apparently were there to be irritating. Blurr was based on that short-lived mid-80s idea that it could be really entertaining to hear someone talk very quickly, and it could be, if that person was selling Micro Machines at the time. In other contexts it just came across as very quickly -- or, in the case of Blurr, talking a bit more rapidly but more redundantly than everyone else. Curious choice. And then there's the Scrappy Doo of Autobots, Wheelie, who talks in a rhyming sing-song voice sufficiently high-pitched you can't hear what he, or maybe she, says, and that's fine with me.
In context the most fun musical cue, Weird Al Yankovic's ``Dare to be Stupid,'' is an odd one, since the only sensible reading of it is that the Autobots, stranded on the planet of Junk, are being stupid. The Junkions may talk in TV blurbs, but they don't act stupid. And I suppose the Autobots are being stupid, going off and getting into a fight with people who'd be inclined to help them, but what with Optimus Prime dying and Ultra Magnus getting drawn and quartered they are apparently way off their game. At least here Hot Rod shows a bit of wisdom.
The movie starts with a robot planet getting devoured, a neat way of tricking the viewer into thinking Cybertron's being destroyed, although the war-torn world of Cybertron seems like an odd one to have a Vast Robot Shopping Mall. But with this and with planets like Junk and Quintessa we see the Transformers universe being turned into one where mechanical life is the default and biological life forms the odd anomaly, and I kind of like that, even if it's a bit odd that everything should be a transforming something. The mostly-mechanical universe is also one that, so far as I know, is unique to the Transformers, though any sufficiently large science fiction universe has at least one robot planet.
It's still quite shocking the death toal of Autobots and Decepticons since all the banging and bashing to date had done nothing more than inconvenience them. It's remarkable that Optimus Prime's death carries such punch when it's overloaded with feelings of ``oh, they don't really mean it, right? They can't die!'' distracting one from it.
The Sweeps: I'm not sure what they were going for with this. Part of the oddball appeal of the Transformers was how you had these eighteen billion toys, even if they varied only in color highlights. Now suddenly there's an army of indistinguishable drones. Great for the animators, but it puts in a dehumanizing element when we've had Megatron replaced with Galvatron, and have completely lost the amusing and always-spastic Starscream. Starscream may have been irritating, but he was so in an amusing way, and he brought a natural logical tension and source of exposition for Megatron's plans; the show didn't quite get its balance back without him.
Ultimately I think the real lesson of the movie is make certain the procedure for securing defensive formations on Autobot City are designed for one or two robots to be able to activate in an efficient set of operations. But they didn't learn that lesson, and in the next season of cartoons they'd be hamstrung for nearly four episodes waiting for a transformation cog foolishly left on Cybertron instead of back on Earth where Autobot City was.
Also, the Autobots seem mighty confident that they've beaten the Decepticons, even though every time they've beaten the Decepticons Once and For All for the last four million years they've been wrong. You'd think they'd pick up the hint sooner or later.
Harry Mudd was Cyclonus?!
One last notable thing is I had my first young breaking of faith with Starlog when they explained to a reader's query that the reason they didn't cover Transformers: The Movie at all was that they'd earlier covered the Go-Bots movie, and gotten no response. I mean, yeah, ordinary people can't tell the difference between Leader-One and Cosmos, but a fanboy-market publication ought to notice that everyone who was a boy in 1985 had several Transformer toys that they played with while making all sorts of ``tch-tch-tch-tch-tch'' noises until the toy broke or Mom said to knock off that irritating noise, while the only Go-Bots anyone had were given as birthday presents by grandparents who didn't understand why these vastly cheaper toys weren't just as good, and which were played with only under duress, or as targets.
Trivia: Had a mean solar second based on the length of the year 1958 (rather than 1900) been chosen, then between 1972 and 1999 only eight leap seconds would have been needed, rather than the 22 actually taken. Source: Splitting the Second: The Story of Atomic Time, Tony Jones.
Currently Reading: The First American Army, Bruce Chadwick.