The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Directed by Nelson Shin
The original Transformers movie is a giant feather of nostalgia, sure to tickle anyone who grew up in the 80s watching cartoons and the toy commercials in between. Released in theaters—spun-off from the television series, bridging seasons two and three—the movie is set in 2005, a future that’s now awesomely old-fashioned: there’s a scene in which tiny cassette tapes are deployed to take out a boombox, but they’re defeated by different tiny cassette tapes. Mostly it displays a 20th century fetish for the automotive, for gears and metal, but it’s also as epic as Dune or Star Wars in its sci-fi mythology, set across multiple planets with all manner of mechanical threats, including “sharkticons.” There’s even a weird robot religion centered on access to “The Matrix,” a glowing crystal that is both heart and soul, and I think it contains robot heaven.
Many of the transformers here are sent to the robot afterlife. As kids’ movies go, this one’s on the dark side, unsparing in its frightening and often unheroic violence; its battles are not without their dead and wounded, collected afterward and either mourned or jettisoned into deep space, pleading for their lives. In the first scene, an entire planet is eaten, building by building, street by street, each sucked up into a great monster, all the residents we just saw blithely going about their day now murdered. The memorable villain’s sidekick Star Scream shoots off his foot when it’s stuck between metal doors, letting out a star scream; later, he’s disintegrated. Optimus Prime, the Aslan-like leader of the good guys, even dies in battle! (Twenty-five years after the first time I saw it, I can still remember every wound he suffers in his bot-to-bot fight with Megatron: the holes blown into his metal exterior, the light in his eyes powered down.) There’s intelligent marketing design at work: you’ll need to buy toys to mourn your favorite old characters, but also more toys to celebrate your favorite new ones.
To get kids hooked even deeper, the characters speak almost exclusively in iconic quotables. “Such heroic nonsense,” Megatron mutters, as the camera angle moves up to look at him and the barrel of his laser pistol from the point-of-view of the dying robot clutching at his leg, begging for mercy; you can almost still hear kids fanning out to repeat it in playground battles. (Other examples: “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die,” “One shall stand, one shall fall,” and so on to infinity.) It’s helped by the dramatic line readings from the talented character actors (the once defiantly blacklisted Lionel Stander, as Kup, stands out; his salty, Bronx-born drawl is the kind god doesn’t make anymore); plus, there’s the starry cast filling out new roles, including Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack and Orson Welles in his final film, his ailing basso profondo lending more terror to Unicron, the destroyer of worlds.
The goofy, galvanizing action sequences are set to pop-metal songs. (Bizarrely, “Dare to Be Stupid” by “Weird” Al, when he sounded like a disciple of Devo, is used for a dance party with the robots on a junkyard planet who speak in senseless clichés gleaned from TV, like the alien in Joe Dante’s The Explorers). And the animation is neither lazy nor cynical, sporting an anime-like aesthetic, visibly expensive but also artfully sophisticated, from its planet-eating space-monster design to its car-chase action sequences, possessing wit and style and horror—totally absent from the later, live-action Michael Bay films. It’s the difference between Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. This Transformers cartoon is among the best feature-length animation of the 80s, and by far the best toy commercial ever made—and this might be the only chance you’ll ever have to see it in 35mm. Henry Stewart (Jul 29, 9pm, at BAM’s, “Animation Block Party”)