I spent the better part of my pre-pubescent years collecting action figures and their respective war machines. After lining these miniature soldiers up in precise battalions, I’d orchestrate fantastical battles between the forces of G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K. (Mobile Air Strike Kommand), and He-Man. Malicious destruction of these toys was never my focus; it was the art of movement, sound, and slow motion that fascinated me to no end. Looking back, it seems like my 5-year-old self was trying to contemplate the power of the visceral image long before my rampant cinephilia blossomed in the early 1990s, an instinctual clue I never really recognized until now.
First developed by Japanese toy manufacturer Takara and made famous in the U.S. by Hasbro, the shape-shifting Transformers characters were common heroes in my vintage reenactments. Each character/machine had a distinct look and purpose, which allowed for endless scenarios during the heat of the battle. In fact, my love for Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and the rest of the multi-dimensional brood went beyond collecting just the figurines; there were definitely Transformers bed-sheets involved. So when Transformers: The Movie was released on August 8, 1986, it became my inaugural event film. The memories of this theatrical experience itself are brief—only striking flashes of color and light—but my hazy recollection made me even more curious about how Transformers: The Movie would play to my adult self made cynical by Michael Bay’s manic and brutish handling of the same material some 25 years later.
A cinematic bridge between the second and third seasons of the television show, Transformers: The Movie has next to no traditional plot or exposition; just scene upon scene of science-fiction mayhem juxtaposed with a hard rock-infused score. Gigantic blue and red orbs fill the frame during the kinetic opening sequence in outer space where the devastating robot Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles) devours a helpless peaceful planet in one fell swoop. After the introductory mass carnage, intergalactic credits segue to the more personalized battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, who are in the midst of a brutal war of attrition for control of Earth and the surrounding galaxy. Like everything in Transformers: The Movie, personal emotions on both sides will soon influence the fates of the collective, and vice-versa.
The intense battle for Autobot City dominates the first third of Transformers: The Movie in a densely layered war sequence that occasionally echoes the poetry of John Woo’s bullet ballets and the expansive mise-en-scene of James Cameron’s oeuvre. Led by the blindly furious Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker), the Decepticons descend like locusts on the surprised Autobots’ haven, creating devastating havoc in all corners of the frame. Robots on both sides glide through the air shooting their guns and missiles with a disturbing seamlessness. Structures fail to sustain the pressure of crashing vehicles, explosions rip bodies apart, and colorful lasers fill the air like luminescent tracer fire. Director Nelson Shin constructs multiple fronts for the action to take place, allowing each bitter foe a lengthy standoff that sometimes results in death. Unlike the more kid-friendly television show, the viewer feels each moment of violence, with smoke rings and singed metal replacing blood and guts. One main character after another is killed off, most of the time quite brutally.
Small comedic one-liners are inserted in between this massive battle scene, my favorite being “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die.” But make no mistake about it; Transformers: The Movie is all about violent momentum and the hierarchical process of power. Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Hot Rod all either die or evolve into new incarnations, making each struggle for supremacy a fluid and confounding game of mechanical snakes and ladders. This hyper-realized family tree creates a science fiction world folding onto itself many times, consuming all sense of logical character development in the process. The motiveless robotic carnivore Unicron, who morphs the crippled Megatron into the newly minted Galvatron in order to destroy the Autobots’ blue-orbed matrix of power, best represents this motif. If any one theme connects the contrasting modes of good and evil in Transformers: The Movie, it’s their mutual hunger for control that can’t be quenched.
Torrential rock/metal anthems provide constant backup to each visual crescendo. Whether it’s “The Touch” by Stan Bush or the “Transformers Theme” itself, the rousing music defines both the pacing and blocking of the kinetic action, and every individual scene becomes a uniquely constructed music video of violence. Exhausting on many levels, Transformers: The Movie slowly merges a myriad of diverse locations and shoot-outs into one long extended mosaic of movement, where diverging colors, sounds, and textures representing each Transformer blur together into one blistering green flash. By the time Unicron, Galvatron, and the now-transformed Hot Rod (aka Rodimus Prime) duke it out in a final game of space invaders, it’s hard to know which way your head should swivel. The same uncompromising cinematic blasters simultaneously assault the foreground, middle ground, and background.
Today, what stands out most about Transformers: The Movie are the strange narrative tangents that occasionally lighten the mood. Examples range from when the child Daniel clumsily learns to walk in his space suit to better help the Autobots in battle—a sublimely human moment in a sea of leaden action—or the grizzled veteran Ironhide reminiscing about previous war experiences right at the moment imminent danger approaches. Something about the small breaks from the suffocating aesthetic makes these moments all the more satisfying. As a kid, I undoubtedly didn’t care for such scenes since they lacked the necessary visceral attributes I was fascinated with back then. But now, sequences like these are the life force of a film more than able to suck the life from the frame, like a hungry aesthetic backdraft searching for one last narrative breath to consume.
In terms of nostalgia, the breakneck lunacy of Transformers: The Movie still reminds me of my imaginary skirmishes with the toys, incorporating all the sound and fury only a child of the 1980s could love. But this movie is also quite thin, lacking the very element it cherishes most: heart. There might be a palpable soul somewhere in the Transformers universe, but no one, especially Mr. Michael Bay, has been able find the proper energy source on screen. Perhaps only a kid constructing their own Transformers universes behind the locked doors of imagination could make these supertoys resonate beyond a fleeting summer flash.
Glenn Heath Jr. lives in San Diego, CA. He writes for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, GreenCine and In Review Online.