Last night, I re-watched the original 1986 animated movie, aptly-titled The Transformers: The Movie. You may have seen me live-tweeting about it, in which case I apologize.
This movie is the first one I ever saw in a theater, way back when I was a tender four years of age. I can’t say how I felt back then when all my favorite Transformers – including Optimus Prime and Wheeljack – were slaughtered in often-gruesome fashion to make way for the next wave of
toys characters. But beyond that underlying trauma was a terrible film. It was mercurial and nonsensical and childish. Beloved comrades died, and then there was fishing and hijinks. Civilization was threatened, and then there was dancing. Blurr and Wheelie, two of the most irritating Transformers in history were introduced, and the Dinobots began their steep slide from insubordinate brutes to dopey children. Optimus and Megatron’s final showdown was undermined by one of the most questionable soundtrack choices ever made, but I guess if the movie succeeded at anything (other than scarring young Transformers fans for life) it was as a showcase of 1980s hair metal bands.
I went out in search of other opinions on this movie that I had once loved along with the rest of G1 canon, and found that I was fairly alone in my loathing. In fact, the overriding sentiment was that this was what Michael Bay should have modeled his movies after. This is what Transformers was at its very best.
To that I say, if The Transformers: The Movie was the peak of Transformers storytelling, then the Michael Bay movies hold up spectacularly well.
Like the original, the Bay films fixate on battles and explosions and death far more than they do character. Human idiocy aside, none of the Transformers has much of a personality. We get a careful dose of Optimus Prime’s heroism and a mere whiff of Starscream’s treachery, but the robots are all pretty much interchangeable, things that shoot each other and blow stuff up real good. There are a few good emotionally-charged moments with the bots. Revenge of the Fallen’s four-way battle in the forest between Prime, Megatron, Starscream, and Helicopter-That-Isn’t-Blackout somehow manages to be not only a great battle, but a good character moment for Prime…just before he dies. Again. But overall, the Transformers are barely more than super-animate props to get ‘sploded, just like in 1986.
And the humor is just as awkward and off-putting. Granted, most of the “humor” in the Bay films comes from Sam Witwicky and his human friends’ ridiculous exploits, but Bay somehow manages to craft even more annoying (and possibly racist!) robots than Blurr and Wheelie. That, and the “humor” is haphazardly juxtaposed with the world-ending seriousness of the situation, making it even more bizarre. True, there are no robot dance scenes in the Bay films, but Bumblebee does “piss” on someone…and Devastator has gigantic balls.
Then there’s death. Bay’s films don’t come anywhere close to the body count in the original film, but by the end of his trilogy, Jazz, Ironhide, Megatron, Starscream, Shockwave, Jetfire, Soundwave, Devastator, Ravage, Arcee, Laserbeak, and Sentinel Prime are all dead, and a few “movie exclusive” bots have joined them. So few are left standing, especially on the Decepticon side, that it’s hard to figure out what exactly Bay will do in his fourth film. Hell, he even destroyed Cybertron after reusing the plot from the G1 episode “The Ultimate Doom”, so there’s nothing for Unicron to eat.
As an aside, if there’s one thing I do like a lot about the Bay films it’s that Optimus Prime is an absolute badass. He still spouts the occasional stilted lines about honor and freedom, but when ‘Cons need killin’, Prime gets to killin’. His final exchange with Megatron in Dark of the Moon may well eclipse “One shall stand…” in terms of sheer awesome.
Megatron: “Who would you be without me, Prime?!”
Prime: “Time to find out.”
Then he blasts Megatron to scrap.
But overall, spastic, ridiculous spectacle describes both the 1986 movie and Bay’s live-action trilogy. Both were short on character and long on violence, both featured obnoxiousness in place of wit, and both showcased meandering, disjointed plots riddled with holes. Hell, both even use Leonard Nimoy’s voice for a villain. So, honestly, if The Transformers: The Movie is your golden standard for the Transformers Universe, then Bay’s movies more than fit the bill.