Real stakes are a rare thing in 1980s cartoons. The soldiers of G.I. Joe were the finest in the world, yet their bullets never hit anything. Lion-O could best Mumm-Ra and He-Man could thwart Skeletor a hundred times but nothing changed. The original Transformers cartoon, meant as little more than a vehicle to sell toys that transformed from robots to cars, was no different. Optimus Prime and the Autobots routinely dispatched the weekly threat posed by Megatron and his Decepticons with zero casualties and an only increasing roster of Transformers, deepening the pool of invincible robots who, much like the G.I. Joes, had horrific aim.
So how much of a surprise is it to watch the opening scene of the 1986 classic The Transformers: The Movie and see an entire planet filled with robots going about their lives as peacefully as we do on Earth devoured in moments by the planet sized Unicron (amusingly enough voiced by the great Orson Welles in one of his last roles)? It provides an immediate and drastic shift in tone that is carried throughout the film.
The first thirty minutes of the film are as bloody as you’ll ever see. Operating out of a base on one of the moons of the Decepticon-controlled Cybertron, Optimus Prime orders Ironhide to lead a mission to Autobot City on Earth. However, the shuttle is ambushed by Megatron and Ironhide and the three other Autobots on board (all prominently featured on the animated series) are slaughtered, smoke leaking out of their mouths and fire burning in their eyes as they tumble lifelessly to the ground.
Megatron uses the shuttle as a Trojan horse to launch an all-out assault on Autobot City. Newly debuting Transformer Hot Rod helps rally the city’s defenses as Transformers fall left and right to gunshots that have inexplicably started to land. All cartoons operate under a certain set of rules, and The Transformers: The Movie took the rulebook from the original animated series and set it on fire.
The colossal battle for Autobot City, filled with fantastic action and superb humor, is merely a set up for the inevitable duel between Optimus Prime and Megatron. These two warriors have fought each other dozens of times and never has there been a true, lasting winner. But this time is different. The rules have changed. Rifle shots now land and they are deadly. Punches crush what used to be indestructible armor. “One shall stand, one shall fall,” Optimus says to Megatron and there is no doubt that this is true. This will be their last battle.
The fight is brutal and personal. Optimus has Megatron beaten when he hesitates. Optimus fixes a gun on him, expecting him to surrender, but Megatron is merely buying time to get his hands on a gun. Hot Rod tries to stop Megatron but inadvertently provides Megatron the cover to unload several shots into Optimus Prime’s chest.
Each man is ultimately undone by the aspect of his personality that defines him. Optimus died because he showed mercy to someone who was never going to change. Megatron is the Joker to Optimus Prime’s Batman. The Joker will never change. Megatron, however, is undone by his hubris. At the moment where he has won, he says, “I would have waited an eternity for this,” pausing to revel in his victory and to see the pain in his foe’s eyes, which gives Optimus enough strength to unleash one final, incapacitating blow. The Decepticons gather their fallen leader and retreat as the battle ends.
Moments before dying from his wounds, Optimus passes the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus, despite some obvious foreshadowing that Hot Rod was actually the correct choice. A grievously injured Megatron is tossed out of the shuttle with several other wounded Decepticons on the way back to Cybertron by his power hungry second-in-command, Starscream. He is then picked up by Unicron and reborn as Galvatron.
The rest of the movie is far more of a traditional story. Ultra Magnus leads the Autobots to another failure and proves that he is not the chosen one as he is destroyed by Galvatron’s henchmen. Then, invariably, Hot Rod leads a dramatic assault on Unicron, culminating in a dramatic showdown with Galvatron where he proves that he is worthy of carrying the Matrix of Leadership by besting Galvatron and destroying Unicron. Hot Rod becomes Rodimus Prime and the Autobots celebrate their victory. It’s a simple story, but it is a fun ride if you allow yourself to take it.
The last sixty minutes of the movie are great, but it cannot hope to match the spectacle of the first thirty, which often resemble a Game of Thrones episode more than a children’s cartoon. And that doesn’t hurt it, though the film is best appreciated in context.
This was meant not only as a standalone movie, but as a bridge from one generation of Transformers to the next and, in that regard, it was remarkably successful. The filmmakers took what could have been a shallow story meant to mix up the status quo in order to sell toys based on all these new characters, and they elevated it to a triumph of a film that never once makes you consider just how cheap of a move this could have been. They wrote off their lead protagonist by providing him a fitting death, letting him sacrifice himself to save his comrades. They added a new protagonist through a compelling and believable journey. Hasbro had a long list of goals to accomplish in this one movie and the results were an unqualified success.
With animation that appears a little dated now but was good for the time and a solid story that ends one era and starts another one, all set to a classic soundtrack that could not be any more emblematic of the 1980s, The Transformers: The Movie creates a dynamic and engaging story that makes it, to this day, my favorite movie of all time.