In an effort to transform our money into their money, Dreamworks has united executive producer Steven Spielberg, the king of family-friendly sci-fi blockbusters; director Michael Bay, the king of spending a lot of money blowing stuff up in terrible summer epics; and Hasbro’s toy box full of Transformers.
While it’s the first time the warring robot races from the planet Cybertron have appeared in live action, it’s not the first time they’ve appeared on the big screen.
In 1986, at the height of the first iteration of the Transformers’ apparently cyclical popularity, the creators of the then two-year-old cartoon series released The Transformers: The Movie:
It was an animated epic that bridged the second and third season of the show, and blew the minds of nine-year-old boys everywhere (mine included).
It introduced strange and foreign concepts to the Transformers world we knew from the toys and ‘toons and comics, including gender, age, swearing and, most shockingly, death. After spending a half hour every weekday afternoon watching the Autobots and Decepticons shoot at and miss each other with laser guns, it was hard to even comprehend the wholesale slaughter that occurred in the film. Just about every single Transformer from the TV show was killed off, some of them quite violently and graphically, including the leader of the good guys, Optimus Prime.
Let’s watch as Megatron mercilessly slaughters our boyhood heroes:
The Bay-directed movie is a reboot, having nothing at all to do with the previous film or the various offshoots from Transformers revivals since, save recasting Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime, and keeping some of the names of the Transformers and the surname of their human ally.
Is the Bay film an improvement over the original? In some ways, yeah, sure. In other ways? Well, not so much. Let’s see how well 1986’s animated The Transformers: The Movie stacks up against 2007’s live-action Transformers. As Prime himself would stay, “One shall stand, one shall fall.”
The Transformers: The Movie: Scatman Crothers, Casey Kasem, Erick Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Orson Welles
Transformers (the movie): Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Voight, John Turturro, Anthony Anderson, Bernie Mac
Winner: The Movie, by a mile. Sure, most of the players in the live-action movie acquitted themselves just fine, and I enjoyed LeBoeuf’s extended John Cusack impression, but come on–Orson fucking Welles. Checkmate.
The Movie: 84 minutes
(The Movie): Two hours and 24 minutes
Winner: Tie. On one hand, the live-action movie’s longer running time means you get more value for the price of admission (adjusting for inflation of course, since a movie ticket in ’86 cost, what, 35 cents?), but on the other time that’s a pretty punishing length.
The Movie: In the far-flung future of 2005, a sentient metal planet which sustains itself by devouring other planets named Unicron is headed for Cybertron, and only one force in the universe can stop him–The Matrix, which is essentially Optimus Prime’s heart (and the film’s maguffin). Also, the good and bad robots all kill each other off, to make room for a new cast on the next season of the TV show, and thus new toys to sell.
(The Movie): A giant cube known as the Allspark is on Earth, and good and bad robots arrive to recover it. The good ones align themselves with a teen boy who is desperately trying to get laid by the hottest girl in his school. Hilarity ensues, plus some visually unintelligible fighting scenes.
Winner: The Movie. Both are pretty generic stories to hang action scenes on, but there cartoon had a much more complex narrative.
The Movie: While there’s a great depth of disguised forms in the film–robots that turn into dinosaurs, insects, boomboxes, microscopes and even into train engines which also turn into space shuttles–most of them are pulled form the TV cartoon, which were in turn pulled from the toys. Of the ones original to the movie, they all pretty much suck, excepting the previously mentioned Unicron, and the Quintessons (whom don’t transform themselves).
The new vehicles are all futuristic, 2005 vehicles, like hover cars and space ships, and, in the most crazy-ass example, there’s a planet home to a race known as the Sharkacons which transform not into sharks, but what look like giant frog monsters with sharp teeth and dorsal fins.
Even at nine, there was no way in hell I wanted any of the new characters in the movie as toys to play with.
(The Movie): While the fact that they mostly turn into the vehicles owned by whichever company decided to pay for the product placement is extremely lame, in their robot designs, the Transformers all look pretty cool, particularly the Decepticons. They’re definitely very alien looking and extremely complex, and their transformations involve a ridiculous amount of moving parts. On the whole, they’re much more realistic looking than those of the cartoon, and not simply because they’re rendered in three-dimensional live action instead of two-dimensional, old school animation.
As cool as the movie ‘bots are, two stand out as being not quite up to snuff.
There’s Frenzy, the spiky comedy relief boombox, who looks like Number Five from Short Circuit, only made out of knives, and acts like he may have escaped from one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels.
And then there’s Scorponok, the giant metal scorpion, who, while awesome, never even actually transforms, which makes it seem a little out of place in a movie called “Transformers.”
Winner: The movie.
ROBOTS WITH SPEAKING PARTS
The Movie: 25
(The Movie): 13
Winner: The Movie. There are armies of robots in the cartoon. Four whole planets full of them, in fact. The live-action movie has about a dozen robots all together, and only the Autobots have much in the way of personality or conversations in the film. The Big Bads, Megatron and Starscream, barely even have any lines.
ROBOT DEATH TOLL
The Movie: 15 named robots die, and billions of unnamed ones on the planets Unicron devours
(The Movie): 9
Winner: The Movie. There was a crazy amount of gory robot death in the cartoon. Seeing the little cellphone monster get electrocuted in the live action film isn’t even in the same category as seeing Megatron leak fluid out of his face while Starscream kicks him in his wounds after a duel to the death with Optimus.
The Movie: A predatory planet devouring another planet, the five-faced Quintesson, a giant corkscrew-shaped spaceship that lands by drilling itself into the surface of the planet, Autobot City itself transformimg while battling robots scramble over its surface of moving parts
(The Movie): The robot designs themselves which gradually all sort of blend together (it’s really just Prime, Bumblebee, Frenzy, Scorponok and everyone else, isn’t it?), Starscream versus the air force, Megatron tearing an autobot apart on top of a building like a giant bird of prey.
Winner: Tie. The cartoon has more striking and imaginative images, but they don’t have the same wow factor of the live action robots (It’s worth noting that the cartoon is severely handicapped in this category, by being twenty years old).
The Movie: Remember, it was the summer of 1986, and good God did it sound like it. While the Transformers: The Movie boasts one of the very shittiest soundtracks ever assembled, it is definitely of the so awful it’s awesome variety.
It kicks off in grand fashion with Lion (a band, like all the bands in the movie, that sounds a little like it was composed of members of a bad Journey cover band and an even worse Metallica cover band), covering the cartoon’s theme song, complete with the robot voice that says “Robots in Disguise!” during the chorus doing back up vocals and, occasionally, harmonizing. Great stuff.
The bulk of the soundtrack consists of the band Kick Axe, which sounds just like a band named Kick Axe should, playing such classics as “Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” and “The Hunger.” Then you’ve got Stan Bush’s “The Touch” and “Dare,” and Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare To Be Stupid,” which plays over a chase scene and fight scene, perhaps the most incongruous song/scene combo in film history.
The rest of the film’s music is provided by Vince DiCola and Robert J. Walsh, and it’s all very poppy, synth music that is perfect for an ’80s cartoon about robots fighting.
The Movie: They avoid putting pop songs over the action scenes, for which I’m thankful, and there’s little by way of a soundtrack, not counting Bumblebee fiddling with his own radio knobs for comic effect. I was pretty shocked that there was no version of the theme song at all. I wasn’t expecting a Lion reunion or anything, but an industrial, musical version over the end credits at least, you know?
Winner: The Movie. I’ve got “The Touch” stuck in my head right now. All I can remember musically from the new movie is that Bumblebee played a few seconds of “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” when he shows off his new form (the paint job for which matches Uma Thurman’s colors in Kill Bill…which was a deliberate homage to Bruce Lee’s colors in Game of Death).
If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing “The Touch,” now’s your chance:
The Movie: Surprisingly little…that’s intentional, anyway. I’ve always found the way Megatron and Starcream fight hilarious, as well the weird vocal quirks many of the characters have, probably to better disguise the fact that there were only, like, four guys doing all their voices.
What humor is intentional in the movie is all character based, like, Grimlock is stupid and therefore says stupid things for comic effect, although there is a surprisingly literary joke, an allusion to Of Mice and Men (“Tell Grimlock about the Petro-Rabbits.”)
Blur, a hovercar with superspeed, talks really fast, which is supposed to be funny–and is mildly amusing when you realize the guy who does his voice is the Micro Machine Man, who appeared in commercials selling other toy cars.
And then there’s Wreck-Gar, a motorcyle man with a robot Fu Manchu moustache who lives on a junk planet populated with a bunch of robots that look exactly like him sans moustaches. He’s learned English from intercepted TV signals, so he constantly quotes television shows.
(The Movie): Much of the humor in the live-action movie revolves around the human characters, and while a lot of it is awfully irritating, some of it is on the charming side. The robots themselves aren’t very humorous. Bay recycles Wreck-Gar’s talking-in-catchphrases gag from the cartoon movie and assigns it to Bumblebee, and then there’s Frenzy, the film’s Jar Jar.
There’s also an awful lot of jokes seemed aimed at, or at perhaps written by, kindergartners, like when the dog pees on Ironhide, or when Bumblebees “lubricates” John Turturro with Transformer pee, or the fact that Turturro’s character wears funny underpants.
Winner: Tie. Isn’t it weird that a twenty-year-old PG cartoon would have a more sophisticated sense of humor, with fewer potty jokes, than a PG-13 live action film?
The Movie: Evil is bad, goodness is good. Also, you should buy some toys.
(The Movie): “Without sacrifice, there’s no victory,” is the most repeated phrase in the film, so maybe that’s the theme of the thing?
There’s an attempt to hit all key demographics in the human cast (black soldier and computer genius, Spanish soldier, Austrailian computer genius, heoric elderly Republican Secretary of State, Arab boy and his kindly father, cryptoethnic love interest, etc.).
Still, why’s the black Autobot the one who dies?
Also, Mountain Dew is refreshing. You should buy some and enjoy it; and you should some toys, too.
Winner: The Movie. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and the only black robot survives–he’s one of only a handful of the originals who does.
UNCOMFORTABLE SEXUAL CONTENT
The Movie: In the Sharkacon-jumping moment of the original Transformers franchise, the cartoon movie introduced Arcee, the first female Transformer, who, naturally, was pink, and had red lips, hips, breasts and Princess Leia like buns in her “hair” (All she was missing was eyelashes and a bow). Prior to Arcee’s introduction, there was no reason to even think about gender and the Transformers, since they were giant robots, not organic. But if they had genders like humans, that mean they must reproduce like humans, right? And Transformer reproduction isn’t anything I want to think about anymore at 30 then I did at nine.
It’s perhaps worth noting, however, that if the Autobots had the only female of their species on their side, couldn’t they have just patiently waited and outbred the Decepticons, rather than bothering to make war with them all the time?
(The Movie): That last scene, with LeBeouf and Fox making out on the hood of their car, which is actually their friend Bumblebee in his car form–did that not strike anyone else as a little creepy? Does that constitute a threesome? And why were the other Autobots all just looking on? And doesn’t that cast the earlier scene in which Bumblebee was encouraging the young couple to get it on in his front seat even weirder? I felt really dirty after that ending.
Winner: The movie. While it does make the Autobots, and Bumblebee in particular, seem a little pervy, it doesn’t bring up the subject of Transformer reproduction (they seem to reproduce asexually via the Allspark).
LASTING CULTURAL CONTRIBUTION
The Movie: The universal greeting, “Bah weep granah weep ninni bong,” an oft-quoted phrase in nerd circles the world over.
(The Movie): It’s too early to say, but I’m going to guess it will be Transformers II and Transformers III, and/or a giant pile of money for Michael Bay to swim around in. If it turns out to be the former, I better see some goddam Dinobots, Insecticons and Soundwave and his little posse next time around, dammit.
Winner: The Movie…For now