Thursday, September 15, 2016

There is a place where dreams survive


THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE

It's my birthday, and I can indulge if I want to.

1986
Directed by Nelson Shin
Written by Ron Friedman and Flint Dille
With Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Judd Nelson (Hot Rod), Lionel Stander (Kup), Robert Stack (Ultra Magnus), Neil Ross (Springer), Susan Blu (Arcee), John Moschitta, Jr. (Blurr), Gregg Berger (Grimlock), Eric Idle (Wreck-Gar), Frank Welker (Megatron), Chris Latta (Starscream), Frank Welker (Soundwave), Leonard Nimoy (Galvatron), Frank Welker (Wheelie), and Orson Welles (Unicron)

Spoiler alert: high


In 1986, Hasbro extended the domain of their struggle one more time.  They took The Transformers, their half-hour block of toy advertising that had spent the previous two years pretending—sometimes successfully—to be an enjoyable cartoon, and they turned it into a wide-release motion picture.  I was four, and (as my parents tell it), the very first time I ever asked to go see any movie in the theaters, it was this one.  (And can anyone explain how a film seen by every American male my age also wound up a huge box office failure?  Is the answer really just "home video"?)

As it turned out, The Transformers: The Movie would hold onto me forever—long after the rest of the franchise had decisively crumbled away.  My Transformers toys disintegrated (or maybe I deliberately smashed them out of frustration, but I'd like to see you prove it, Mom); I stopped watching kids' cartoons religiously soon thereafter; and yet twice a damned year, you'd catch me spinning the wheels on my bootleg VHS of TFTM.  My technology's improved, to be sure, but I love it still—even if I couldn't begin to describe to you whatever the hell it is a "Beast War" could possibly be.

A misapprehension of the basic appeal of the property, I think?

There are almost too many superlatives you could throw TFTM's way.  The first, obviously, is "the best movie with Transformers in it"; though that's so trivially true it's not even interesting.  Another one is "the best American animated feature film made between Fantasia and The Little Mermaid"; but that's such a contentious assertion that we should probably just pretend I didn't actually make it.  (Though I did.)  A third is that it is the most perfectly 80s motion picture of them all.  Between its Reaganite consitution, its inclusion of a Chosen One narrative more foregone in its conclusions than the Gospels, and its transcendent soundtrack—splitting the difference between the most stupidly-awesome hair metal God ever wrote and a glorious synthesizer-and-cheese score plonked out by Vince DiCola—TFTM might well be the single most objective measure of what we actually mean when we say "the 1980s."

But the superlative that I think might be the most deserved is this one: TFTM is the purest expression of capitalism as art that anybody has ever made—or maybe even tried to make.  It is the only film, I think, that could ever be accurately described as "an unholy mash-up of Psycho, Star Wars, and Fantastic Planet," and that makes it sound like unchecked formalist ambition.  But TFTM's warped personality was forged not within the souls of the people who actually made the thing.  It was hammered out in the boardrooms of Hasbro's executives, for they were the ones who'd told those creative types what their film was going to entail.

We'll get back to that.  For now, let's talk about the plot, which not only takes the show's lo-fi sci-fi into a much wider universe—it also disconnects itself from the show's continuity as completely as it possibly could.  This is how TFTM opens twenty years after the last episode of Season 2, leaping from 1985 to 2005 with barely any hint as to what's happened in the interval.  A briefly-heard narrator fills us in on the most basic details.  We scramble to catch up on the rest.  So: in space, the long Cybertronian War appears to be reaching its decision; on Earth, there now stands "Autobot City," serving as the hub for the Autobots' Energon-gathering activities on our world—which allows one to infer that Earth has, by 2005, become the colonial dependency of a race of alien robot overlords.

And this is just one of the cool incidental details that get batted around throughout, none of them ever making too a big deal out itself, thereby earning TFTM its enduring bona fides as one of the most post-human of all cinematic space operas.  Earth is so incidental to the proceedings it barely even registers, and the very closest any bio-organism gets to having a narrative function is when Daniel Witwicky—a lad who appears, for all the world, to be the Autobots' pet—rescues the second-least important member of the supporting cast, who is a robot.

Anyway, although we might begin in 2005, we do at least begin with our old favorites, apparently just to make sure that we don't see Hasbro's knife, before they plunge it into our back.  Thus we find our hero, Optimus Prime, knee-deep in preparations to retake Cybertron, sending a mission to Earth for a last shipment of precious Energon; meanwhile, the Decepticons' warlord, Megatron, plans to hijack the Autobots' transport, sneak past their defenses, and strike a coup against Autobot City itself.  And while TFTM has already proven itself irrevocably nuts from its first frame onward, with a horrifying prologue that introduces us to the big villain of the piece (so to speak), this must be the part where the balls truly go right up against the wall, never to unstick.  Presently, at around the ten-minute mark, TFTM commences the on-camera slaughter of every Autobot its villains can find.

Infamously, TFTM's producers desired a PG rating rather than a G (kids hate things for kids, they say).  And so they inserted a couple of swear words in order to get it.  It must be one of the most blatant testaments to the MPAA's ineptitude that they ever needed to.  For as we witness this, we're compelled to reach for yet another superlative to describe the madness we're seeing: the most violent film, by far, to ever be pitched to an audience with a mean age of six.

It was so awesome.

But we must move forward.  On Earth, we meet a legion of new Autobot heroes—though surely they're only here to offer some extra texture for the continuing adventures of our primary cast, right?

At first, it even seems like this really is the case—for, as usual, it all comes down to yet one more duel between Optimus Prime and Megatron.  But, of course, that's when TFTM strikes its keenest blow of all—like Bambi, but radder—because this time Prime and Megatron actually manage to kill each other, something that everyone watching, including their parents, assumed was so totally impossible that it never even crossed their minds.  Both characters depart their mortal coils (and although one is rebuilt, reprogrammed, renamed, and rather-unnecessarily recast, it's actually the villain).  The new heroes are now left behind, to persevere against the Decepticons alone—and, soon enough, to face down the planet-devouring monster from beyond the small screen whom we already met informally in the prologue, this being the Lovecraftian robo-colossus called Unicron.

But presently, as Prime lay dying—as he chokes out his last words of hope and wisdom to his followers—he passes on the Matrix of Leadership, and the role of central hero, to his lieutenant, Ultra Magnus (another truck, voiced by Robert Stack at his squarest).  The Matrix, of course, makes a brief stopover in the hands of our now-obvious actual protagonist, Hot Rod (a bitchin' sports car, voiced by the Criminal himself).  And, as Megatron likewise succumbs to his own wounds (and, fittingly, to Starscream's disloyalty), he is dumped into the void between the stars. But that's where he finds Unicron, who recreates him as Galvatron and gives him his new mission: destroy the Matrix, the only thing that can stand in Unicron's way.

So... is it also worth pointing out that nobody had ever mentioned that Prime had a godkiller bomb sitting in his chest?

From here on in, you can predict the plot from first principles alone.  Galvatron hunts down the Autobots, who are then chased across an exotic science-fantasy universe that we learn teems with robotic life, until finally Cybertron itself comes under attack by Unicron, piqued by Galvatron's pathetic third-act attempt to betray him.  (Actually, from first principles, you might've easily guessed his target would be Earth; but, admirably, this film never wavers in its glorious "screw Earth" ethos.)  In the end, our great hero shall finally come into his own, retrieving the Matrix and using its techno-magic to save his world.

But as schematic as the hero's journey of TFTM might well be, it still stands in the long, long shadow of what is surely the most unexpected mid-film twist ever wrought.  Yes, including Psycho's—because, you know, when Hitch delivered his false protagonist's awful fate, he hadn't also promised to tell a story about characters we'd already grown to love before we ever sat down to watch his movie.  It's the kind of structural fuck-you that no children's film had ever before gambled to commit.  (Certainly, none would ever dare again.  It met such fierce resistance, in the form of weeping crybabies and annoyed parents, that Hasbro's other TV-to-feature-film, G.I. Joe: The Movie, was obliged to abandon its own, nearly-identical twist.)

And so there might not be one better example of the sheer cruelty and contempt that media capitalists displayed toward children in the 80s.  Their programming was already hilariously exploitative; and maybe that was even fair enough.  Yet when their company's profits relied entirely upon their customers' love and affection, it's honestly hard not to imagine the look of absolute, hooker-killing, business-card-fondling glee upon the faces of those Hasbro executives, when you picture the moment that they decided to outright exterminate a whole line of toys, less because they needed the living space for their new line, and more because they simply could.


The credited screenwriter, Ron Friedman, protested, because he had a heart.  He couldn't have understood that Hasbro's bloodthirsty avarice was precisely what would wind up making their movie so special.  Just from where do we get the idea that Optimus Prime was the most beloved cartoon character of the 1980s, anyway?  Is it the series itself?  Or Peter Cullen's effortless embodiment of benign authority?  That's what they call a rhetorical question, friend, but I'll happily answer it for you anyway: we get that idea from right here.  Children are the ficklest bastards.  Give them something, and a half-hour later they won't care.  But if you take it away?  Then you'll have taught them the meaning of loss.

Whatever form it took, Friedman's reluctance certainly isn't present in the final product.  It sure as hell doesn't show up in Nelson Shin's direction.  TFTM is a dark movie, if not an outright grim one, deeply committed to turning its corporate agenda into brutal entertainment.  There are jokes and quips, and even moments of totally goofy sunshine (every second spent with the Dinobots, obviously, though I'm thinking more of the slapstick scene on the planet Junk, driven by Eric Idle and his cargo cult of Junkions' uncanny ability to "talk TV," especially TV commercials, which therefore also serves as a just-clever-enough satire of the movie we already happen to be watching).  Yet there remains an apocalyptic mood that latches onto the film early, and never lets go—fitting enough, considering the stakes.  Is it time for another superlative?  TFTM could stand against any TV-to-film adaptation as the one that sets out to tell a tale that actually demanded a movie's bigger scope.

Hell, it probably needed more scope: 87 minutes is a crazily short span to fit in everything that needed to be fitted in, on top of a whole heroic arc for a hero whom we've never met.  Maybe this helps explain why Judd Nelson is so one-note callow.  Now, he's never outright bad—but it's an honest pity that he doesn't get the space his character needs, especially when his most frequent scene-partner, Lionel Stander, is turning in the most appealing performance in the whole film, as the old warhorse Kup.  (Kup might as well be described as the light-Brooklyn-stereotype Transformer, but I mean it as a compliment.)

I suppose it behooves one to mention that everyone else is at least on solid ground.  And, as for poor Orson Welles—well, Unicron gets a lot of mileage just out of his incredible design.  But even through the severe distortion, used to cover up Welles' sickly wheezing, you still get a terrifically strong performance from the ailing master.  Welles brings out the boredom and malignance of this evil god—his illness no doubt informed his performance, and, honestly, it is probably what gives Unicron's voice such an unforgettably ancient timbre—and so, whether you think it's a travesty or whether you don't, it still stands up as one of the most remarkable villain turns of the decade.  Likewise, his antagonistic interplays, first with Frank Welker, then Leonard Nimoy (as Megatron and Galvatron, respectively), are the stuff that the best space opera is made of.

Then there's the mind-melting look and feel of the thing.  It's probably not wise to refer to it a masterpiece of animation.  But while time and globalization have now made its textures commonplace, the truth is that the anime complexion of TFTM's ridiculously detailed backgrounds and complex, swirling kineticism were something really excitingly different back in its day.  Even in our day, it's still a tremendously engaging film to just gape at.  Extravagantly colorful in every frame, and designed from front to back like an album cover, its lurid visual imagination is the ideal match for the heady weirdness of its kids-sci-fi romp.  (Plus, the only bad giant transforming robot design in the whole movie comes after eighty-five minutes of fundamentally perfect giant transforming robot design, and only when Rodimus Prime arises—as an ugly-ass, tricked-out truck.)

With a stupid name.

Meanwhile, the technique is a quantum leap beyond the show, which (after all) was typically mediocre and often horrid.  But this film's $6 million budget shows up so fully onscreen that you become a little depressed, because you also become convinced it was made by Filipino slaves.  This isn't to say it never stumbles—it stumbles a lot, and the most persistent problem of all has got to be the inconsistent scale inherent to every last one of the "giant" characters, from Unicron on down to Devastator, and especially the TARDIS-like innards of Astrotrain (he would be a train who turns into a spaceship—obviously).  Ultimately, this isn't even really an actual problem—but only because it's so damned blatant that you almost have to assume it's intentional, and therefore charming.  It helps further if the awkward stiffness of the "acting" doesn't bother you; though, in fairness, this winds up being so heavily obscured behind the fact that all the characters are robots that it'd almost be unsporting to be too concerned about it, anyway.  But even when you forgive all of that, you still have that part where it's 100% clear that the character animators thought that Kup was lying prone in the sand at the bottom of the sea, whilst the background artists were busy painting a floor to go with the "everything is constructed, even the planets!" motif of the film's bodacious production design—and so what you actually get here is the old soldier's face half-phasing through what is, pretty clearly, a solid piece of metal.  Nevertheless, the real worst thing about the movie is probably how Shin's TV training shows up in the scene transitions: at least half the time, they're indistinguishable from the fade-outs to a commercial break.

But, as an adult, what impresses me most of all about Shin's general command over the visual aspects of TFTM (and I mean "visual aspects," because if you've ever heard the man speak, you won't be a lick surprised to discover that he had absolutely nothing to do with directing the performances) is how clearly this story gets told, without sacrificing the innumerable little grace notes that make it so pleasurable.  (My favorite?  Too many to name just one—but a moment that sticks out, just for its sheer batshit whimsy, is the battle royale between the tiny cassette-tape Transformers that apparently spend most of their time living inside Soundwave and Blaster's chest cavities.  And the punchline is when the other Autobots stand around and have a conversation, almost pointedly indifferent to the 1:10 scale version of their war, even as it rages around their feet.)

Shin had produced the TV show, and as much as TFTM is a step up in every possible way (Christ, the lighting alone), you can still feel the comfort he has with the characters and the scenario.  You don't need exposition when Shin's direction (and, sure, Chris Latta's vocals) make it so easy to understand, within seconds, just what Megatron and Starscream have meant to each other these past few million years.  There are even some surprisingly sophisticated things going on for a kid's cartoon, like the way the scenes of Prime and Megatron's deaths slam into one another, the first composed like staight-up Christian devotional art, the second a chaotic pell-mell of morons jockeying for position—demonstrating the contrast between the Autobots' noble way of life and the Decepticons' comically-dysfunctional Hobbesian counterpart, without anybody ever stopping the movie to disrespectfully explain it to us.  (Hey, we're four, not stupid.)

And, of course, there's that music, a brand of arena rock that had flashed into the zeitgeist just long enough to attach itself to this very film.  But what's so striking is how one informs the other—and how damned good Shin winds up at cutting his high-octane, high-emotion action against a collection of tunes that (if truth be told) don't conspicuously demand to be a part of anyone's action scene.  So, whether or not the final battle between the Transformers' avatars of good and evil really ought to be tied to a Stan Bush anthem (though, obviously, it very much ought), it's entirely impossible to imagine anybody doing it better.  There just aren't many movies where the soundtrack shapes the film in progress more than it does here.  It turns TFTM into an audiovisual experience that is kind of hard to explain, and even harder to praise, unless you were actually there—it's like the most culturally-specific evocation of the monomyth you could have.  Which, ironically, is maybe what makes it feel so timeless, if you were there.

For what we have, in the end, is one of the ultimate pop culture relics.  Now, here's where I admit that I don't think it can be easily enjoyed by someone who isn't already tuned to its peculiar frequency.  But as an artifact of an economic system—and, yes, as a condensation of everything goofily-great about a whole decade—there is nothing in the world, I think, that can surpass it.  Even if you hate it, you can't deny that it's one fascinating curio.

Score:  10/10

5 comments:

  1. Happy birthday, Hunter! I hope it's a good one!

    So... Would you say this is your favorite Orson Welles movie?

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    1. ...Let's say it's my favorite Judd Nelson movie, and pretend that was an answer your question.

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  2. This movie is absolutely fascinating. And of course, I was right in the middle of the target demographic for this movie, being slightly older than you. While Star Wars remains the great film experience of my youth, the emotional punch of the death of the main characters of Transformers (many of which I owned) and especially Optimus Prime cannot be understated. Imagine if whoever makes Pokemons killed Pikachu so that kids would want to Ultra Magnachu and Rodimus Pika. Sure, from the point of view of the movie as a toy commercial it's a smart move, but from the point of view of storytelling and intellectual property management, that's a ballsy move even by grown-up standards. And really, corporate understanding of the value of IP was still in its infancy at that point. Star Wars had shown them the way, but conservative business cultures like Hasbro had only begun to understand how to cash in. And even then the question remains: How much did the death of Optimus Prime serve to push him even higher above his various rivals at the time? Would he have become the icon that he did without his Nelson-esque apotheosis?

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    1. Yeah, the best analogue I could come up with was like if Star Trek: The Motion Picture had killed Kirk in the first thirty minutes, and Roddenberry expected us to just walk it off and enjoy Captain Decker and his distractingly visible penis on his merits. I mean, they'd have burned down the theaters.

      The Pokemon thing's probably better, though, because it was exactly that mercenary. It's the barbaric prehistory of brand management. "People bought Star Wars toys because it had a whiney kid and the old stalwart died, right?" It is 100% impossible to conceive of, say, Marvel pulling that play and killing, for example, Captain America thirty minutes into the Avengers 3. And if they did, it would only be because the actor was done.

      And yet it works out so well; well enough, even, that one doesn't question why, exactly, Optimus can't just be repaired. (Actually, I'm sure lots of people have tried to answer that question, but there's no way the solution isn't extremely tedious and fanwanky.)

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    2. Oh, and if I didn't already know full well it was Neil, the reference to Horatio Nelson would've been the giveaway. It's always good to hear from you, old friend.

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