For a certain generation, The Transformers: The Movie (1986) is a traumatic and horrible experience that defined childhood forever.
Consider the opening:
We are in space. An eerie, haunting theme plays as, from between two suns, a distant object approaches. It grows closer, and we see it is a large grey sphere, surrounded by spikes, and surmounted by yellow support struts. Two massive yellow claws protrude from its front, surrounding an “eye” of some sorts. It passes by the camera, giving us a close up look at its surface: technologically advanced, covered in crevices and sensors that we know not the purpose of. We see the view from inside, a planet in view from the “eye”, as various scientific/biological processes occur around. A thought occurs: we have never been inside a transformer, have we?
Zoom in on the planet: a metallic paradise. (Is it Cybertron? a young child’s mind asks, grasping for explanation as to how to connect this to Transformers.) A planet of robots, in any case. The music is still wrong, incorrect, despite the happy tunes playing on someone’s radio. Child robots run past on a promenade while older ones conduct experiments. We see the children run past in the back corridor as older, elderly scientist robots walk down a hall, conversing. These robots look like Transformers, but they aren’t. There’s something just wrong about them. The scientists enter a laboratory where an even older robot is conducting an experiment. They deliver some vials of multicolored chemicals (this is how we, as children, know they are scientists: they pour vials of chemicals together). Then, the vials begin to shake on the table. Is it an earthquake?
No. It is Unicron.
Equipment is smashed as its gravitational pull starts to destroy the planet. Just as we saw the planet from above, now we see Unicron from below, on a computer screen. The robots know what’s coming, and they are terrified. The “eye” begins to project a beam, we see the scientists react in horror, and then we truly see how large Unicron is. It is bigger than the entire planet. Its pincer claws dig into the sides, and it begins to eat. The robots run for their lives as roads are scraped up, buildings are smashed, and everything begins to ascend upwards in the unholy light. One robots yells that they need to get to their ships, but even this is futile, as the ships are quickly sucked back into Unicron’s devouring maw. Only one escapes. The other, however, we follow on its journey through Unicron’s digestive system, a comical munching noise in stark contrast to the horror we are witnessing on the screen. The planet and its inhabitants are turned into a grey slurry. Motors and servos whirr with electrical pulses. Nerves glow with life. Unicron glows bright with life.
There is no sign of the planet. There is only Unicron. We pan away.
Two minutes and forty seconds of pure horror. Then right into Lion’s upbeat 80s metal cover of The Transformer‘s theme.
What the hell just happened?
Right after this, we’re treated to a very long battle that consists mainly of killing nearly every named character from the series in gruesome and horrible ways, culminating in the tragic death of Optimus Prime, shot in the back by Megatron. For those who complain that there are no stakes in the fights between robots, no one ever dies, nothing ever changes… Well, here you go. You’ve gotten what you asked for. The lases blasts don’t miss this time.
There’s more to the movie, but, suffice to say, at this point it feels more like a film directed by Takashi Miike or a depressed Yoshiyuki Tomino. Whoever had the idea to make Transformers: The Movie into a Grand Guignol just might have forgotten that their target audience was between the ages of six to ten.
Watching Optimus Prime die was, for a certain generation, our first introduction to real death and religion. As melodramatic as it might seem to some eyes, it never fails to make me cry on a rewatch. It had my partner staring at the screen, mouth agape, unbelieving at the prospect of watching a robot die on an operating table, surrounded by his friends and companions, all of whom are reacting to his death in various ways (grief, guilt, anger, resignation…), slowly fading from bright primary colors to a dull gunmetal gray, and passing along the heart and soul of the Autobot movement to another primary colored robot who denies that he is capable of carrying on the legacy.
“What the fuck did I just watch?” she said.
“A movie for six to ten year olds,” I replied.
The truth of the matter, of course, is simply that there was a new toy line coming out, and they needed to clear out the old stock. Who could sell the ultra cool and hip new Rodimus Prime when you’ve still got Optimus clogging up the shelves? There was no thinking about the film’s legacy post 1986, or how it would look to kids watching it in ’89 or ’95 or even 2019, long after all of those toys had become collector’s items. It simply existed to bridge the gap between TV seasons, and the reaction to it from both fans and parents resulted in some quick additions to G.I. Joe: the Movie (1987) to make it clear that Duke isn’t dead, he’s simply in an off-screen coma, even though he was intended to die in the original script.
So, what does is it mean for a generation of young people to have their heroes killed off so that a company can introduce a new toyline, and, in the process, demonstrate that God is killable?
Because, make no mistake, there was no climactic storytelling arc happening here, no grand ending planned from the beginning. This was just sweeping the old toys off the table so they could sell you new ones. We got to watch Robot Dad die so that Capitalism could function. It’s little wonder so many of them paid attention, and are getting into socialism now.
And Unicron? Well, he’s the closest thing we see to God ever on Transformers. Gigantic on a scale we can hardly believe, powerful beyond conception, transforms into a robot devil…