There are a lot of reasons why Transformers: The Movie was revolutionary, when it was released in 1986.
Its level of animation was spectacular for anything but a Disney film. Akira hadn’t yet been released, and there was simply nothing like Transformers: The Movie out there. Optimus Prime transformed and flipped through the air, the camera rotating around him, while he fired on Decepticon after Decepticon.
The movie was just as different audibly. It had brilliant synthesizer-heavy instrumentals, composed by Vince DiCola, as well as a rock soundtrack that ran the gamut from “Weird Al” Yankovic, through the fast-paced but upbeat Stan Bush, to several more hard-rock bands. The combination of such music and high-quality animation blew a lot of young minds.
Transformers: The Movie was also shockingly violent; the TV show avoided death, but characters were mowed down in the movie in huge numbers, and they fell with anguished expressions and smoking wounds.
The movie also radically altered the Transformers story. Transformers had always been a science-fiction story, but it had been set in the present and predominantly on Earth. Now, the narrative jumped forward almost 20 years to 2005, and featured more outer-space settings. Features like Cybertron’s moons suddenly became important, and the story ended with the Autobots having reclaimed Cybertron. A brand new faction, the Quintessons, was introduced. And of course, the leaders of both factions were killed off and replaced — traumatizing an awful lot of boys.
The story also took on generational aspects. The story’s main human character, a young man, was suddenly the father of a boy. Kup and Hot Rod represented an older and younger generation of Transformers, neither of which had previously been seen. Then there was the changing of the guard, as both factions changed leaders.
All of this blew my eight-year-old mind. And in many ways, still does.
But for me, probably the most radical aspect of the movie was that the Transformers had their own religion.
It would be easy — and not inaccurate — to say that the original conceit of the Transformers was simply the idea of robots that could change into other things, like cars, planes, and guns. But that was the conceit behind the cobbled-together toy line, not the story of the Transformers. By the time the Transformers got to the public as a story, on TV and in Marvel Comics, it by necessity had a very different conceit: the Transformers were aliens, divided into two warring factions, whose war had (by chance) come to Earth.
It was a basic conceit. At their worst, early Transformers stories simply used this as a backstory to justify robots fighting each other, with Cybertron mostly relevant as a convenient place from which to introduce new characters.
But in the best Transformers stories, and the best parts of Transformers stories, there were suggestions that these aliens were, in fact, well and truly alien.
After all, we’re talking about mechanical life. Something very alien from us. Yes, it’s cool that they transform — although I wanted to know how this developed. But it seemed obvious to me that the even more important difference was that these aliens were made of metal — presumably a precondition for transforming.
Usually, artists of both the cartoon and the comic would depict the Transformers on Cybertron — those who had never, or hadn’t yet, copied human mechanical forms — rather unimaginatively, with only slight variations on Earth-bound designs. But on the cartoon show, there were the Decepticon jets, depicted in their Cybertronian forms more like stylized versions of flying four-sided dice. It was a small touch, to be sure, but it suggested at least that vehicles on Cybertron wouldn’t look like those on Earth. Then there was the design of Cybertron, with huge holes running through the planet and elevated platforms instead of roads. As the cartoon progressed, we also got glimpses of Cybertron’s past, including Optimus Prime’s precedessors as Autobot leader.
The comics were slightly more ambitious. Few comics have influenced me more than Transformers #1 (Sept 1984). Partly due to penciler Frank Springer following the toy designs a bit slavishly so early in the series, the characters looked clunky and less humanoid. Some even seemed to lack heads. In fact, we see versions of Ratchet and Ironhide that — like their toys — literally lacked heads and chests, resembling more what robots might actually look like. I’ve always loved these — and the U.K.’s — very earliest comics for this reason, among others. Yes, the robots might look clunky, but at least they don’t look like they were engineered to look humanoid without looking like humanesque androids.
Rereading Transformers #1 as a child, I inevitably found myself thinking about the Transformers’ origins. Given that Cybertron seemed so dominated by metals, I concluded that silicon-based life had evolved there naturally. There was a whole Transformers evolutionary history in my mind, leading towards specialization that in time created the Autobot / Decepticon division. Later, after the 1986 movie, both the comic and the cartoon would (to my disappointment) establish different origins for the Transformers (the Quintessons and Primus, respectively), avoiding my (more interesting, I think) evolutionary explanation. But that far more alien, evolutionary explanation had come from hints in the comic themselves, which suggested a truly alien planet with its own culture and history.
Another charming aspect of these stories was that the Transformers initially tried to speak to cars, unaware that they weren’t alive. But there was a scene in Transformers #1 that suggested that the Ark — the Autobots’ crashed spaceship — perceived vehicles as the planet’s dominant lifeform. Even my child mind realized that, viewed from an alien perspective, it could easily look like humans serviced their cars, around which society was organized, rather than the other way around. Again, my brain might have gone to a more alien possibility, but it was a potential hinted at in the stories themselves.
As the comics progressed, we learned that Optimus Prime possessed something called the Matrix, which originally allowed for the creation of new Transformers life, while residing in his program rather than in his chest cavity. This didn’t really make sense. Why couldn’t Optimus Prime’s code be copied, duplicating the Matrix? How did the Decepticons — who sometimes seemed to outnumbered the Autobots — generate new beings? And how did Transformers who were “really” alive differ from very complex robots? Wasn’t this — and the irreproducable nature of Transformers’ programming — a bit of mysticism suggesting a soul? This stuff irritated me, even as a child. But at least in the comics, the Matrix began to explain how the Transformers reproduced — even if it raised more questions than answers.
Transformers: The Movie borrowed the idea of the Matrix from the comics, but transformed it into a device stored in Optimus Prime’s chest. Apparently, all Autobots — or only all potential Autobot leaders — were built with a similar chest cavity, allowing them to incorporate the Matrix if need be. It was treated as a one-of-a-kind religious object, and it was the subject of a prophecy that it someday “the Chosen One” would arise and use the Matrix to “light [the Autobots'] darkest hour.” By the end of the movie, we see this apparently ages-old prophecy fulfilled, when Hot Rod becomes Rodimus Prime and opens the Matrix, destroying Unicron.
Sure, this was a retcon. Everyone — Autobots and Decepticons — knew all about the Matrix, yet it had never been mentioned before in the cartoon.
Still, even a child like I was would recognize that the Matrix prophecy was a messiah story. The Transformers had a religion.
This fascinated me. It may have only been in the movie to service the movie’s plot — it was certainly convenient that the Matrix could so quickly destroy the otherwise unbeatable Unicron. But my mind loved the idea that the alien Transformers would have an alien religion.
Star Wars got an absurd amount of praise for depicting a sci-fi religion, even if it wasn’t much more complicated than that of Transformers: The Movie. But most depictions of aliens didn’t have much in the way of religion. Years later, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica got a lot of mileage out of the religious differences between the humans and the artificial Cylons.
Even at eight, I felt like the introduction of religion into the Transformers story was a step in the right direction — a move towards finally exploring the obvious alien implications that had been a part of the Transformers all along.
While we’re on the topic of how Transformers: The Movie seemed a step in the right direction, it also appeared to authenticate my evolutionary theory of the mechanical Transformers’ origins. The brilliant opening of Transformers: The Movie featured an entirely different planet dominated by mechanical life, without any suggestion of a shared origin with the Transformers. Unicron, the planet-devouring villain of the movie, further suggested this. The implication, for me, was that silicon-based life evolves often enough in the galaxy — and may even be more common than carbon-based life. This was something I wanted the series to continue to explore!
Sadly, the Transformers franchise never really followed through on all these implications, which I rather foolishly assumed were matters that must have been discussed by the writing staff all along — rather than conveniences of a specific plot, later embellished or ignored by the short-term needs of subsequent plots.
In fairness, the Matrix did get further explored on the third season of the cartoon show, which took place in 2006, following the events of the movie. Now, it was revealed that the Matrix contained the accumulated wisdom of all past Autobot leaders, as well as those leaders themselves. (Apparently, when they died, they went inside the Matrix as they passed it to their successor?)
While hokey in its execution, this idea of a repository of information, or of (at least some) Transformers effectively having an afterlife, did expand the religious concept. The idea of mechanical life escaping death did further hint at the differences between the alien Transformers and organic life — another difference the revived Battlestar Galactica explored to some critical acclaim.
But as previously mentioned, some of these same episodes of the cartoon revealed that the Transformers had been created by the organic Quintessons. I appreciated an exploration of the Transformers’ origins, as well as how weird the Quintessons were. But this explanation did root the Transformers’ mecahnical life in an organic origin, which took away from the uniqueness of the concept.
Personally, I don’t regard the comics explanation of the Transformers origin — in which Unicron and Primus were Manichean entities — more satisfying (despite my respect for Transformers comics writer Simon Furman).
By far, the cartoon’s greatest failure was its inability to follow through on the concept of Rodimus Prime as messiah. This was “the Chosen One,” after all. This didn’t prevent further conflict; the Autobots might have regained Cybertron during the movie, but the Decepticons and Quintessons could always be used to drive a plot. Yet the cartoon’s writers failed to adequately dramatize Rodimus Prime’s difficulties in being an actual messiah, while having no real leadership experience. Such stories would inevitably be difficult to write, since they’d have to keep Rodimus Prime a legitimate messiah, without looking pathetically insecure, while also dramatizing his inner conflict and odd situation. The result was a character who alternated between extreme insecurity and boring uprightness — and who certainly seemed like a poor substitution for the beloved Optimus Prime. Optimus returned from the dead at the end of the third season, at which point “the Chosen One” handed over the Matrix without a single word of protest.
So much for the Messiah. You can create one easily enough, but there aren’t a lot of models to draw upon for following through on his story.
The cartoon didn’t last much longer. The comic outlived the cartoon, coming to an end in 1991. The Transformers have gone through many iterations since, which have made alterations and improvements to the Transformers formula. But they haven’t fully lived up to the promise and intellectual possibilities suggested by Transformers: The Movie.
You can improve upon animation quality, or plenty of other more superficial aspects. You can also craft a plot that avoids some of the problems of Transformers: The Movie — although, if Transformers history is an guide, you’re likely to create new problems. But it’s hard to beat the newness and sheer sense of possibility of Transformers: The Movie.