It’s August 8th, 2016 – and that means it is time to say Happy Anniversary to the original that started it all – Transformers The Movie was released on this date 30 years ago. A cornerstone of the animated Transformers canon, the movie brought to the wider imagination some elements that had been in play in the comics for a little while, like the Matrix, along with introducing some other elements which went on to shape the franchise for years to come, such as Unicron.
It’s also been 30 years since children everywhere were reduced to tears by their favorite character, Optimus Prime, dying on screen – along with many other shockingly graphic ends to characters from the early years.
Join us on this retrospective of the key elements of Transformers the Movie – and its enduring legacy which has shaped many of the series which have followed it.
First screened in theaters on August 8th 1986 and with animation values above and beyond what were being used in the cartoon at the time, Transformers the Movie was a visual – and audio – tour de force for the franchise.
Set in the future of 2005, Transformers the Movie picked up the story of The Transformers with the Decepticons ruling Cybertron and planning a major attack at the Autobots’ new base on Earth, all while a powerful, malevolent force from the stars made its way to Cybertron, intent on destroying all before it. Heroes and villains were slain and new ones rose to replace those who fell. The stage of the Transformers saga expanded beyond the Earth and Cybertron, taking on a galactic scale, and the mythology was deepened with the introduction of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.
Many of these elements have since gone on to become mainstays of the Transformers franchise – and others have gone on to be extremely memorable in both the fandom and even in the mainstream. One in particular can even be named as “a childhood scarring moment”.
Transformers the Movie presented us with the great moment we’d all been waiting for since the pilot episode, More than Meets the Eye – a huge throwdown battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron. This was a battle where the gloves truly came off, with both warriors giving it their all, and finishing each other off in climatic fashion. The very dialogue from the fight, including Optimus Prime’s epic “One shall stand, one shall fall” that kicked off the showdown has since become some of the most referenced dialogue in later Transformers shows, and it stands as a testament to the intensity of the battle, to the way the conflict was handled, that this still stands as the definitive Optimus Prime vs Megatron battle, with only a few conflicts in the years since reaching the same levels.
If the battle was pleasing for its intensity, then what followed was equally shocking in a whole other way – fatally wounded by Megatron in the battle, Optimus Prime died, his body turning grey and lifeless on an operating table after choking out some final words with his last breaths.
This was the day for many, that they learned even their heroes could die.
It was shocking. It was sudden. Between the dialogue, the music, and the visuals, the scene had a heavy atmosphere. There are stories of children breaking into tears right there in the theater, and understandably so (rewatching the movie for this article, the moment Optimus flatlined nearly brought tears to my eyes). The death of Optimus Prime was handled realistically, perhaps too much so for a children’s movie. The knock-on effects of the death were far-reaching. The G.I. Joe movie, then in production, had the death of its main character hastily edited out with some extra lines. The UK version of Transformers the Movie, which also added the Star Wars style scrolling titles and narration at the beginning, had an extra line added at the end, assuring audiences that Optimus Prime would return.
Ultimately, it is the death of Optimus Prime, the main character of the franchise, which has sometimes been blamed for the later decline of the Transformers franchise. Certainly Hasbro quickly took notice of the reaction to Optimus’ demise, and a new Optimus Prime toy was released in 1988 with new ones then following for almost every year the toyline was active. Truly, Hasbro could not toy with Optimus Prime.
If watching Optimus Prime pass on was not enough to upset children watching Transformers the Movie in 1986, then the mass executions of many older characters would surely have proven upsetting. Right out of the gate, Transformers the Movie did not take prisoners, with the deaths of Prowl and Ironhide being particularly disturbing – Prowl’s death, front and center on screen, had him coughing up fire, while Ironhide took a fusion cannon blast point blank, with the heavy implication that it was a headshot. Even Starscream was not spared, being obliterated by Galvatron in a shockingly brutal scene. Brawn and Ratchet were gunned down, and you saw corpses of others including Windcharger and Wheeljack. The barely-living remains of many wounded and dying Decepticons were cast off into space.
The script even went further, originally called for others to also die on screen, including Shockwave, Trailbreaker and Mirage.The whole sequence of killing off the old characters can be seen as the show maturing to show a real war – or being a cynical way of removing the characters whose toys were no longer being manufactured, to make room for the new product line. And it could have been so much worse. In an interview, Flint Dille once stated that one plan was to have a mass-slaughter in the style of the charge of the light brigade – to paraphrase his own words, “kids would have seen their entire collections wiped out”.
Like the death of Optimus Prime, it seems that Hasbro has taken notice.No show since has featured mass-slaughter of characters, even the more grounded live-action movies tend to pull their punches on killing characters a bit. And most new shows tend to keep their focus on a core cast of familiar names, rather than replacing one bunch of loved characters with a group of unknonws. And thanks to the tendency to reboot shows with new casts, we’re spared the scenes of old toys getting slaughtered nowadays. They just bow out in their respective finales, ready for the new cast to arrive next season.
The death of Optimus Prime led to a moment which introduced a new artifact into the wider Transformers lore – the Matrix. While the “Creation Matrix” had existed and been carried by Optimus Prime in the comics since 1985, the movie brought it into the animated canon, and codified its physical design (the one in the comics was not depicted, and was initially more of a power or an energy than a physical object).
The Matrix here was presented not as a force that could create new Transformers, but as one that signified who held leadership of the Autobots – and contained mysterious powers which only a chosen hero could unlock. The hidden powers of the Matrix – which were only unlocked in the finale of the movie when Hot Rod took up the Matrix following a showdown with Galvatron and rose up as Rodimus Prime – established another concept which has lived on in the franchise for years since – the idea of Autobot succession, and how anyone inheriting the Matrix could arise as “-imus Prime”. The fact is, Rodimus Prime remains almost unique in these stakes – the backlash to the death of Optimus Prime and his popularity as a character in the franchise means few shows since have featured a non-Optimus Prime leader, much less a succession. However, it has been played with on occasion, with one notable cliffhanger involving Hot Rod inspired cavalier Autobot Smokescreen almost inheriting in Transformers Prime. The wider fandom also took up the idea, referring to the brief period in the Transformers Armada series where Optimus was dead and Hot Shot had been passed the Matrix as “Shotimus Prime”. The toys have also adopted the Matrix, with many Primes released in the late 90s and early 2000s featuring a Matrix of some kind.
Like many elements, the succession has had a heavier level of use in the comics, where the line of inheritors up to Optimus Prime has had more play – and one notable Marvel comic also set out that certain Decepticons could also potentially inherit the Matrix. By this point, the Matrix had transitioned from its earlier comic depiction into a form more closely resembling that of the one shown in Transformers the Movie.
The Matrix was a major plot point in the movie, not only because it ultimately led to the rising of a new Autobot leader, but also because it was the device needed to shut down the big villain of the piece, Unicron.
Appearing in the first moments of the movie, to a haunting, menacing score by Vince DiCola, Unicron was the big bad of Transformers the Movie. Presented as somewhere between a malevolent being and a force of nature, Unicron was a vast planet who consumed other planets for nourishment and sustenance, or possibly for more complicated, malicious reasons. His motivations were never set out in the Movie beyond Kranix’s statement that Unicron exists to devour all in his path and Unicron’s own admission to fearing the Matrix as the only thing that could stop him. Because of this, if you think too much about it, Unicron comes across as more of a plot device and final boss, although his scenes are always a pleasure to enjoy thanks to the voicework of Orson Welles providing the character with supreme gravitas. While he is not fleshed out, Unicron provides many of the most memorable scenes of the movie. From his initial appearance consuming the planet Lithone, to his consumption of Cybertron’s two moons (and survival of getting one moon blown up in his face, complete with a shout of “shit what do we do now” from Spike), to the epic final assault on Cybertron, Unicron provides a huge spectacle for the viewer. Unicron was like nothing ever seen in the Transformers before, and even following on from this, it is rare to see a bigger or more imposing villain than a gigantic planet-sized demon robot.
Unicron is a character who the franchise has come back to time and again for a bigger bad. Be it as a central foe in the Unicron trilogy of shows, as a final villain in Beast Wars Neo, or as the season 1 finale villain of Transformers Prime, Unicron exists as one of the most evil and malevolent recurring villains in the Transformers mythos, thanks in no small part to additions and expansions on his backstory made by master Transformers scribe, Simon Furman.
The introduction of Unicron led to another new concept for Transformers: reformatting. Before Transformers the Movie, we’d been introduced to the idea that Transformers could scan alternate modes, but this was something new. In the iconic reformatting scene, the broken bodies of many Decepticons were taken up by Unicron and reformatting into new characters. This was a huge concept, one that has carried on through all incarnations of the series since. Be it characters upgrading into new forms – but still retaining their core identity – or becoming whole new individuals when their bodies were remade, this is something which Transformers has used time and again to introduce new characters – or new versions of existing characters – into a series.
The biggest reformatting – and the one that proportionally more time was devoted to – was Megatron’s rebirth into the nefarious Galvatron. Galvatron was Megatron, taken to the nth degree – more powerful, more ruthless, and lacking even the most slender shred of mercy that Megatron had on occasions demonstrated. Brought to life by Leonard Nimoy, Galvatron replacing Megatron was another way in which the stakes were raised in Transformers the Movie. Galvatron set out that he would not be as forgiving as Megatron the moment he set foot on Cybertron by obliterating Starscream. For the remainder of the movie, Galvatron hounded the Autobots and proved to be a tenacious opponent, even executing Ultra Magnus to obtain the Matrix, and attempting to overthrow Unicron. Ultimately, it took the new hero, Rodimus Prime, to defeat Galvatron at the climax of the movie.
Galvatron as a concept – an upgraded and more powerful Megatron – is one that has stuck with Transformers since its inception. Be it the use of recolored Megatrons under the name Galvatron in the early 2000s, or the use of Galvatron as a reincarnated Megatron in Transformers Super Link in 2004, the idea of Galvatron existing as a powered up Megatron is one that many writers in the Transformers canon have been drawn to. Recently, this is a concept which has gone away, with Galvatron instead becoming his own character – though, in line with the original characterization, he’s generally treated as a bigger and more dangerous villain than Megatron. He’s always a big deal and a significant threat to his enemies when he is used.
Another introduction worthy of note in Transformers the Movie were the Quintessons. An eclectic mix of aliens, best known by fans for the iconic five-faced judges, the introduction of the Quintessons marked part of the transition from the earlier Earth-focused stories to a space opera. Transformers had used aliens before, but the Quintessons became a major enemy through the third season of the cartoon – and in a sense, are the original “third faction” of Transformers, being enemies to Autobot and Decepticon alike.
Unlike many elements of the Transformers lore, the Quintessons have not shown their five faces much since 1986 (other than a few appearances in the comics down the years, and a lone Quintesson being an antagonist in Transformers Energon). The Quintessons are worthy of note for what they might yet do. In Season 3 of Transformers, the role of the Quintessons was expanded, including an origin story for the Transformers tying them to the Quintessons. And now, 30 years on, the live action movie franchise is talking about introducing the “creators” of the Transformers – could the Quintessons be about to return in a big way?
Many more new characters were introduced in Transformers the Movie, all of whom have gone on to reappear in later stories and become mainstays of the Transformers mythos. Special mention of the cast not already discussed should go to Arcee, as the first recurring female character in the franchise. Voiced by Susan Blu, Arcee has been reimagined in recent years as a very different character than she was at her inception, and became the main female Autobot throughout the series Transformers Prime, as well as generally being the default choice in many shows for the female character.
Another important character who debuted in Transformers the Movie was Ultra Magnus. Best remembered in the movie for being an unwilling surrogate for the Matrix, protesting he was “just a soldier” and “can’t deal with that now”, UItra Magnus as a character has frequently been brought back in newer Transformers series, typically as a senior ranking Autobot who does things by the book. Unlike Arcee, Ultra Magnus has always also kept to that same basic, iconic look of a big, mostly blue Autobot with big shoulders. That is, when he’s not a white Optimus Prime redeco inspired by the cab of his 1986 toy.
Hot Rod / Rodimus is another character who has gone on to appear in later Transformers series – although his iconic “red car with gold flames” look has sometimes been what we have seen, rather than the bot himself. Hot Rod / Rodimus has fewer appearances in the newer cartoons – my argument would be that his biggest appearance since the movie was actually Transformers Prime Smokescreen who had the personality and the status of “possible Matrix bearer”, if not the name or the looks. However, on the occasions when Rodimus has appeared, it has been as a major character – as an equal to Optimus Prime in Transformers Energon and his cameo in Transformers Animated, and as a central character in the series More than Meets the Eye. With Hot Rod set to make his big screen debut in Transformers the Last Knight, and the few released character details suggesting a personality like he had in Transformers the Movie, Hot Rod may well be about to return in a big way, much like the Quintessons.
There are many more characters who appear in Transformers the Movie who have become fan favorites, and who have seen use in subsequent comics as well as homages in the modern toylines. These include Galvatron’s lieutenants, Cyclonus and Scourge, and the Autobots who debuted in the movie, such as Kup, Blurr, Wheelie, and Springer. While these guys get far less attention than the ones we’ve spoken about at length, they are all near and dear to the hearts of the fandom. Such is the importance of Transformers the Movie and its cast to the fandom.
With all of the new characters introduced in the movie, they needed voices to bring them to life, and for some of the new characters, celebrity voices were used. Hot Rod was brought to life by Judd Nelson, while Ultra Magnus was played by Robert Stack and the TV-talking Junkion Wreck-Gar was voiced by Eric Idle. Leonard Nimoy – best known for playing Spock on Star Trek – provided a menacing voice for Galvatron and a lasting desire among fans for him to voice a Transformer again, which he did in 2011 with Dark of the Moon’s Sentinel Prime.
The biggest name who headlined the piece was Orson Welles, who provided the deep, commanding voice of the big bad, Unicron.
Orson Welles’ part in the movie, his last ever role, is well known, as he is said to have disliked the role. It is reported that he told his biographer Barbara Learning that “You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy.” He elaborated, “I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.” A 2011 retrospective published for the movie’s 25th anniversary had Nelson Shin recounting that Welles was happy to accept the role after having read the script, though, so perhaps things are not as they seem. Fellow veteran Transformers voice actors Morgan Lofting and Neil Ross recounted a story at UK convention Roll Out Roll Call in 2016 that Wally Burr held a closed session with Welles for recording his lines for the movie – with Burr making some suggestions, prompting Welles to turn to Burr and say “are you directing me?”.
Whatever the true story of Welles’ feelings about his final role, there can be little argument that his deep tones lent a sense of menace and gravitas to Unicron that have defined how that character should sound forevermore. The times when Unicron has been voiced in fiction since invariably look to Orson Welles’ performance for their inspiration.
We’d be remiss to talk about Transformers the Movie, and not talk about its excellent musical score, which contributed a lot to the production. The score was provided by Vince DiCola, and provides a good mix of energetic and atmospheric pieces. We’ve touched on one of the standouts from the score, the Death of Optimus Prime, which drove home the mood of the scene. We’ve also mentioned the haunting and menacing theme that accompanied the arrival of Unicron at the beginning of the movie – a theme which conveys the full menace of the monster planet in masterful style.
Several tracks on the score have been covered in later Transformers media. The Transformers Armada game on Playstation 2 drew inspiration for some of its tracks from the movie score – and the season 3 battle theme used the same motifs as Attack on the Shuttle.
Of course, Transformers the Movie also featured a strong soundtrack, with songs by Weird Al Yankovic, Stan Bush, Lion, Spectre General and NRG playing at appropriate moments in the movie. Stan Bush’s two themes – Dare and The Touch – remain some of the most iconic themes of the movie, while Lion’s cover of the Transformers theme is one of the best available, even 30 years on. Weird Al’s Dare to be Stupid is another piece which perfectly fit its scene. All in, the soundtrack has been described as a journey through 80s rock – but the brilliant part is, it all fits well with the scenes where each song plays.
Both score and soundtrack round out the package that is Transformers the Movie nicely. It’s a testament to the artists who worked on the movie that both Vince DiCola and Stan Bush have been invited to provide new work to modern Transformers projects – so iconic is their work.
In closing, we can reflect on all the important things that have come out of Transformers the Movie. It was, and is, a defining moment for the franchise. But beyond all of that, it has also aged well. It is as much fun to watch today as it was in 1986. We still cheer for Optimus Prime beating down on Megatron, and cry for Optimus Prime and the others passing into the Matrix. We still feel a certain shiver whenever Leonard Nomoy’s Galvatron or Orson Welles’ Unicron speak. And we still enjoy the massive battle sequences.
Transformers the Movie boasted that it would take you beyond good, beyond evil, beyond your wildest imagination – and it certainly delivered. As the trailers boasted, it is a movie we watch again and again.
Happy 30th Birthday, Transformers the Movie. 30 years on, you still have The Touch. You have the power.
(The Touch music video HD restoration, credit to Youtube user Dino Ignacio)