40×40: Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Directed by Nelson Shin.

“I got better things to do tonight than die!”

Why Did I Get This?

I think I bought this for about a quid when Woolworths was closing down, probably in an attempt to recapture some of the nostalgia (it’s a helluva drug), missing from the Michael Bay movie. I don’t think I ever watched the damn thing, but while I have vague recollections of seeing it when I was a kid, all I know about it now is that Orson Welles makes an appearance as an enormous hungry robot.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have high hopes for this one, but let’s give it a go…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

The everlasting battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons continues, drawing in a father and son from Earth, before everyone has to face a planet-eating transformer called Unicron (Orson Welles).

I didn’t realise that Rank and Marvel were both involved in this one, seeing the gong at the opening was a real surprise . Fun that it’s set in the far-flung future of 2005 too, when mankind has made a base on the moon and the whole world looks like some sort of technological utopia (at least until the Decepticons attack).

Also fun is the Star Wars opening crawl which is handily narrated for those audience members who might be too young to read it, though whether the younger viewers would understand terms like ‘civil war’ is probably a question for another day. The Star Wars homages continue with a couple of the robots wielding familiar looking laser swords in battle, though the animators cleverly chose to avoid the obvious red and blue colouring to delineate good from evil (and presumably avoid a lawsuit too).

There’s a weird, muted soundscape to a lot of the world-destroying action, as the planet-sized Unicron eats smaller planets – tough to say whether that’s a conscious choice to suggest the destruction taking place in the vacuum of space, or simply a cost-cutting exercise to get the film shipped out as soon as possible, I dunno, but it does add an effective eeriness in places.

I also thought there was a jerkiness to some of the animation too, and again, whether that’s a design choice or a financial choice, I have no idea but it adds to that sense of sugar-rush Saturday morning cartoon nostalgia. Unlike the Bay movie (and I speak as someone who has only seen the first one), this feels like an exciting romp through a kid’s playtime and that’s largely due to its focus on the giant smashing robots rather than the fragile little humans. In fact, there are only two humans in this – Spike (Corey Burton), and his son Daniel (David Mendenhall) – and neither really adds that much to the action. Spike gets eaten by Unicron early in the film only to turn up later in the robot’s guts and be saved by his son who spends most of the film being mothered by the only female transformer Arcee (Susan Blu), and learning how to wear his dad’s suit.

In terms of plot, it’s basically just a string of action sequences set to 80s power rock (including the brilliant The Touch by Stan Bush, which also featured in Cobra and Boogie Nights!), as the Decepticons attack the Autobots, get repelled, attack again, the Autobots flee and find themselves in other dangerous situations with new villains who become allies in the first against the Decepticons and Unicron. While the Bay film was overlong and stuffed with plot (of a sorts), this is short at 80-odd minutes and fairly basic, more suitable for a younger audience.

That being said, watching this as an adult, it felt far longer than it actually was and I found myself almost bored by the relentless colourful action on screen – it’s fine in 15 minute chunks, but any longer than that felt like a slog to me.

What I noticed as a grown-up (though I use the term loosely), was just how brutal some of the film is. Many of the robots who die in battle are killed in surprisingly graphic ways and screaming in terror or pain. The ruthlessness of head Decepticon Megatron (Frank Welker), is also shown as he murders injured enemies, then adopted by Starscream (Chris Latta), as he hurls injured allies from an overloaded ship, including Megatron himself as he begs for mercy. We also see Quintessons – or ‘Imperial Magistrates’ – capture and torture innocent characters before hurling them to death by robot sharks, in scenes (and character designs), which would not appear out of place in a Fu Manchu movie.

There’s a lot of interesting Oriental influence on the design of many characters here too, and surprisingly mainly amongst the villainous ones. When Megatron gets ‘reborn’ as Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy), his helmet becomes more Samurai-like, while the Junkions led by Wreck-Gar (Eric Idle), all have long, thin, flowing moustaches which would also suit Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee in one of their culturally-inappropriate outings.

As you might expect, the villains are defeated, the heroes are victorious, the young buck learns a thing or two about leadership and responsibility and families are reunited. Of course, the toys won’t sell themselves, so the door’s left open for a sequel, but as with the live-action counterparts, I’m more than happy never to see one.


This is the first film I’ve seen that makes absolutely no bones about pausing the action for a moment to introduce new characters in what is, without any disguise, a toy commercial crowbarred into a feature film.

In many ways, Transformers: The Movie is exactly what I thought it would be – noisy, colourful action designed to distract kids and sell them toys. But in other ways I was surprised by quite a few elements of it – the violence was stronger than I’d expected (though mitigated somewhat by it being bloodless and aimed solely at giant robots).

The number of celebrities voicing characters was a big surprise too. As well as Nimoy, Wells and Idle, I was delighted to hear Scatman Crothers turn up as Jazz, and while I couldn’t initially place them, Robert Stack turns up as Ultra Magnus and Judd Nelson plays Hot Rod.

I’ll be honest, this didn’t give me the nostalgia hit I expected, but I’ve found that with a few supposed 80s classics so perhaps that says more about me than the films. I doubt I’ll revisit this, but might see if Junior Late Reviewer wants to give it a go sometime.

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