Monday, June 7, 2010

The Transformers: The Movie

Welcome Laserbeak. Unlike some of my other warriors, you never fail me.

The original Transformers movie is my favorite movie of all time. Given that the movie is, at best, about as good as the new live action movie (but better than either Revenge of the Fallen and The Rise of Cobra), I attribute this to NostalgiaVision™. NostalgiaVision™ isn’t universal, though. One prominent Transformers fan thinks it’s terrible.

The reasons to dislike the move are several: 1) Optimus Prime dies, 2) it’s wall-to-wall techno music (except for Weird Al and some heavy metal), and 3) major plot elements are unexplained through out the whole movie. I like the movie because of 1) the previously mentioned NostalgiaVision™, 2) it’s has cool actions scenes, and 3) it’s funny in several place. Seriously, that’s either enough for you or it isn’t. It’s like Clark Kent’s glasses, you either buy it or you don’t.

A Product of the Times

This movie was created almost exclusively to sell toys to children. And frankly, I’m not sure about the “almost.” Because of this, Friedman had to use a large ensemble cast, and give each member enough of a personality to differentiate them from each other. There was no room for exposition. (Contrast this to X-Files: Fight the Future, which had room for exposition, but chose not to have any.) He was, however, allowed to kill off the old product line.

And boy, did he kill off the old line. Normally, you don’t kill off major and popular characters in a successful TV show in The Movie. Thus, we now have an early example of The Big Damn Movie. (See also Serenity.)

The 80s are often described as awash with crass commercialism and vapid mass entertainment. Watching the Transformers: The Movie, I think we can see why. I’ve already covered the crass commercialism, the vapidness comes from the total lack of depth in the movie exhibits with regards to it’s characters and and backstory. Characters like Kup show-up out of nowhere. Seriously, how much of an old coot can the guy be when we’ve never seen him before? (Bumblebee seems like he should be older.) Where the hell has Kup been? Also, Unicron destroys a planet of robots (not Cybertron) that we’ve never heard of before or since. It’s literally a planet of redshirts. (That’s a little unfair, usually when Transformers introduces new character,s it’s to sell them not kill them. So it was unexpected for the genre.)

So why does it work? Well, to the extent it does work, it works for two reasons: 1) no exposition means the plot moves a quick pace and is largely wall-to-wall action. It has a big battle at the beginning, the end, the middle, and as interludes in between battles. 2) It’s wall to wall music. Children like music. (Exhibit A is the career of Alan Menken and his collaborator, Howard Ashman.) When Vince DiColla’s synthesized score isn’t playing, it’s heavy metal, when it’s not heavy metal, it’s pop, when it’s not pop, it’s Weird Al. (Seriously, Weird Al. It’s one of my favorite Weird Al songs to this day.)

It also has the tenancy to be highly quotable. Here are a few from memory:

Arecee: Did we have to let them detonate three quarters of the ship?
Springer: Seeing as how they would have detonated four quarters, I think it was a good choice.

Unicron: I have summoned you for a purpose.
Megatron: Nobody summons Megatron!
Unicron: Then it pleases me to be the first.

Grimlock: Me Grimlock kick but!

Optimus Prime: Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost.

That last example is more memorable than quotable. Right after it the music swells and Optimus Prime proceeds to show why he’s a badass. In fact, he was a bigger badass in 5 minuets of the movie than he was in two seasons of the old cartoon. Then they kill him.

It’s weird. Technically, I saw Star Wars first. I watched Return of the Jedi when it was first out in the theaters. I was 6. My mom read the opening crawl to me. And yet, I was a Transformers fan before I was a Star Wars fan. I didn’t understand everything that was going on in Return. I remember not understanding everything. Transformers, I understood. For one thing, I was a couple of years older when it started. (Makes a huge difference.) It was literally more accessible because of it’s frequent showings on TV. And it wasn’t as densely packed with mythology. Nowadays, my interest in Star Wars is slightly greater than my interest in Transformers. But frankly, I don’t follow either franchise very closely.

Put down the chainsaw and listen to me

While I’ve often attributed my like of the old animated movie to NostalgiaVision™, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. What I mean is, I think I would like this movie even if I saw it for the first time today. Not because I think it’s an objectively good movie that’s simply been overlooked, but because this is the kind of movie I typically like: action, music, characters with strong personalities (even if they’re two demential), and snappy dialogue. I like it for the same reasons I like Firefly, which is much more critically acclaimed than cartoon ever will be.

Anyways, I have some evidence. I went to college late in life and, in January 2006, I watched the movie with my college roommate, David. David went to college at the exact point in life people are expected to. (I.e., he was 19, I was 28.) He enjoyed it for it’s cheese to. We laughed at the same places and both saw the irony in watching a "futuristic" movie set "in the year 2005" in the year 2006. It was a lot of fun.

To some, the movie falls into the "so bad it’s good" category. I’m sure David saw it that way. Not for me. I like it on it’s own merits. I once told my friend Peter that I was the lowest common denominator. If a movie or TV show is trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, they’re probably trying to please me. Peter disagreed and said that there were many 12 year old girls who were fighting me for that position.

I probably shouldn’t let him see my iPod then.

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