Sorry, Michael Bay - Why 1986's Transformers: The Movie Is The Best
Diehards, of course, would be wondering where Optimus Prime is in The Transformers: The Movie. Which is when he enters, in a moment that would give even non-fans goosebumps. He looks into the distance, and in Peter Cullen's unforgettable burr, he intones, "Megatron must be stopped... no matter the cost." What happens next is nothing short of movie magic. Optimus transformers in slow motion into a truck and drives off to this confrontation as Stan Bush's "The Touch" wails on the soundtrack. If you've never heard the empowering thrill of "The Touch", you've led an insufficient life. Of course, in one of those movie references that remains inadequately explained to this day, you may have caught the majesty of The Touch in Boogie Nights.
There's no transparency in regards to any of the Transformers movies: these were created in order to sell toys. If anything, the earlier picture is more craven, killing characters left and right only to have them unceremoniously replaced by newer models. As such, these are Optimus' final moments: he falls within the first twenty minutes of the movie. His dying words, accompanied by Vince DiCola's mournful Noble-Savage theme, involve him passing on The Matrix Of Leadership. As Ultra Magnus becomes the new leader of the Autobots, Optimus' body turns to gray and his eyes flicker out. As he flat-lines, DiCola's music hammers home the world's saddest crescendo. Michael Bay couldn't even sniff a scene like this.
What The Transformers: The Movie conveys is that it's paper-thin characters are serious. Their limitations are real, they face tragedy and heartbreak. The movie happens between seasons two and three of the show, and while the program had developed a consistent storytelling formula at that point, the film acts as if this is the first time we're seeing certain plot twists, giving them an added emotional scale and scope that the later movies can't manage.
At this point, Starscream had attempted several coups against Megatron in the series. But his hubris in The Transformers: The Movie is positively Shakesperean. The villain takes over the Decepticons after leaving Megatron to die, drowning himself in pomp and circumstance during an initiation ceremony. But when Megatron returns, now named Galvatron after a monolith-like encounter with Unicron, his revenge on Starscream swift and unforgiving, instantly turning the pathetic sidekick into rubble. Galvatron wanted that to hurt.
The picture builds to an action climax, one that happily assumes "female" Transformer Arcee is a key part of the group (she appeared in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen only briefly). But nothing ever lags, thanks to a dynamite soundtrack of hits both welcomed (Stan Bush's Dare should be played before every exam) and unexpected (really, what is Weird Al Yankovic's "Dare To Be Stupid" doing in this movie?).
But The Transformers: The Movie otherwise provides the sort of chase-heavy thrills that comes from robots that can become cars. Contrast that with Michael Bay's vision, where the robots basically abandon their transforming skills to have endless, violent punch-outs that annihilate cities. Bay's films show the action as a junkyard orgy. The '86 offering slows down to allow for actors like Leonard Nimoy and, yes, even Orson Welles to give actual performances. Fans of Michael Bay's Transformers movies are free to enjoy them. But they'll never top the gravity and excitement of The Transformers: The Movie.
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