Sorry, Michael Bay - Why 1986's Transformers: The Movie Is The Best

You never want to talk about circumstances of "real fandom," because it's unfair to quantify someone's affection for a piece of pop culture based on your own qualifications. Still, there is only one Transformers movie with Arcee, with Stan Bush, with the classic Transformers theme. And it wasn't made by Michael Bay, who takes his fourth swing at the franchise with this weekend's Transformers: Age Of Extinction. No, these elements can be found in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie.

It makes sense that, for commercial considerations, you'd want to pack your Transformers movie with human actors. But the earlier film doesn't make the mistake of thinking we can't get enough of Sam Witwicky and his pratfalling parents.

The Transformers: The Movie IMMEDIATELY sidesteps this option with its gasp-inducing first few moments. One minute, we're on a robot planet called Lithone, which -- much like Cybertron -- is inhabited by innocent, every-day Transformers. The next, the galactically-massive Unicron (voiced with real panache by Orson Welles in his final role) is devouring the world whole, sucking its inhabitants into his gaping maw, destroying this petty planet like an interstellar vacuum.

In fairness to Mr. Bay, his Transformers films stretch to considerable time-lengths, only to feature chaotic, rousing finales. The Transformers: The Movie, by contrast, peaks early and never really recovers from the initial burst of action. The assumption is that no one has the patience to pay much attention to an 84-minute movie where robots become cars. Times have changed, of course, which explains the ass-punishingly 140-minute-plus run times for the Michael Bay Transformers films.

But this was also a time when children's entertainment didn't need to bow to politicians or concerned mothers to be "educational" or even "moral." As such, that genocidal opening of The Transformers: The Movie segues right to the opening action sequence (with a brief credit sequence detour thanks to Lion's stadium-rattling rendition of the classic Transformers theme). The Autobots are losing a war to the Decepticons, with the enemy Transformers threatening to take over Cybertron. The characters whiz by fast and furiously, and while you don't get a chance to know any of them, the movie's frantic pace forces you to get acquainted in a hurry. No exposition or origin stories here.

And no "fake outs" when it comes to tragedy, loss and death. Just ask Optimus Prime. 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.