I know the buzz is mostly with Grand Theft Auto V these days, and I’m sure it’s a fine game. But I’ve never been a big GTA fan. I don’t know why other than I don’t especially enjoy the real world culture of violence they reflect. I’m not going to be the guy who accuses GTA of glamorizing violence, but the world it portrays (even if it is deliberately exaggerated) can sometimes be a bit unsettling. Bottom line: without a strong fantasy element, I enjoy GTA now and then, but otherwise, I’d much prefer to fly around in a spaceship or attack a city as a giant monster. No judgment on those who love GTA. We all have our preferences.
This is why I’ve been enjoying the heck out of Saints Row 4, which is like GTA taken to ridiculous extremes. It’s true that you’re still playing a sort of anti-hero who embodies a lot of criminal excess, but this is also a game where a street gang has become so famous and well-liked that their leader is now President of the U.S., and where aliens invade within fifteen minutes. You drive around in space tanks, get super powers, and otherwise have ridiculous adventures, and it is just more appealing to me. Also, the character design options are so diverse that I can play as a version of She-Hulk, which pretty much sold me before the power armor and fireball slinging showed up.
And if that wasn’t enough to hold my interest, at the very end of the game, there’s a pitch perfect Transformers: The Animated Movie reference. Not to spoil it for those who haven’t gotten there yet, but it is pretty damn awesome. And it reminded me that I’m a sucker for anything related to or about Transformers: The Animated Movie.
So, yeah, that was just a couple of paragraphs telling you why this post is going to be all about Transformers: TAM. If you haven’t ever seen it, I highly recommend it. And if you have, I highly recommend you take some time to sit down and watch it again. While I know that as a professional writer, admitting that a big budget toy commercial helped define the way I look at storytelling probably isn’t doing me any favors in the “serious writer” department, I’m also a guy who wrote a story about a sympathetic fuzzy green monster that wants to eat the moon, so I think that door was shut a while ago.
Transformers: TAM is a big boisterous adventure that barrels along from one action scene to another. In a way, it’s much like Star Trek: Into Darkness, except that where Into Darkness tries to awkwardly stick character arcs and revisit better films, Transformers is all about moving forward. Yes, I’m saying that Transformers is a better film than Into Darkness in terms of story construction. And, heck, even in terms of action adventure. Part of this is because Transformers isn’t following J.J. Abrams infamous “Mystery Box” theory, which seems to boil down to the audience needs mysteries, even when those mysteries don’t make sense and are completely unnecessary. Also, this seems to be right to some degree, so take my criticism of this particular storytelling style with a grain of salt.
But there’s no need to get into a grudge match. I’ve made it clear that I think Into Darkness is one of the poorest written films I’ve ever seen, and there’s no need to beat that dead horse once more.
What makes Transformers such a powerful film for me is that I saw it in theaters at the tender age of 13. It is at this moment that a lot of young people start wanting some “edge” in their stories. And edge was what I got. The film is infamously brutal among fans for its disposal of established characters. The reason was a simple one. The previous line of toys needed to be wiped away so that a new line could be sold. And what better way of removing these characters than to have them perish in the climactic battles of the Cybertronian Wars. As a kid, I wasn’t expecting the carnage that was to come, and I still remember the power it had over me.
Sure, these were characters all based on a toyline, but each had their own personality, their own ways of operating. Even the most minor character probably had a toy and each of those toys came with a little data card giving their background, personality, and special powers. I’ve never been a fan of “extended universes” (and if you try to rebutt criticism of the Star Wars prequels with the phrase “in the extended universe”, I will probably give you such a pinch), but the Transformers, by their very nature, were an extended universe.
So when the Decepticons attack a shuttle and immediately kill Prowl, I knew things were getting real. This if followed by the death of several other named (and even regularly speaking) characters. The culmination of the scene is the ignoble death of Iron Hide. It’s a powerful scene. As powerful and tragic as any death in adventure fiction. Optimus Prime’s second-in-command, a character renowned for his optimism and enthusiasm, helpless at Megatron’s feet. Megatron, smirking, delivering the killing blow as if swatting a fly.
Which brings up also why Megatron remains one of my favorite villains to this day. He is neither malicious or cruel. He isn’t a paper tiger. Unlike a lot of villains aimed at kids, he’s no coward. He has his own motivations, and he won’t hesitate to destroy you if you stand in his way. Of course, up to the this point, he was hobbled by the need to keep all the characters alive. Once the film gave him license to unleash his full power, he slaughters quite a few of his enemies. But it isn’t the slaughter that gives him weight. It’s the fact that he is utterly ruthless and somehow admirable at the same time. He’s the bad guy. There’s no doubt about that. But he is driven, determined, powerful, and above all, clearly motivated.
It’s also why he serves as such a counterpoint to Optimus Prime. Like many great archenemies, they have a heck of a lot in common. The biggest difference between them is that Megatron sees compassion as weakness and compromise as an act of cowardice. In all other respects, they’re powerful leaders and well-defined characters. This is why when the final confrontation between them comes early in the film, the scene has a lot to work with. It’s not just they’re great fighters who have had enough of each other, as embodied by the great exchange:
OPTIMUS PRIME: One shall stand, One shall fall.
MEGATRON: Why throw away your life so wrecklessly?
PRIME: You should ask yourself the same question, Megatron.
Yeah, these guys are going to finish it, right here, right now. And it ain’t going to be pretty. The pitched battle between them remains one of my favorite confrontations in storytelling history. They pound the living scrap out of each other, and finally, Megatron falls to his knees. He pleads for mercy, and Optimus is actually disgusted by the request. Megatron, he who is without mercy, now seeks it. And you get the impression that, for all his heroic nature, even Optimus isn’t willing to forgive Megatron for his crimes. The scene doesn’t get to play out though because it’s all a ploy, and Megatron is about to shoot Optimus when Hot Rod brashly attempts to save Optimus.
Again, it’s possible I’m reading too much into it, but I always took from this that Optimus Prime wasn’t fooled by Megatron’s pleas. Optimus knows Megatron better than that. He knows that Megatron only sees mercy as a weakness to exploit. But Hot Rod, well-meaning as he might be, gets in the way, and as a result, while pushing Hot Rod out of the line of fire, Optimus is shot over and over again. He refused to fall, and manages to deliver one final powerful blow that sends Megatron crashing to earth. The battle of Prime and Megatron ends in mutual destruction.
Let’s skip ahead to one of my other favorite scenes where we see the difference between the Autobots and Decepticons. Optimus Prime dies, surrounded by his allies and friends and in his final moments, a terrible sadness falls over all those assembled. Meanwhile, Megatron is in bad shape, but can probably be repaired. But the Decepticons have no such compassion, and so they toss him out into space like useless garbage. Megatron falls victim to his “Strength is all” philosophy, and it is both fitting and somehow tragic.
I could go on and analyze every scene of this film, but you get the idea by now. I love this movie, and practically everything about it. Every scene crackles with personality. Every bit of dialogue has character behind it. And Unicron (the planet devouring giant robot villain of the story) has one of the greatest villain lines in cinema history:
For a time, I considered sparing your precious Cybertron, but now, you will witness . . . it’s DISMEMBERMENT!
He follows it up by literally punching a planet, just in case you weren’t taking him seriously.
In many ways, the film is brutal and dark, but it ultimately ends on a positive note. The Autobots defeat Unicron, save Cybertron. Even more importantly, this marked the official end of the Cybertronian Wars, with the Autobots taking control of their homeworld once again. It’s true that the Decepticons are not completely defeated, and they will remain in the animated series as villains. But the dynamic is different, and for the rest of the classic series, the Decepticons would be the ones on the outside, scheming to retake their former glory.
One final note: I will go on record as saying that the soundtrack, while very much a product of its time, is also really, really good to this day. There are songs that have transcended the film to become cultural touchstones. It’s no accident that when Saints Row 4 needed an inspiring song about triumph in the darkest hour that they chose something from Transformers. Heck, the first song to play after I married my wife was “The Touch” by Stan Bush because, yes, I married the most perfect woman in the world.
There’s no doubt that nostalgia colors my view of this film, but at the same time, I’ll take a lean, energetic story like this over a bloated, convoluted blockbuster any day. Transformers: TAM is beautifully executed film, and it succeeds in being a fitting climax to the series. I’m happy to say its influence stays with me to this day, and that’s not bad, considering it is basically a toy commercial. But it’s a toy commercial with heart and soul, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
Till All Are One.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,