Does my ’80s kid card get revoked if I tell you that I honestly cannot remember when I first saw this movie?
I’m serious. This film came out on August 8, 1986 and I know I did not see it in the theater on opening weekend (more than likely, we were doing something centered around my sister’s sixth birthday), and quick research shows that it’s likely I went to see Flight of the Navigator at some point in August (it had dropped the weekend before). I may have seen the film in its entirety when it hit video in 1987, but I’m not sure exactly when I did because by the time 1987 rolled around, I was way more into G.I. Joe than the Transformers. I do know that at some point, the film was broken up into separate episodes of the television series for the purposes of syndication and WPIX had moved it to Sunday mornings, so I saw this in segments during the time before being dragged to church.
This is just to say that I am one person in my generation whose innocence was not lost when Optimus Prime bit it. Granted, I’d come home from school in January to see the Challenger blowing up being played on a loop on television, so I’d already had the wind knocked out of me in 1986. I’m not taking anything away from those who consider this film a benchmark; I’m just saying that when it comes to my growing up, it came and went.
I put this in the Netflix queue years ago because it had been re-released on DVD and I’d read a number of blog posts and heard a number of podcasters talk about the importance of the film to the decade. I remember that even though it didn’t hit me the way it did them, Optimus Prime dying–in both the comics and the movie–was important because I wasn’t used to major characters dying in my popular culture. And that brings me to throwing it one afternoon, having not seen it in its entirety in more than three decades.
The premise is that a new batch of toys needs to be introduced to reinvigorate the line, which has probably slacked off in sales due to competition from other toy lines, so … oh, wait, the premise is that it’s a couple of decades after the end of the most recent episode of the cartoon and the Decepticons have completely taken over Cybertron. The Autobots are more or less leading a rebellion to get their planet back, and in the first fifteen minutes or so, the Decepticons decide to launch their last, greatest attack on their sworn enemies. The result is a bloodbath where a number of classic characters get blown to bits and Optimus Prime is mortally wounded, passing on the leadership matrix to Ultra Magnus. Meanwhile, there’s a giant world-eating planet (think Galactus in planet form) named Unicron heading for Cybertron and it has transformed a gravely wounded Megatron into Galvatron. The mission then becomes for the Autobots to stop Galvatron and Unicron. Along the way, Ultra Magnus is killed and Hot Rod is given the matrix and becomes Rodimus Prime (the Tori of Cybertron).
The film holds up surprisingly well considering it’s a 35-year-old toy commercial (I know that sounds cynical, but come on …), because when I look at some of the other “feature-length” or “special” cartoons from the marquee toy lines of the Eighties, they’re not particularly good (despite its awesome opening, G.I. Joe: The Movie is not very good and the Voltron crossover Fleet of Doom squanders most of its potential). The animation is of pretty high quality and those opening battles with actual high stakes help the death of Optimus Prime earn its pathos. In addition, the stakes are high because of Unicron and there are some brutal actions on the big bad’s part. It’s a tight, entertaining hour and a half, even though it’s definitely got its flaws–Judd Nelson voices Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime as if he’s got one eye on the clock and another eye on his bank account, despite what some think, the random usage of Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is out of place and distracting, and I still hate the Dinobots. Still, I’d take this over any Michael Bay movie and understand its place as an artifact in the museum of 1980s pop culture.
Buy, Rent, or Skip?