Reviews of The Transformers (1984) and related work
The Transformers (1984)
Review applies only to the first two seasons.
After five million years of internecine warfare, several machine intelligences struggle to find the energy they need on their mechanized home planet. Both factions are represented aboard an interstellar ark. During their battle, the ark crashes on Earth and knocks everyone out. After another four million years, the ark is reawakened and repairs the robots, giving them new alternate forms that it deems appropriate as disguises on modern Earth, where the struggle continues.
Allow me to quote Lindsay Ellis, specifically part 9 of her 2017 video introduction to film studies through Michael Bay’s Transformers remakes:
In Ronald Reagan’s first speech as president, in 1981, he famously said: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Before 1984, American TV stations were closely regulated and the promotion of any product within the body of a TV show was forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission. All that changed under the Reagan administration in 1984, when children’s television was deregulated as part of a wider bid to boost the American economy.
Around this time, a Japanese toy company called Takara Tomy was enjoying success in Japan with several lines of transforming robot toys, including Diaclone and Microman. Spying opportunity with this new deregulation effectively allowing children’s television shows to act as commercials for toys, American toy giant Hasbro licensed both of these toy lines into a new American brand known as The Transformers, and sped into production a cartoon to promote the new toy line, which premiered in September 1984.
The result was this quickly syndicated “late” Saturday morning cartoon. There are strong post-Valkyrie mecha influences, though the robots are only vehicles when they aren’t in their humanoid forms. There’s more and more five-piece gattai action (“Form Defensor!”) as the show continues. The series was both animated in and aired with alterations in Japan, but creative control was apparently American.
The first stories are outlandish kiddie fare with bogus units of measurement, but there are gradual efforts at discipline down the line, eventually approaching Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973). For example, while the Autobots are able to build five new Transformers on Earth during the first season, it is later established that building new Transformers that way cannot be done. A vague history of the war is eventually offered and there are some journeys to other parts of the galaxy (besides Earth and Cybertron), but of course it never reaches the standards of remotely good science fiction. No character has credible motives. The name “transformer” I assume was suggested by the type of passive electrical device that bridges two AC circuits without a direct connection. The whole thing is just “Killdozer” (1944) with several extra layers of magic.
There are brief sparks of imagination, including a metafictive episode where the Transformers become protégés of a giant alien boy who plays with them as toys. Toy pushing is always the focus, hence the relentless action, including several car races. The moralism is positively moronic, good and evil being a question of how you flick a switch, while there is often a racist or sexist edge to the presentation. The character design is so thrifty that most Transformers employ only their mouths to make facial expressions. Shockwave’s face is even simpler: one blinking light. A fine example of the common implication that boys should not be emotional. Nostalgia, the more pubescent appeal of the movie and the novelty of commercialism seem to motivate a surviving fandom.
‣ The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
‣ Transformers (2007)
I’d heard it was boyish, but when I got around to seeing it in 2012, I was surprised at how much like the first season of the TV series it really is. This thing goes nowhere, adding only the Christian masochism of Bumblebee’s subplot, dull CGI and a government conspiracy in place of science fiction. It’s as if someone spent $150,000,000 to illustrate what an 11-year-old boy imagines in solitary play, except that the protagonist is a 21-year-old high school student because Jaws (1975) made a lot of money.
References here: The Wandering Earth (2019).