Joe’s $1 a week cinema #3: Transformers
Transformers: The Movie. Year: 1986. Spoiler alert: Optimus Prime dies
Any young boy who saw the original animated movie version of the Transformers will tell you that it was one of the most harrowing, exhilarating and ultimately traumatic experience of his life. In terms of emotional impact it rates somewhere between losing your virginity and finding out you’re adopted.
Of course I saw the film when I was 11, some 20 years before I lost my virginity, but it resonates with me even today. I went and saw it at the Belgrave cinema east of Melbourne with my best friend at the time Mark Evans. We were best friends for almost all of Grade Six because we both liked cars and that was enough back then.
When I got to the cinema I was shocked to discover my cousin Dan was there. Dan was 18 months younger than me and therefore to be avoided at all costs. When you are at that age your coolness redoubles every month and younger relatives are a millstone of shame. The true wonder was that I had convinced Mark Evans I was cool in the first place, and that running in circles in an above ground pool while pretending to be a superhero called Fireboy was what all the kids were doing these days.
Dan on the other hand spent his afternoons hanging around Belgrave station wearing a denim jacket and big ranga mullet. Inexplicably, and notwithstanding my superpowers, he consistently had more friends than me.
He was sitting with around half a dozen of said friends when Mark and I walked into the cinema. Thankfully I was able to disarm Mark and Dan’s warmth and friendliness towards each other and separate my gang from his. I was still sitting there anxiously fretting that Dan might come over again and offer us some more of his popcorn when the curtains opened and suddenly I was transported to the magical futuristic world of 2005.
Transformers: The Movie, like all great literary works, was created solely so that a toy company could phase out one line of products that children loved and replace them with a new collection they had no knowledge of or care for, thus confirming humanity’s quirky truism that to be a toy company executive you have to be, at best, a sociopath.
In this case the scriptwriters’ challenge was to kill off Optimus Prime, one of the best loved children’s characters of all time, and replace him with Ultra Magnus, Cybertron’s first gay icon.
Don’t get me wrong, Ultra Magnus was great and I loved him in my way, but when it came to fighting Decepticons Prime had a giant laser blaster and Magnus had a Tommy Hilfiger outfit.
Even so, when Optimus was struck down by Megatron in the Battle of Autobot City he passed the Matrix of Leadership – which was apparently inside him all along throughout the original series but never mentioned once before – to Ultra Magnus, who had also apparently been hanging around the whole time but was presumably off on a management training course while every single episode was being drawn.
Predictably enough, Ultra Magnus soon loses his bottle and stuffs everything up – which not only makes him look stupid but reflects poorly on Optimus Prime’s judgement – and all of a sudden it falls to a young buck called Hot Rod to save the day. Hot Rod is an imaginary car with lots of flames on it, which is all well and good but hardly leadership material. He also spends a fair bit of time chasing around a pink girly robot, no doubt in an effort to distance himself from Ultra Magnus – who still hasn’t found the right woman if you know what I mean. Then once Hot Rod recovers the Matrix he is miraculously transformed into a new Winnebago with lots of flames on it.
Just to provide some closure and thematic consistency, and to stop sobbing youngsters from demanding their money back, this new robot creature is called Rodimus Prime and christened with Optimus uttering from the grave the now immortal phrase: “Arise Rodimus Prime,” a sentence which – though still immortal – has limited application in the modern world.
At the end of this Karmic circle and after every last credit had rolled and Mark was repeatedly telling me that Optimus was not coming back, I trudged out of the theatre, my heart heavy with grief but my mind buzzing with new life and colour. Dan and his posse trundled cheerfully off to hang out at the station, unaware of the great tragedy they had witnessed. Mark at least had some sense of the loss but I knew did not feel it the way I did.
Even so, as I took the train back to my father’s house in Lilydale I managed to construct an alternative reality in which Optimus Prime had survived or at least would come back from the grave, and once I had the train to myself I managed a gay little superhero highkick.
When I returned to the house and unloaded on my father this pantheon of new gods and the unspeakable nobility of the fallen he responded by producing a copy of Leonard Maltin’s 1987 Movie Guide, which rated the film “BOMB”, a special – and deliberately capitalised – category below one and a half stars. The worst rating possible. Thus are children’s worlds destroyed.
Of course these days the term “bomb” means something rather different – to whit the novelty pick up line “Excuse me, was your daddy a terrorist? Because you da bomb” – and there is a whole new type of Transformer movie on the scene.
But for me nothing will ever come close to replacing that sunny afternoon in Belgrave, where I stepped into the darkness and re-emerged into the light truly transformed – as was the world around me. The bloodless conspirators from Hasbro soon saw the injustice of Optimus Prime’s death and promptly resurrected him; my cousin Dan later told me he had in fact cried when Optimus was struck down; and I for my part realised that the qualities of the Autobot leader that I so admired – selflessness, decency and courage – were all lacking in me when I first walked into the theatre that day.
Rating: Four Energon cubes and one regret
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