When Orson Welles Was a Transformer
Why the original Transformers movie is better than the new one.
It's funny to listen to the filmmakers on the DVD talk sheepishly about killing off all of those characters, Prime in particular. They genuinely regret it. But in watching the movie again as a grown-up, you realize that Hasbro's profit motive had the unintended consequence of forcing the movie to tell a much more sophisticated story than might otherwise have been possible. With Prime off to the great scrapheap in the sky by the end of the first act, the movie becomes one about finding a leader who can take on Prime's mantle and defeat not just Megatron, but also Orson Welles' Unicron, eating his way through the galaxy. And in a nice mythic twist, Prime's successor turns out to be an Autobot no one—not even Prime—thought it would be.
Bay's new Transformers is fun in its own goofy way, and there are enough sops to the fanboys that most will go home happy. Peter Cullen reprises his role as the voice of Optimus Prime, and the screenwriters manage not one but two invocations of the immortal phrase "more than meets the eye." But there's nothing even approaching the original's narrative depth. The good guys beat the bad guys, and no one we care about is harmed in the process—the movie hasn't succeeded in making us care about anyone. Prime comes across as a stand-up guy, but we have no real sense of Megatron's motivations or of Starscream's ambition. Bumblebee, the robot we spend the most time with in the movie, doesn't get a speaking part until the penultimate scene. The high-octane violence and PG-13 attentions lavished on Megan Fox's torso may attract some new young fans, but in the end Bay's Transformers feels timid compared with the 1985 version.
Now, before you scuttle your plans to go see the new Transformers and queue up a copy of the old one instead, let me say this. A Brad Bird production it is not. I admit that my appreciation for the animated movie is colored by nostalgia—for the toys but also for the decade that produced them. Blur, a fast-talking Autobot, is voiced by John Moschitta Jr., better known as the Micro Machines guy. The soundtrack features a song by Weird Al Yankovic and an inspirational anthem worthy of the Karate Kid's Joe "The Bean" Esposito. Robert Stack, Casey Kasem, and Judd Nelson round out what can safely be called one of the stranger casts in cinematic history.
As for the strangest member of that cast, Orson Welles does not seem to have been very proud of his work. Film historian Joseph McBride quotes Welles saying of his participation: "I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed." He needn't have been quite so dismissive. Welles' voice was apparently so weak by the time he made his recording that technicians needed to run it through a synthesizer to salvage it. But listen closely as the ruthless Unicron explains his plan to bring the universe to its knees. I swear you can almost hear a younger Welles, plotting his conquest of a different world as the imperious Charles Foster Kane.