Transformers: Why the original, animated movie is still the best.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 2 2007 6:11 PM

When Orson Welles Was a Transformer

Why the original Transformers movie is better than the new one.

Transformers. Click image to expand.
Transformers: The Movie, from 1986

Surely this is not how Orson Welles imagined it would end. According to the chronology appended to Peter Bogdanovich's This Is Orson Welles, on Oct. 5, 1985, Welles spent the day on the set of Transformers: The Movie, giving voice to Unicron, a villainous, planet-eating planet. On Oct. 10, he was dead. The man's first feature film had been Citizen Kane; his last was an animated movie based on a line of toy robots.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Of course, by 1985 Welles was a long way from Rosebud. His most visible role at that point was as a pitchman for Paul Masson wine, a responsibility he does not seem to have always discharged ably. He'd also recently cut the voiceover for the Revenge of the Nerds trailer. But it would be a mistake to lump Transformers in with Welles' other regrettable late-career moves. Though a modest film compared with Michael Bay's blockbuster out today, the original Transformers is the better film. And for a certain subset of Americans—boys who were 9 in 1986—it was every bit as shocking as War of the Worlds had been for Grandma and Grandpa.

Advertisement

Bay's Transformers bears no resemblance to the original in terms of plot, but both movies are grounded in the same fundamental mythology. Back in the early '80s, the wily folks at Hasbro realized that the only thing better than a toy truck was a toy truck that was also a toy robot. Transformers were born, and, as was standard practice at the time, Hasbro promptly commissioned a half-hour afternoon cartoon to fill in the back story and market the toys to unsuspecting kids like me.

The Transformers, from a planet called Cybertron, were divided into two factions—the goodly Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, who transformed from a robot into a handgun. After a long civil war, the two sides somehow end up on Earth, where their battles continue and where the cartoon picks up their story. Most episodes involved the Decepticons devising a dastardly plot to take over the universe—only to be thwarted by the Autobots.

Late-afternoon television was full of programming like this in the mid-'80s, whether it was He-Man or G.I. Joe. Transformers, though, was the first such show to jump to the silver screen. Those of us who raced to theaters as third-graders thus assumed that what we were about to see would be like the TV show, just longer and awesomer. Only in our wildest dreams did we think that the show might celebrate its liberation from network television by letting loose with a curse word. And only in our scariest nightmares would we have imagined that a mere 20 minutes into the movie, Optimus Prime, the most beloved of Autobots, would be killed by Megatron.

To use a phrase I learned the day I saw Transformers, "Oh, shit!" No one ever died in these shows. Even in G.I. Joe, a cartoon about a special U.S. Army strike force, no Rattler was ever shot down without the pilot first safely ejecting. But in the Transformers movie, the death toll was jaw-dropping. More than a dozen marquee characters are dispatched in the film, among them one of my personal favorites, Starscream, the Decepticon malcontent always scheming to relieve Megatron of his command.

Of course, all of this bloodshed had a specific purpose—to move toys. In the commentary track on the 20th-anniversary edition of the movie, Flint Dille, one of the writers, explains he was instructed to eliminate much of the existing product line to make room for the new characters Hasbro was planning to sell me. I already owned Optimus Prime, after all.

As a 9-year-old, it hardly occurred to me that this robot bloodbath was a marketing ploy. It just blew me away. Witnessing death on that scale was shocking to a sensibility that had been nurtured on white-knuckled but always successful repair operations by the trusty Autobot mechanic-medic, Ratchet.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.