When Orson Welles Was a Transformer
Why the original Transformers movie is better than the new one.
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.
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.
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.