It shouldn’t have worked. In the early ’80s, toy giant Hasbro launched their “robots in disguise” via a triple threat of comics, a TV series and action figures. The leap to the big screen in 1986 was simply the next step in a marketing master plan. Likewise, The Transformers: The Movie’s decision to kill half the characters was undoubtedly a cynical plot to introduce new toys.
Nonetheless, it shaped the film into a ferocious and unflinching masterpiece that the franchise has yet to surpass. For make no mistake: ’Formers ’86 is – in the words of uberfan/expert Chris McFeely – “an unrelenting death-fest”. Starting as it means to go on with megabot Unicron eating an entire world, it comprises 84 minutes of genocide, executions and straight-up murder as fan faves are unceremoniously taken out.
The pièce de résistance? Autobot leader Optimus Prime brutally slain by Megatron. Following reports that some kiddie viewers found Prime’s demise overwhelming, one producer later admitted they went too far. Or did they? In reality it gave young ’uns a lens for looking at tough topics – like war and mortality – in a safe space. At uni I bonded with a friend over our shared love of the film, and when he died a few years later it continued to speak to me with its heartfelt honesty.
The story’s dramatic developments add much-needed weight: a quality too often absent from Michael Bay’s live-action adaps, which focus on carnage at the expense of character. Even 2018’s Bumblebee – which corrected many of Bay’s excesses and is largely considered the best of the bunch – can’t touch the heart-wrench of Judd Nelson’s Hot Rod and his journey to redemption.
And speaking of the cast, any movie that also boasts Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles (who completed his performance as Unicron just days before passing away) demands respect. Add to this composer Vince DiCola – of Rocky IV fame – laying down thick ’80s synths and you’ve got the perfect marriage of aesthetic fizz and Shakespearean gravitas.
Of course, the other ’Formers have their moments, but there’s an unblinking clarity to the ’86 version (which will receive a 4K UHD release later this month) that makes it the best by a Cybertronian mile. Or is it just me?