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.
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.