It’s been 30 years since the galaxy-spanning adventures of the Transformers hit the big screen for the first time. While the original Transformers movie wasn’t an enormous success, it became a massive cult favourite on VHS and its soundtrack of 80s rock still evokes strong feelings of nostalgia among its many fans.
Even three decades later, it’s a movie that keeps on giving. Elements of the storyline are still picked up and used in the comic books and even the mega-budget mega-hits from director Michael Bay have used several elements from the movie.
It’s a product of its time, for sure; it’s all 80s excess and flashy scenes. It has the obligatory “chosen one” in the mould of Luke Skywalker; it even has a planet-sized enemy that destroys other planets. One thing is for sure though, for the fans of the movie, both those that remember the original release, and those who have discovered it since, the moment when Hot Rod lights their darkest hour is still met with cheers of joy.
Here’s 15 Things You Need to Know About Transformers: The Movie
15 15. This was Orson Welles' final film
It’s impossible to complete a semester at film-school without knowing who Orson Welles was. The legendary actor/director and man behind one of the greatest movies ever made - Citizen Kane - was one of cinema's greatest ever talents. It may then come as a surprise that he was the voice of the main villain of the movie, the planet devouring Unicron.
Orson Welles himself didn’t care about that. In fact, he hated the movie. He was in very poor health at the time, and when he read the script he found the notion of playing a giant toy that went around and did terrible things to other toys to be nonsensical. He took the role anyway, but his health at the time meant that adding the necessary gravitas to a sentient-planet was difficult. His breathing was so laboured that the sound editors had to scrub many of his lines and run them through a synthesiser many times in order to generate the voice we heard on screen. There was an urban legend for many years that Leonard Nimoy completed some of Welles’ lines, but this was later confirmed to be false. In fact, the only part of the performance that wasn’t Orson Welles, was a scream Unicron makes when he observes The Matrix of Leadership being passed on to Ultra Magnus. The sound is, in fact, re-used from The Hulk from the 1982 Incredible Hulk animated series.
14 14. The voice cast
As if having Orson Welles on the voice cast wasn’t impressive enough, the movie also featured the late Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron. Galvatron, the reformatted form of previous Decepticon leader is seen as even more powerful, and cruel, and Nimoy plays against type perfectly. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see him as a bad-guy more often.
Another nod to its roots as a true 80s classic is the addition of Judd Nelson to the voice cast. The star of Brat Pack Classics The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire, takes the role of Hot Rod, a young and impulsive, but very brave, Autobot warrior. His story-arc, from brave young warrior, to eventual leader and hero of the war is central to the story.
Other notable voice actors include Emmy award winner Robert Stack as Ultra Magnus, Monty Python star Eric Idle as Wreck-Gar, as well as series regulars Peter Cullen and Scatman Crothers.
13 13. The Movie took place twenty years after the end of the second series
Much had changed within the fictional universe since the end of the second season. The Decepticons have gone from trying to steal Earth’s energy resources, to outright extermination of the Autobots. Spike Witwicky has gone from teen companion of the Autobots, to full-fledged warrior stationed on one of Cybertron’s moons. Using a mechanized exo-suit, he is very much on the front lines but leaves his young son, Daniel, on Earth in relative safety.
Daniel takes the role Spike did in the early series; he is the audience’s eyes as the events unfold and while caught up in the war, keeps his child-like innocence. However, when given an exo-suit of his own he stands alongside the Autobots when they battle Galvatron’s forces on the planet of Junk, and even battles inside Unicron during the finale. His exo-suit even has the capacity to transform, fulfilling the wish of every 80s kid that wished they could BE a Transformer.
The war itself has changed drastically too. Instead of two forces, evenly matched for the most part, the Autobots are very much fighting guerrilla tactics once more. They no longer hold any territory on Cybertron and hold only two moonbases and the city on Earth. As the movie opens, they are planning a last desperate assault on the Decepticons in order to re-take their homeworld.
12 Several first and second season characters are killed off early on in the movie
Due to the launch of a new toy line, many of the original characters are killed within the opening scenes of the movie. Beloved characters such as Prowl, Ratchet, and Ironhide are ambushed while piloting a shuttle to Earth. Their deaths are surprisingly violent for a cartoon aimed at a younger audience. Prowl is shot by Megatron and dies as a fire burns him from the inside out. Ironhide and Ratchet are shot to death by a barrage of blaster fire that destroys them almost utterly.
These scenes, and the brutal hand to hand between Optimus Prime and Megatron, led to a massive negative fan reaction. Parents were shocked to see so much carnage on screen, given the friendly nature of the preceding two seasons of the show. Kids were devastated seeing their beloved toy collection wiped out, only to be replaced by largely unfamiliar characters.
The deaths, and the audience reaction to them, caused the closing monologue to promise the return of Optimus Prime. His death, intended to be permanent, was undone during the third season two-parter The Return of Optimus Prime. However, the rest of the Autobots remained dead as the show didn’t continue for American audiences after season three.
11 11. Optimus Prime Dies
As mentioned, Optimus Prime dies. While this has become a running joke, indeed Prime has died in almost every iteration of the Transformers since only to return later, at the time it was a huge shock.
Prime wasn’t just the central character; he was the face of the show. To many fans, he WAS the Autobot army. To lose him, even temporarily, seemed incredible. His initial successor, Ultra Magnus, is introduced as having been an old friend of Optimus Prime’s and continues to lead the Autobots in his place. The Autobots rally behind him and begin to rebuild the city in the wake of the battle. Before they can, they are attacked by resurgent Decepticon forces and head towards Cybertron, having learned that Unicron has destroyed Cybertron’s moons and could soon consume the planet itself.
When Prime’s body dies, he turns grey which indicates his life-force has gone. When Hot Rod later opens the Matrix, he hears Optimus’ spirit anoint him as the latest Prime. While this was later proved to be temporary, it certainly indicated that Optimus’ death was intended to be permanent with only his spirit remaining within the Matrix.
The fan reaction to Prime’s death actually caused changes to the GI Joe movie. GI Joe leader Duke was intended to die, but instead there was a hasty re-write to downgrade his death to being a coma instead.
10 Several third-season characters are introduced
With so many characters killed off, there was room to introduce a new cast, and of course, sell more toys. Ultra Magnus, the large armoured car transporter was the only one to use an existing character model. The rest, Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Arcee, and Springer, were all created especially for the movie.
Ultra Magnus, the reluctant leader, takes command of what’s left of the Earth-based Autobots after Optimus Prime’s death and leads the Autobots towards Cybertron but is intercepted by the new Decepticon leader, Galvatron and forced to crash-land on the Junkion homeworld along with Blurr, Arcee, Springer, Perceptor, and Daniel. They begin repairs on their ship before being found by Galvatron.
Hot Rod and Kup find themselves on Quintessa, home to the Quintessons and the Sharkticons. They are sentenced to death, but engage in a demolition derby with the Sharkticons in order to take as many of them with them as they can. They are saved by the timely intervention of Grimlock and the Dinobots, along with their new ally Wheelie.
When Kup and Hot Rod escape Quintessa along with their crew, they make their way to Junk to unite with their comrades who are now fighting the natives. Hot Rod, using his experiences, and showing the first signs of character growth, opts to use the universal greeting “Bah Weep Granna Weep Nini-Bong” instead of charging in. It works, and the Autobots find the allies they so desperately need.
9 Megatron becomes Galvatron
Galvatron is the re-formatted form of Decepticon leader, Megatron, who is almost destroyed by Optimus Prime during the final stage of the Battle of Autobot City. His body, barely alive, is tossed into space by Starscream who intends on taking his place as the new leader of the Decepticons. When Megatron is found by Unicron, and rebuilt as his agent. Frank Welker (Megatron’s voice) passes the torch to Leonard Nimoy. The deeper voice adds a new layer of menace to the character, indicating that he is much more dangerous than his predecessor. Indeed, his first act as Galvatron is to exact his revenge on Starscream. Whereas Megatron often threated Starscream, Galvatron announces his arrival and instantly transforms into a large canon and disintegrates him, in doing so reclaims leadership of the Decepticons.
It's not the only time Frank Welker and Leonard Nimoy have shared a role. In Star Trek 3: The Search For Spock (1984), Frank Welker provides the screams for the young Spock as his body regenerates on Vulcan.
8 8. The Matrix of Leadership was introduced, as well as much of the wider mythology that would be used later.
Prior to the movie, there had been contradicting origins for both the creation of the Transformer race, as well as for the beginnings of the war between the two factions. The movie added a new layer to the overall mythology in the form of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.
When Optimus Prime dies, he removes a large glowing crystal encased in a metal shell from his chest. He passes along a prophesy that “One day an Autobot shall rise from our ranks, and unleash the power of the Matrix to light our darkest hour”. It’s implied that the Matrix is a vastly powerful artefact, but no origin is given for it at the time.
At the climax of the movie, it is Hot Rod who unleashes its full power and destroys Unicron. The cartoon series goes on to explain that the Matrix is the accumulated wisdom of the Primes, and its goodness is what destroys Unicron.
Unicron’s motivations are left ambiguous in the movie, he seems to be merely moving through the galaxy devouring planets to sustain his energy. He appears to not be truly evil as such, he merely consumes lesser lifeforms for sustenance. Later comic books expand on his character greatly and depict him as a fallen god and a chaos-bringer, the embodiment of pure evil that intends to cleanse the universe of all life. In the comic books, the Matrix is revealed to be the Transformer god, Primus’ distilled essence, his power condensed into the Matrix so that it may be used to counter the Chaos-Bringer.
7 7. Originally, Ultra Magnus was To Be dismembered by the Sweeps but this was deemed too violent
During the Autobot’s time on the planet of Junk, they are ambushed by Galvatron and his new henchmen, Cyclonus and Scourge. Scourge has numerous clones, referred to as The Sweeps.
When Ultra Magnus attempts to use the Matrix to defeat Galvatron, he finds himself unable to do so as it will not open. Galvatron’s plan becomes clear, he is not subservient to Unicron, he instead plans to use the Matrix to enslave Unicron as it is the one object in the universe that the monster planet fears.
When Magnus doesn’t willingly hand over the Matrix, Galvatron doesn’t hesitate to order his death. The Sweeps fly in and blast him, seemingly destroying him. The original scene actually involved the sweeps lassoing Ultra Magnus and tearing him into pieces as they flew in opposite directions. While this was cut from the final release, there are still elements from the original script as the energy blasts coming from the sweeps is initially a continuous stream and not the blasts we are accustomed to.
6 Spike originally said "Oh s***, what are we going to do now?"
Spike Witwicky, heroic human and honorary Autobot, is one of the first to encounter Unicron. The first moon base with Jazz and Cliffjumper stationed there is consumed by Unicron and he quickly begins to approach the second. Spike and Bumblebee attempt to use the Autobots hidden weapons cache to destroy Unicron, but fail as he isn’t even dented by the massive explosion.
Spike panics, and in the original cut, exclaims the infamous line "Oh s***, what are we going to do now?” The VHS cut removed the line, but it has been on every subsequent release.
The real-world explanation for the line is simple. Adding a curse word to the movie changed the rating to a PG as G rated movies could not be played as often during the day as PG, PG-13 or R rated movies back then, allowing for more screenings per day.
While the line may seem out of place in a kid’s movie, it does show Spike’s level of fear as he is, presumably, about to be killed by the monster planet.
5 The animation is heavily inspired by both Anime and Star Wars
While the characters already introduced on the show use the same character models for the animation, the overall look of the movie is vastly different to the show. While there are numerous goofs in the background, coloring errors, dead characters are now alive in the background, etc., the animation is much more sophisticated. The detail in the animation is very much anime inspired, due to several animators having strong anime backgrounds. Blasters leave holes instead of bouncing off and the landscape changes due to battle damage.
There are enormous homages to Star Wars throughout, Unicron looks like a transforming Death Star and the planet of junk looks a lot like the trash compactor scene played out over a whole world. Also, during the brutal battle between Megatron and Optimus Prime at the end of the battle of Autobot City, Megatron wields a weapon that looks suspiciously like a lightsaber. He uses it to lethal effect, slashing Optimus in the abdomen several times, appearing to cause massive internal damage.
At the very end of the movie, as Hot Rod unleashes the power of the Matrix, he hears Optimus Prime’s voice in much the same way Luke Skywalker hears Obi Wan Kenobi’s during the attack on the Death Star. Coincidence? Or homage?
4 The Soundtrack
The movie's soundtrack is a mixture of arena rock and hair metal. Some, like Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” have gone on to become cult-classics and have appeared in several other shows and movies which reference the 80s.
The song “Instruments of Destruction” was modified to fit the movie as many of the lyrics were deeply unsuitable for an animated movie. For instance, the original version of the very first line is "Iron birds of foreplay". In the censored version, that is toned down to "Iron birds of fortune". While the band, N.R.G, had to record another version of their song, they considered it an honour to have it on the soundtrack as they were fans of the franchise. The song plays during the massacre on board the Autobot shuttle and sets the tone for the entire movie after that.
"Dare to Be Stupid" by "Weird Al" Yankovic, is used during the scenes on the Junkion planet. it’s uniquely fitting as it has numerous references to pop culture and is played during scenes featuring the pop-culture obsessed Junkion people. Weird Al would later have another association with The Transformers when he voiced Wreck Gar on the Transformers Animated show over twenty years later.
3 The storyline was cannibalised by comic book writer Simon Furman
When The Transformers comic books were being published by Marvel Comics in the States, they were being reprinted by Marvel UK in a weekly format as opposed to monthly. This meant that the UK comics had to produce their own material to fit in around the US stories otherwise they’d run out of stories.
Legendary Transformers scribe, Simon Furman came up with a clever solution to this problem. As the US comic stories were largely ignoring the movie and its cast, he used elements of the Movie, combined with aspects of time-travel to place Galvatron in the present day and even confront Megatron. The two evil Decepticon leaders would eventually team-up and become an unstoppable force which took the combined forces of the Autobots and Decepticons of two timelines to hold back. Eventually, it would be a storm created by time itself that defeated Galvatron, erasing certain events from the timeline. The epic “Time Wars” would not be the last time Galvatron would be used as Furman re-used elements of the story when he took the reins of the US comic a few years later.
2 Despite Michael Bay hating it, it does have several ties to the modern series.
Leonard Nimoy, Galvatron, is related by marriage to Michael Bay, the director of the recent Transformers film series. He even appeared in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) as Sentinel Prime.
Despite Michael Bay having frequently expressed his distaste for Transformers: The movie, he has used elements such as The Autobot Matrix of Leadership, Prime dying and being reborn, and it’s rumoured that the upcoming Transformers: The Last Knight will feature the Quintessons. While he may not be a fan, he’s certainly not above stealing elements of the movie to enhance his own Transformers universe.
While the Michael Bay movies show the Transformers as being killable, the notion that a Transformer can be killed originated with this movie. By the most recent release, all the original Autobot line-up except Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are killed. By the end of Transformers: The Movie, all but three original Autobots are dead.
The song "The Touch” is also one of Dirk Diggler's singles from Boogie Nights. He was played by Mark Wahlberg, who later played Cade Yeager in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).
Despite stating numerous times that the Dinobots were ridiculous, Michael Bay did eventually yield to fan-pressure and added a version of them to Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
1 The Movie Opened Up A Whole Universe
While the opening scrawl, lifted straight from Star Wars, describes the Transformers race as “unique,” the movie takes the Autobots to two separate planets with transforming robots.
The Junkions, pop-culture obsessed junk collectors, live on a world composed entirely of the assorted garbage of the universe. They appear to be related to the Autobots as they are of a comparable size and also transform into vehicle modes. The entire race appears to transform into motor cycles however. There is no reason given for this, save perhaps for an evolutionary necessity as the planet is difficult to manoeuvre on.
While the Quintessons themselves do not transform, they are tentacled beings or multi-faced floating judges, the Sharkticons much like the Junkions, appear to transform into near-identical piranha shaped robots. There is a subset of the species that appear closer to that of an alligator and it’s these that first capture Kup and Hot Rod.