Transformers: The Movie - Reconstructed Review
The following review contains portions taken from my choppy look at the film from 2004. Think of this as a reconstructed review itself. I‘m going to avoid the history of Transformers this time and get on with the film.
Transformers: The Movie takes place twenty years after the events of the second television series season. The year is now 2005 and the galaxy is threatened by a gigantic planet, known as Unicron. This seemingly unstoppable force roams space and eats planets; its next target - Cybertron. This isn't what the Autobots and Decepticons need right now, as both parties have been endlessly fighting in a bid to reclaim their home planet. Can Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Lionel Stander and co. defeat the evil Leonard Nimoy, who is being owned by the ridiculously huge Orson Welles? Find out in this Good vs. Evil epic.
The Transformers television series had been a fairly light affair up until the point that the movie was released theatrically. While this worked very well from a marketing standpoint it didn't stop the writers from trying their hardest to create new and interesting storylines. Despite their efforts, none really surpassed season one’s storytelling until the final season came about, and that was off the tail end of the movie. Transformers: The Movie went against everybody’s expectations. Sure it was about good vs. evil and it was inevitable that the good guys would win in the end, but it was far from cheery. The movie was dark; it featured a heavy metal soundtrack, provided some wonderful humour, but above all took its characters to places that no one dared to even think about. The opening sequence of the movie tells us that what is about to unfold can only be depressing; following up from the devouring of planet Lithone we’re taken to the Autobots headquarters where they are preparing for an important mission. Moments later Megatron and his cronies bump off four of the series’ popular heroes, with fan favourite Ironhide being mercilessly killed off screen by Megatron. The Decepticons always wanted to kill the Autobots but we never actually saw any destruction on screen during its TV incarnation, however this would all change in the move to the big screen. For some children it was still fun, for others they were facing the realization that their heroes were all too vulnerable - but the biggest shock was yet to come. Optimus Prime: The greatest Autobot leader who ever lived was struck down and left to die on a medical table after a magnificent showdown with his arch-nemesis, Megatron. The moment a fading Prime hands over the Matrix to his good friend Ultra Magnus signifies an event that will forever be remembered in the collective minds of fans. Prime was gone, evil prevailed and a new day dawned. Now Magnus must oversee the Autobots and lead the young generation, headed up by newcomer Hot Rod and his pals, Blur, Daniel, Arcee and Springer as they all faced their darkest hour.
There are several more pivotal moments that elevate the movie far beyond anything from the series that came before it. Up until this point the series had already created personal rivalries between several of its characters (namely the Decepticons) but now was the time for their inner feuds to come to a head, with the story being told as much as it possibly can through the eyes of both the Autobots and their enemy, the Decepticons. Megatron always had to deal with Starscream in one way or another; his constant whining and plotting to overthrow the Decepticon leader always kept the evil boss on his toes. Unfortunately for Megatron, his extensive injuries resulting from his fierce confrontation with Prime gives Starscream the perfect opportunity to realise his ambitions by throwing the dilapidated Decepticon to the wolves and finally adopting the mantle of leader that he so desperately covets. Of course, this wasn't the end of the mighty Megatron, for he would return bigger and badder than ever as the almighty Galvatron. And so the incredibly dim Starscream meets his fate and is reduced to nothing but ashes, never to be heard from again until a later series. With all these fan favourites leaving it was a wonder as to how well the movie would cope.
The reason Transformers: The Movie does work is because it is daring, the action is hard hitting and extremely brutal; seeing Autobots being ripped limb from limb with bolts and oil spewing is just as graphic as if these were humans oozing litres of blood. These machines who exhibited human qualities suddenly became sickening wrecks, with hollowed faces - if they’re unlucky. Those who live to fight another day still don’t get off too lightly. Ultra Magnus faces a nasty demise, though he’s lucky enough to have good friends who can fix him. All this carnage earned Transformers: the Movie a certain amount of controversy from the critics, who tore it to pieces. Its unprecedented violence did not impress the critics, who deemed the film unacceptable for young audiences - perhaps this is the very reason audiences seemed to largely stay away from it. There were decisive factors at the time of the movie’s release pertaining to its violence and even the one line of swearing that crept in. But many misunderstood the movie’s intentions. Obviously marketing is a big factor when it comes to film adaptations of Toy/TV franchises like this one, but more than simply lining Hasbro’s pockets, the film gave the writers a bigger stage and budget with which to take the story to new heights. And they did make some daring decisions, for instance killing off some of your major characters is never the best way to maximise the sales potential of your toys. Granted, a new toy line was soon introduced but it is worth pointing out that soon after production had finished, Hasbro had immense difficulty in designing the Unicron figure. It was quickly scrapped and never attempted again until many years later; which I feel is solid enough evidence that the characters in the movie were designed to further its own plot first and foremost. Artist, Floro Dery who designed practically every aspect of the movie has spoken since of his character designs, clearly telling us that the film had the upper hand. This was obviously a well thought out feature that would change the course of the series to the point that it could be potentially damaging. As it turned out it was a stunning revival that paved the way for new ideas, thus turning the latter series into conceptually brilliant ones.
With a new budget, and a larger one at that the movie was given far greater scope; filled to the brim with exciting action, punctuated by the music of Stan Bush, Spectre General (a.k.a. Kick Axe), Vince DiCola and even Weird Al Yankovich. It also managed to define the 80’s era, which became obsessed with heavy metal and rock in general. A lot of the clunky synth sounds that were packed into each episode week in and week out were discarded and brought in were songs that - although cheesy - provided messages within the film and added the kind of adrenaline that made its scenes so much more memorable. Vince DiCola, known for scoring many feature films provides the movie’s synthesized score this time, but he takes it beyond what we had previously heard and adds new refinement. His score captures each moment perfectly and provides a strong contrast against the theme songs that became synonymous with the movie. Try listening to any of them without thinking about where they originated; it’s impossible. Of course this is all complimentary to the actual animation put on display. The movie is deeper and richer than ever before, the animation is as remarkable today as it was twenty years ago, which can’t be said for many other films from its time. Even the original series shows its age, as does several other notable 80’s offerings. It’s rare that such a movie can still feel fresh after so long and still have tremendous replay value.
Another reason why the movie remains engaging today is that it has a great script. It all seems simple enough but what it boils down to is a script as strong as any number of standard Hollywood blockbusters. It has all of the right ingredients; classy one-liners, social commentary, themes of heroics and well fleshed out characters disguised by a series of well flowing, action packed set pieces. The characters involved are also given more life than we’d ordinarily expect. It’s not like this was a Disney production that would gain the interest of famous actors at the drop of a hat; yet somehow it acquired a roster of great talent to provide the newly introduced characters with their unique personalities. Peter Cullen, Frank Welker and the late Chris Latta naturally stuck around to reprise their roles of Prime, Megatron and Starscream respectively; as well as Scatman Crothers (Jazz) et al, but joining them was “Brat Pack” star, Judd Nelson (as Hot Rod), “Star Trek” ace Leonard Nemoy (as Galvatron), Python’s Eric Idle (Wreck’gar) and the great veterans Lionel Stander (Kup), Robert Stack (Ultra Magnus) and Orson Welles (Unicron). These performances give Transformers: The Movie additional weight; it feels epic and the roles are played passionately and respectfully, which is as much as the series deserves. Now the film owes itself to its central performers who help generate the levels of sympathy that might have slipped by so easily. But the script is a poignant affair and when called to pull off the difficult task of making us shed a tear over deceased robots these actors step up to the task and admirably deliver one-hundred percent.
But the movie isn’t entirely without flaws. It made the mistake of introducing Wheelie into the fold; a little jibber jabber of a robot who talks in rhyme non stop. As comic relief goes we get all that through our main protagonists, so it’s an ill-judged move to place in a character annoyance like this. Wreck’gar proved to be a better addition to the cast because of his bizarre TV induced personality, but Wheelie does nothing but annoy the often distracting Grimlock; whose main trouble is that he’s dumber than Lenny and talks in a tedious, monosyllabic tone. Still, at least Grimlock is familiar to us - the big lug, and is meant to reinforce the idea that the Dinobots are like this because they come from an age long ago. And then there is the robot dance number on planet Junkion, which is cheesy but has dancing robots! Otherwise the movie is free from major criticism, with these characters being sparingly used so as not to drag down any of its greater moments.
Metrodome Presents Transformers: The Movie for the first time ever in its correct aspect ratio. For those of you overseas you’ll be pleased to know that this is a R0 disc, which means you can play it on any machine, provided it accepts the PAL signal. This release also comes with a booklet about the restoration process, although I cannot comment on this as one wasn’t provided for this review.
So now we get down to the serious presentation side of things. This ‘Reconstructed’ DVD release from Metrodome has generated much interest amongst fans due to claims it would present the definitive version of the film. Not only would the transfer be sourced from the original negative, newly restored and re-mastered, but this edition would bring you more screen image than ever before – apparently exactly as the original animators meant you to see it.
To achieve this Metrodome have transferred the original negative to the full extent possible, approximating in a 1.41:1 aspect ratio (slightly taller and wider than the previous 1.33:1 Full Frame presentations) which is preserved within a 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer. This means you will see ‘curtains’ either side of the image (black borders to everyone else), as if you were watching a 4:3 presentation on your Widescreen TV or in a cinema auditorium. This in turn means that anyone watching on a 4:3 screen will be stuck with borders not only left and right, but top and bottom as well.
So what does this mean in terms of the overall image seen? Certainly for the most part the film has never been better framed with plenty more image detail mostly to the left and right of the frame, but also vertically. However, there are some problems with this decision that would have been cancelled out by the matting to widescreen on theatrical presentations of the movie upon its initial release, and later the minor cropping to 4:3 on home video presentations. Examples include the opening and closing credits which have a distracting white line to the right of the frame, and sections of the film where the bottom part of the image has foreground animation elements missing (see the pictures below to help clarify this). These issues do show up on a regular television and highlight the inherent problems that would usually be remedied by cropping. Here I have also decided to keep the screen caps fully intact. This way you can see how the image looks on a widescreen TV. Also I must point out there are several more examples of this throughout the movie.
With that aspect of the presentation covered, I can now move on to the quality of the actual transfer. Claims that the original negative was transferred directly were initially very hard to believe as immediately upon viewing the DVD it became obvious I was seeing the tell tale signs of an NTSC to PAL conversion (and a particularly shoddy one at that). Ghosting, artefacting and combing were all apparent as is macro blocking, something that is increasingly evident during the opening scene in which Unicron attacks Lithone. A recent statement from Metrodome confirms the lab in New York which handled the transfer for them went from telecine to NTSC and then to PAL, something Metrodome were unaware of and never caught in final quality control. This means their original claims were accurate, but ultimately dashed by a second-rate standards conversion. Matters are only made worse however as colour levels are a little problematic, with blacks faring the worst; these range from being fairly solid to having murky tints during space scenes, but the rest of the palette looks natural, with solid reds and strong grey shades. Brightness levels are high but suitable and only at times shift to darker tones on specific scenes, which also happens to occur on all previous versions. Detail is fine throughout, although some shots exhibit slight softness; while contrast levels are boosted considerably. Seeing as the disc clocks in at 7.11 GB (DVD-9) it really should look much better. All in all this is very poor.
Many fans will own either Rhino’s R1 release from a couple of years back or Maverick’s original R2 release; perhaps both even. For the sake of comparison I shall provide shots from these and the new reconstructed release.
As you can see, each version is notable in its differences. Rhino’s R1 shows strong clarity, although the transfer is too warm, slightly dark and has a red tint. Maverick’s original R2 release is quite poor, being too dark and washed out, resembling its VHS counterpart, while Metrodome’s R0 has some extreme contrast boosting. The Metrodome release does show significantly more information on all sides (look at Hot Rod’s back wheel). Neither of these releases are definitive however, so Metrodome still needs to do some work in future if they're to achieve a perfect edition.
Moving onto the sound, we have Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks. Naturally I decided to go with the latter, as the movie has always been in dire need of a quality remix. I’m happy to say that Metrodome have done a pretty bang up job in this department. The film’s glorious score is channelled across all five speakers and does a great job in pulling you into the action, although some instances forward too much to the central speakers, which becomes a little jarring. On occasion it does become a little too loud and threatens to drown out dialogue. Speaking of which, dialogue is forwarded to the central speaker well and stays at a good audible level. Most impressive is that sound effects have now been given far greater clarity and separation. Unlike previous DVD releases that simply forwarded everything across all the speakers, here we actually have it being utilized to its fullest potential. Jet fighters and Insecticons whoosh past the screen from rear to front channels in incredible style (just listen when the Insecticon and tank attack Hot Rod, before Kup kicks their ass), while laser effects sound great, and for the first time feel like they actually pack a punch. A good early example comes from a scene when Hot Rod crashes through Kup’s gate prior to when he and Daniel notice a hole in the incoming shuttle. There are many moments throughout that have been given impressive overhauls, but still one or two problems surface. Fans who have seen the film a dozen times or more will have already familiarised themselves with the sound and music. They’ll be very disappointed to learn that several of the film’s sound effects have been altered, including one of the most iconic moments, which has been tampered with to the point of annoyance. The scene I refer to is when Optimus Prime finally makes it back to Earth and confronts Megatron for a final showdown. As he makes his way across Autobot city he runs down several Decipticreeps before launching into an airborne attack with his rifle. When he lands he fires off a few rounds, to which we always heard an impressive pulse laser effect. This time around Metrodome have replaced the effect with a new, ineffective bang bang sound. While other scenes also have additions or removals (Galvatron having a tweaked cannon also) this is without a doubt the prize offender. Why they have done this I have no idea; the 2.0 track also features this new remix. These discretions aside the movie sounds pretty darn good and even coming from a big fan of the film I am all for most of these tweaks, as they genuinely enhance the experience. I will say though that original sound elements are always important and Metrodome should have preserved the original soundtrack for purists and fans alike. I am going to have to remove points because of these problems, no matter how good it might sound on a technical level.
It may also disappoint some to learn that subtitles have not been included for this release.
Metrodome recently issued a statement when grilled on the quality of this release. The following text is quoted directly from their official Transformers DVD forums:
We have had a response back from the lab in New York and they have informed us that they did go from telecine to NTSC and then to PAL, we weren’t aware that this was part of the process.
The newly revealed picture has shown some incomplete parts of overdrawing in the animation, but this is a compromise in order to show the maximum possible screen image throughout, which ultimately is the key differentiation between this and previous versions.
In terms of the 5.1 mix: this was newly created for this release from the original stereo mix. No extra sounds have been added, but due to the nature of a new surround mix derived from just two original channels, existing sounds will come through as louder than in previous incarnations. Hence the sound of the gun is not an addition, but merely louder than before, it was already on the soundtrack. The fact that the sounds are present on the stereo track as well indicates that our version is correct and previous versions are incorrect representations.
Make of that what you will. I am dubious about their claims that all previous versions of the movie had incorrect sound elements, and I'm especially insulted. It is not a question of Prime’s gun or any other effect such as his chest plate opening or laser fire simply being louder; they are noticeably different, plain and simple. Metrodome’s response makes no sense, particularly when you see how several scenes play out, using original elements and newly tweaked ones.
Compare and Contrast
Here you’ll find comparisons between the US and UK theatrical cuts of the film. First up are the opening credits. Over here we had always enjoyed an opening scrawl which was narrated and updated us on the Autobots’ present situation. In the US the scrawl and narration doesn’t exist. Instead it is replaced by Superman style credits that introduce the cast. Next up are the end credits. Again the same applies; the voiceover that explains to us that “The greatest Autobot of them all - Optimus Prime - will return” isn’t present in the US version. For that the scene just plays out after Hotrod’s victory speech. Lastly we have Spike’s expletive. As many fans are aware there is a moment in the film where Spike says “Oh shit! what are we gonna do now”?, after he and Bumblebee fail to flee Unicron. Until Maverick’s DVD release a few years back that line had been cut out. In the US it was always present. This last comparison is a little redundant, as the cut has since been reinstated.
For those wondering, this new “Reconstructed” version of the film contains the US opening and closing, and keeps Spike’s expletive intact.
US Theatrical Trailer (1.31)
This is the original “Rock ‘n’ Roll” movie trailer, with sounds from Stan Bush and Lion. Gravelly voice over man gets us all excited over the prospect of a cinema release, while plenty of good footage plays out.
Japanese Trailer (4.15)
This rare trailer is made available for the first time on DVD. The quality is relatively poor and appears to be tape sourced. Still it’s a treat for several reasons. We get to see extended shots of Unicron devouring Lithone, before witnessing the attack on the Autobot’s Earth base with an entirely different Ultra Magnus (in his original conceptual form). This is probably the best we’ll get for deleted footage, but if these exist anywhere then they’d be great to see in better quality on future releases. It’s a long trailer that gives away a few spoilers, particularly toward the end when Unicron transforms. Voice over man builds it up splendidly, going as over the top as he can. Good stuff.
US TV Spots (8.04)
There are twelve of these in total, which consist of a 60-second TV Spot Teen Version, 30-second Kid Version “Today”, 30-Second Kid Version “Now Playing”, “Opens in 3 Days”, “Opens Friday August 8”, “Year 2005”, “Sweepstakes”, “We Meet at Last” and four “Sharkticon” commercials.
The first few trailers are pretty exciting, with the whole “two years in the making” stuff, along with movie tunes, but then things start to become awfully repetitive. By the time we reach the Sharkticon commercials it’s nothing more than recycled toy advertising, with Peter Cullen as Prime doing the voice work. Still, some of them are very funny, so check out the little boy whose face transforms into Galvatron’s or the lads playing with their Hot Rod and Kup toys. The quality of these very greatly. Some are good, some acceptable and some just downright awful VHS copies.
These are divided between Autobot, Decepticon and Unicron. The Autobot and Decepticon menus feature bios for “survivors” and “R.I.P”. For the Autobots we have short files on Arcee, Blurr, Hot Rod, Kup, Springer, Ultra Magnus, Brawn, Ironhide, Optimus Prime, Prowl, Ratchet, Wheeljack and Windcharger. For the Decepticons we get Cyclonus, Galvatron, Scourge, Bombshell, Kickback, Megatron, Shrapnel, Skywarp, Starscream and Thundercracker. Finally, Unicron gets a measly seeing to, but then you can hardly expect info on his formative years. If you ask me though, I bet he was a really bad bot at school.
Title, Colour & Exposure Tests (5.18)
This is split into two categories, though both can be played together. The first looks at the final title check, which uses a temp score consisting of original Transformers TV series tunes. Much of this is made up of clapper board titles and shots from the US opening titles. Next is the cinex test, colour and exposure test. This starts off with flashing colours and the movie title, before we look at the opening, post title shots. The samples toward the end demonstrate laser effects and colour washes. I forgot how cool the original Transformers instrumental theme sounded; it’s nice to hear after all these years.
Takara - Headmasters. Episode 1: Four Warriors from Outer Space (20.22)
Anyone owning the original Maverick release of the movie will be familiar with this episode. While that was given a horrendous English dub, this one has the original Japanese language track, with optional English subtitles. This is a taster for Metrodome’s upcoming Headmasters collection. The episode isn’t too bad; those used to hearing the original English dub or even the movie may find the Japanese track a little strange. For some reason only Galvatron has a robot sounding voice, while all the other characters sound pretty normal, albeit butch - some a bit weedy. Other voices are funny, such as Blurr and Wreck’gar. All your fave characters are here, even Prime who came back late on in the series. As for the quality, it’s not too good. The transfer is dark and a little soft overall, along with some colour bleed, cross colourization and macro blocking. I can’t say for certain if this reflects the quality of the actual Headmasters release, though it seems very likely it will.
Original Movie Script
Inserting the disc into your DVD-ROM drive will give you access to the original movie script. There’s a couple of spelling errors here and there which isn’t too big a deal, but I find ROM material to be extremely off putting. This could have just been included as an onscreen extra to read straight from the menus.
Transformers: The Movie will never attain the kind of acclaim that it deserves within the film critic community, bar one or two of us. Thankfully the real fans can judge it on its many merits and enjoy it for being a brilliant slice of 80’s action cinema. Today it has no trouble competing against far lazier productions that are happy to generate a quick buck or cash in on successful films through shoddy sequels.
Metrodome’s new release sounded good on paper, but it is considerably flawed and is quite frankly an insult. This was the release that fans had been waiting for, and it’s my sad duty to report that it isn’t all up to scratch. Metrodome have talked up their release big time but they have failed to back up any of their claims, such as all previous versions having incorrect audio elements, along with them placing the film in the hands of shoddy authors without having any knowledge as to what they were doing with it. The very fact that this release shows more information seems to have gotten to their heads - to the point that they've overlooked several glaring errors. They have seriously underestimated their market; people who rely on DVD reviews to help them decide if these purchases are worth it or not, and they have failed to research their own acquisition properly. It's no good tailoring a film toward fans and not providing quality control checks; this could have perhaps been avoided had they kept their eye on the ball; as it stands “Reconstructed” means nothing when releases like this are so badly handled. This leaves me to say that I hope Metrodome can get it right next time. With them owning the rights there will be more opportunities to fix their mistakes, whether it be next year or the year after when the live action movie hits cinema screens. I don't like tearing apart releases for movies I really dig - so please Metrodome - take my comments (re)constructively.