(This entire entry is about Transformers, and nothing else. You have been warned.)
At the 2-9 cafe this week, the conversation turned to the upcoming live action Transformers movie, and then naturally to the classic 80s cartoon series. One of my friends mentioned that he owned a copy of the old 1986 Transformers feature film, the one that traumatized an entire generation of American boys by depicting beloved Transformers characters — lots of them, in fact — being brutally gunned down. (Nobody ever died in the TV series.) My friend said it actually holds up pretty well, and I was curious, so I borrowed it from him and re-watched it last night.
It was a strange experience. When you’re talking about Transformers, you’re getting awfully close to my very earliest childhood memories. It’s not often that impressions from when you were five years old rise to the surface. One thing that really hit me was the sense of menace and alieness that the evil transformers used to inspire in me. (It’s almost the same feeling I sometimes get now from reading Lovecraft.) I mean, it’s not that I did believe that the world was full of planes and consumer items that might suddenly, horrifyingly reveal themselves to be gigantic alien robots, but the possibilty was very palpable. Hearing Shockwave’s muffled, reverberant voice for the first time in years actually gave me shivers.
I remember my dad never showed much interest in watching the cartoon, but I got him to sit through the feature film once by promising that it was like a real adult movie with an amazing storyline. When it was over, he allowed that it was better than the TV show. Watching the movie now, I’m amazed he managed to endure it, since 98% of the screen time is just cartoon robots blasting/smashing each other, and all the dialogue is pretty awful. Though the movie does contain some visuals that still awe me. You have to give the writers credit for not thinking small.
At the movie’s climax, the hero, Hot Rod, is transformed into Rodimus Prime, an even more expensive toy … sorry, I mean an even more powerful robot. I remember my dad was confused by this, and I thought he was dense, but it really does make absolutely no sense. The weird thing is, I can vividly remember feeling as a kid that it made sense, but now I don’t remember why.
Transformers featured five characters called constructicons, each of whom could be a robot or a piece of construction equipment, but who could also combine into one even more gigantic robot. I remember this prospect used to thrill me more than anything on earth. Unfortunately, I only ever got my hands on two of the constructicons, and, maddeningly, they weren’t even two who fit together in any way. (I think one was the right arm, and the other was the left leg, or something like that.) I once read a Neil Gaiman quote to the effect that he spoils his kids because he remembers how exciting it was to get toys as a kid, and that if he can buy that much human happiness for a few lousy bucks it’s worth it. I hear that. These days my capacity for thrills is much diminished. I could get married, win the lottery, and get a ten-book contract all on the same day, and that would be awesome, but still not as exciting as getting all the constructicons when I was five.
I also remember how Transformers transformed me into a young death penalty advocate. Every week the hero, Optimus Prime, would subdue the villain, Megatron, only to pronounce that being a real hero meant showing mercy, to which Megatron would chuckle under his breath, “Ha! Only fools show mercy. Mercy is for the week. You can bet I’ll be back to get you next week, Optimus Prime, bwahahahaha!” and I’d be waving my fists and screaming, “No, you idiot! Don’t you ever learn? Kill him! KILL HIM NOW!” I’m not sure if that’s the message the show intended, but it’s certainly what I took away from it. It’s a little scary how much a cartoon like that can influence your worldview when you’re a kid.