To some people, the best Christmas movie is Die Hard. To some, it’s Gremlins. To me it’s The Transformers Movie.
But you might point out that the reason those movies are held up as Christmas movies is because Christmas plays into them! And, wittily, they might say, there is something essentially Christmas-toned about them which will allow you to watch them on a technicality on your Christmas weekend, as if you need to cheat the rules to enjoy your own time off, or the smugness makes the experience sweeter. You might want to make a point of the use of Christmas as a central plot element in Gremlins and that’s great, but that’s not why The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie to me.
The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie for me, because it, to me, feels like Christmas.
Waiting On Today
I’ve spoken in the past about being a former cult member, about what it does to your connection to culture in general. That’s not the only thing that impacted my participation with popular culture, though – because I was born before the era of instantaneous simultaneous digital distribution.
These days, when someone drops a song from an album, that song is everywhere immediately. It’s sold on every digital front-end, and it’s played on every radio. We live in a place where a three-day delay between American and Australian releases of an episode of Game of Thrones is enough to turn people off conventional access. There’s actually a whole conversation had about the zeitgeist and so on, but forget that right now. The thing is, Transformers came out in movie theatres in 1986 – and some ten years after that, it was being screened on Channel Seven, Free to Air TV.
Every Christmas day, at noon.
This happened enough that I remember it as a fixture. For all I know it was three or four times, but it feels like it was every year that we went down to visit my grandmother on Christmas morning. There was breakfast, there was a puritanical how long can you wait for presents, and then, after that, Dad went to have a nap (for the rest of the day), mum and nan hung out and talked, and I watched TV.
My Nanna is gone now. I remember her, every time I visit my parents, who now live in her old home. As Christmas draws near and that house takes on the same guise as it used to, I find myself wondering about that feeling, about that now. I start to wonder which of these old icons that matter to me are going to matter to my nephews. And I remember and realise that this movie is one of the few nostalgic things of the now that connects me to a period in history I sort of missed. Because I wasn’t a toy-hoovering show-watching Transformers fan. The show wasn’t shown where I could watch it. I got to see an episode or two, I got some of the toys second hand, and I even owned a Universe book, but these things were all obtained through a distant lens.
Remember, I was at this point careful of going out to the supermarket, because I might hear a rock’n’roll song.
I loved this series, I loved the idea of it, but crucially, the Transformers stuff that mattered to me wasn’t the continuity of Generation 1 and what that greater story meant, what mattered was this movie and the stories I could tether together out of reading the backs of boxes in supermarkets – which I was hastily bolting out of soon to avoid corrupting music. The people of Transformers were to me, made out of the memorised backs of cards, the vaguely constructed continuity, and toys bought from the second-hand Salvos store, broken and missing all sorts of parts and mixed in with Go-Bots.
What people see and reminisce because it was a cultural continuity for themselves, is for me, a moment of living archaeology that came from a distant place. I was an outsider in that now. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know the continuity, I didn’t know that Transformers is as shallow as a teaspoon and didn’t know that the story kept resetting – and the scale of it convinced me that it was a vast, vast epic, and I was taking in tiny moments, wondering when those things mentioned on box-backs were going to happen.
Before I was ever a fan of Transformers, I was a fan of being a fan of Transformers. And the story I imagined was one borne in the promise of The Transformers Movie.
The Piece As Art
The Transformers aren’t that amazing – they’re often unshaded in a really big way that make their faces look weird and unexpressive. It wasn’t uncommon to the style for characters to have faces that were block colours (because shading is hard). Check out these examples where a character takes centre focus.
When you take characters like Wheelie or Grimlock, you see the limits of expression. Check out here. See how indistinct Wheelie’s face is from a distance because his design is trying to serve the robotness and the fixed, inflexible parts of his head. You’re left with a very small feature and it’s hard for it to express anything meaningful.This is why the two characters represented in this panel express themselves primarily through their posture and their action rather than their expressions. This comes out in the way the series uses voice: The most notable characters have very distinct voices, often done through massively obvious speech affects.
Ever notice that? Blur, Arblus, Grimlock, Wheelie, Blaster, Soundwave, Galvatron, Starscream, Wreck-Gar, Arcee, Rumble, Frenzy and (to an extent) the Constructicons, and of course, Unicron, they’re all characters who have an obvious accent or way that distinguishes their voice. Yes, Arcee Being A Girl is distinctive. Some characters have voices that are kinda budget versions of the others. But that’s how Transformers work, because their voice has to do the job their faces can’t.
Which is harder still when you have a face like Optimus Prime’s. This poor dude hasn’t got a mouth. This means that Optimus Prime tends to be carried by his voice and his tone and style, rather than his expression; this can make him a bit unsubtle, but that’s what he needed. Without subtlety, Optimus is inscrutable until he speaks, and therefore, what he has to say is almost always the most intense and sincere version of things he can say. Optimus can’t even really yell – even if he just raises his voice, it’s not yelling. It’s just being louder.
You can look then to the way Optimus conveys himself. His character design is every piece of Noble Signalling you can get within his confines. He’s red white and blue, he’s tall, he’s square jawed and shouldered, and he is always being a Good Guy. He is sad when things are cruel, he is calm when people are stressed, and he is always reasonable. Once when describing D&D paladins to a friend, we were trying to find a good example of what kind of knight that was, and his brother interjected with:
He’s like Optimus Prime.
And that was it. They got it.
So the voice and character work in this movie full of broad, dull archetypes conveys the characters, and cover for the fact that the robots as designs don’t look that good. But the artists of this movie weren’t content with that, and when the time came to do backgrounds?
The Face Of Evil
Hey, you. What do you think, I mean, really, what do you think of Satan?
I believed in Satan. I believed not in Satan as an abstract. I believed in him in really. I thought he was an actual real person who hung around the world and could be anywhere and literally had enough time to micromanage the lives of individuals. To me, evil was always a thing that could have a personality, a thing that had a face. It was vast, and it was transcendant.
Unicron scared the shit out of me.
The first time I saw Unicron he terrified me because he was Evil, but not Satan.
I don’t think I can convey to people how hyper-literal the cult upbringing made me. I thought that songs all spoke of actual events and that most stories, in some way or another, were about a real thing, or a real event. After all, I kept hearing the same twenty songs over and over, and I kept reading retellings of the same ten Bible stories, over and over again, so I assumed that almost every story I knew was, in some way, true.
This is not a mindset that lets you be healthy, by the way.
Unicron was everything I knew evil could be; selfish, powerful, offering bargains and enforcing demands. He could consume the world and own your soul, and when you thought after all the story that you were dealing with something inhuman and incomprehensible, you saw to your horror it was worse. It was a creature, a person, and that person dwarfed the things that dwarfed me.
Please, try and imagine that. Imagine watching this movie, and seeing worlds consumed in massive metal industrial jaws from someone petty and selfish and demanding, and thinking this is a real thing and it can obliterate the things that can obliterate me.
There’s this strange middle point when it comes to discussing The Transformers Movie. There’s the cynical dismissal of it, how it was just a toy commercial, and that being a toy commercial invalidates the meaning people see in the death of Optimus Prime. There’s a similar juxtaposition where The Touch and that moment, one shall stand, one shall fall, those two things are, imbued with the wonder of a child, the purest and most true expression of a great story moment and the death of Hamlet or whatever.
To me, that was an extravagent indulgence. A taste of power. This moment was clearly a good moment – it showed a hero sacrificing himself, dying as Sampson did, and he did so to save his friends, so there was a clear moral avenue, too. The rock music that played, then, I reasoned, must be in some way, dignified. It must be sacrosanct.
For the longest time of my childhood, I was of the belief that Stan Bush actually literally spoke in that moment with the voice of God.
Don’t think I’m exaggerating there. This isn’t some Preacher nonsense. This is an idea about the expression, the actual literal view of Biblical literalism that flowed from the concept of the infallible King James Bible. I was left with the impression that I had found, in this transcendental moment, an actual real moment of modern miracle.
And then we were shown death.
The cult I was in was, in a very true way, a cult that worshipped death, but was not by any means a death cult. We told stories of death, and of people whose only and most important virtue was a willingness to die. Martyrdom while brutal and sad was paramount in our stories. Story after story of my childhood were tales of death upon death, a meaninglessly deep pile of corpses of figures of respect and reverence, who, we were told, died with meaning as their lives passed on into the next, where they were welcomed by Jesus and their deaths were turned to good.
The work of dying, in Transformers was not so obvious. There were no guiding forces, no immediate unravelling. Death did not solve things, but rather, death brought with it new things – and Optimus Prime handed on the Matrix of Leadership to the wrong person. There was an error in this tragedy, and that took the whole story rest to sort out.
My church told me that death was noble, but Transformers told me that honouring the dead with our lives was meaningful.
Learning To Hope
The Transformers Movie is something you can analyse from a lot of perspectives. Commercialism, story structure, the way the constraints of storytelling met with the demands of engineers, branding, marketing, as part of the cultural zeitgeist, its relationship to censorship and parental expectation, a moment of shared trauma in the culture and so on, but I don’t know if there are many people out there who can analyse it from the perspective of a messed up Christian Fundamentalist who wasn’t sure about whether or not slavery was bad.
I was a miserable child. I was regularly subjected to violence even as the media my family showed me was full of righteous violence, of punishment visited upon sinners who raised their hands against the innocent. I was taught, over and over again, that the church brought with it fellowship and comfort, kindness and succor, and it was the world outside, the evil outside the church, that would hurt and destroy us, even as every day, I was destroyed again and again in my attempts to build an identity of who I was. The lesson was that the presence of Christ would heal me, that the life of holiness would protect me, and that I had to listen to my heart to understand what God wanted for my life. Once I had that, I would be safe, and I would understand.
The Transformers Movie made me happy. I didn’t really realise it at the time. Part of it was the comfort of being around my Nanna, away from the church, away from school and the daily beatings. It took me a long time to piece together that this movie, this thing I kept trying to rationalise and justify, and to make work within my Christian perspective was something that made me happy.
And as the church broke around me, as crimes and sins became evinced, and as I had to learn how to be a person as a grown adult, I feared going back to watch this movie again. To see how it was terrible and sad and awful and I was pathetic for feeling anything about it.
And then I tried it.
And those notes happened again.
And I felt happy.
I miss my grandma. I miss the childhood I didn’t have. I miss the story people tell of carefree childhoods playing with toys they had, with friends they had who had the same toys, who could talk about the latest episode of the cartoon, and who could enjoy and appreciate what they saw and who can even now feel nostalgia for the life they had there as this story transports them back to it.
And I watch it again, around Christmas.