For countless years a civil war has raged on the planet Cybertron between two factions, the Autobots, who fight for good, and the evil Decepticons. This war has spilled over into the surrounding galaxy, including planet Earth, but now there is a new threat to the Transformers from a giant planet-sized robot called Unicron, which devours eveything in its path. And with the Decepticon leader, Megatron, out to eliminate the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, how will the Autobots win against these odds?
When Star Wars was released in the late seventies, one of the most lucrative elements to the craze was the merchandising; not only the T-shirts, badges and posters, but the toys as well. So it came to pass that by the early eighties the toys were not released to cash in on the film or TV programme, but vice versa: starting with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the Saturday morning cartoon was simply an advertisement for the latest line of action figures and toy vehicles.
Which brings us to the Transformers craze, which had started around 1984, and had been extremely successful by the time this film was out. Written by Ron Friedman, it pretty much looks like an extended TV commercial, showcasing an array of robots who, to the layman, would be largely indistinguishable from one another if it weren't for the odd choices of "doing it for the money" actors providing the voices. The Transformers can change into cars, trucks, planes, trains, dinosaurs and even a cassette recorder for some reason, but they pretty much fall into two categories: goodies and baddies.
The plot is an excuse for the robots (and practically everything in the film is a robot) to zoom around firing laser beams at each other and beating each other up. When Optimus Prime is incapacitated, he gives up the Matrix (not that one, this one's a sparkly globe) to whoever can rise from the ranks of Autobots to lead them. There follows a huge-scale battle where Megatron, now under the control of Unicron, attempts to seize the Matrix himself. It's not too difficult to see who the new hero is to be, as he's the one who saves the little kid early on. The whole thing proves you can blow characters up and subject them to all kinds of violence in kids cartoons as long as the characters are non-human.
The Japanese animation is acceptable, and isn't called upon to be anything other than ordinary, but going back to those celebrity voices, which are all treated to make them sound robotic. This was the last film work Orson Welles did, and I suppose it's appropriate he should voice a planet, but it makes you wonder what the recording sessions were like - did the great man treat this job with the same disdain as that frozen peas ad? And if you were building a robot, would you make it sound like Lionel Stander? Or Eric Idle, for that matter?
And why is there only one lady robot but loads of man robots? She never transforms into anything either - what could her purpose have been? The music is written by Vince DiCola, and consists of pseudo-heavy metal instrumentals and songs. The film ends with a voiceover promising more adventures to relieve parents of their cash in the future; if it looks like a cynical marketing effort now, as it did then to anyone over the age of twelve, the overwhelming power of nostalgia and an abundance of action ensures that Transformers: The Movie will be watched well into the future. And Paul Thomas Anderson is presumably a fan, because one of those aforementioned rock songs is (bizarrely) covered by Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.