This review contains mild spoilers
Continuity. Or Continuities, more accurately, is the defining trait of the Transformers franchise.
While Star Wars expands to fill every nook and cranny possible with intricate backstory, and Star Trek adds thick strata of history with every new series (although it does like a reboot), the world of the heroic Autobots and treacherous Decepticons has to re-invent itself periodically. After all, it is a toy-delivery mechanism first and foremost. How can you sell the new Optimus Prime figure without explaining who he is and why he turns into a truck? A fresh cartoon is the most effective way to do that, and voila! a new canon is manufactured. This creates issues, of course.
This production line of reinvention has lasted almost forty years now. There are at least seven different timelines, each one encompassing numerous TV shows, comic books, computer games, and films. New characters, plot devices, and MacGuffins are inserted every time, ballooning the mythologies further.
A premise that was thrown together by Marvel Comic’s Jim Shooter to clothe a range of Japanese toys, each given names and personalities by Bob Budiansky over a single weekend before Thanksgiving 1983, is now a planet-sized chunk of very heavy metal.
Now a new continuity has begun, this time on Netflix, with the ungainly title Transformers: War For Cybertron: Siege. It’s a Rooster Teeth production, officially their first project for a third party. This series description makes it clear the show is taking it back to where it all started, again: As the Autobots and Decepticons ravage their planet in a brutal civil war, two iconic leaders emerge in the Transformers universe’s origin story.
I was just the right age for the first generation cartoon back in the 80s; the franchise thumbed it’s way into my soft young brain and never really left. My first flush of adult disposable cash coincided with the ‘Book Box’ style of reissued toys in 2002. Over the years I did lose interest, I eventually sold my collection, and the first Michael Bay movie proved to be the final nail in my personal fandom. I still harbour a love for those goofy toys, though.
War For Cybertron seems aimed at my age group; adults with an enduring love for the franchise but seeking for something more “mature”. And it delivers maturity in spades, if a forcibly grim atmosphere counts.
Bumblebee – normally the franchise’s gateway character and relatable everyrobot – is introduced as a decidedly unlikeable scavenger only interested in survival before having secret knowledge forcibly downloaded into his brain. Decepticon leader Megatron grapples with the decision to commit genocide, whilst the honourable Optimus Prime and Elita One exchange wistfully about their lost love, crushed underneath millennia of brutality.
The characters alternate from being impervious to laser blasts to surprisingly vulnerable. There are bursts of violence that reinforce the misery – with limbs and heads being sliced off, enormous gaping holes blasted in others, and one ripped apart limb from limb by undead rust zombies.
There are still the bumbling bad guys and the wisecracks you would expect in a Transformers cartoon, but they come off as jarring in amongst the grime. In a world where the good guys and the bad guys are easily distinguishable by the colours of their eyes, are themes concerning PTSD and war crimes really welcome?
The plot is another issue. Even at only six episodes, the story is painfully thin. Very little happens. Characters walk back and forth – and boy, for robots that can change into cars and planes and tanks they sure do a lot of walking – discussing what they’ve just done or are about to do, in great detail. Why accomplish in seconds what can be stretched out into scenes that last for minutes? Optimus Prime’s plans are questioned by his second-in-command repeatedly. Treacherous lieutenant Starscream snivels out his grievances at least once per episode. Allegiances and rivalries are stated and re-stated. It takes the entirety of the season to catch up to the sixth minute of the 1984 cartoon.
Where the show really flourishes is in it’s design. The characters are for the most part exceedingly well done, and the artwork is excellent – the robots are satisfyingly dented and scuffed, though the animation is strangely weightless sometimes; perhaps because of their faithful accuracy to the upcoming toy-line. The planet is strikingly designed and beautifully atmospheric in parts; one scene features giant dust storms that clearly homages Mad Max: Fury Road, in a good way.
Of course, this is just the first part of the trilogy, and maybe fresh ideas are waiting to be discovered in the next instalments – of which no release dates have yet been confirmed. Unfortunately, these episodes are shallow and unnecessary when judged on their own merits. The eternal recycling of this origin story is sadly lacking and desultory, especially when it’s shrouded in so much intentional darkness.
Eventually the producers of the Spider-Man and Batman films realised origin stories were no longer necessary (let’s hope this trend continues with the upcoming Robert Pattinson effort); it’s a shame the same cannot be done in the world of the Transformers.
The original voice actors for Optimus Prime and Megatron, Peter Cullen and Frank Welker respectively, are both replaced here. Jason Marnocha’s Megatron stands on it’s own merits, unfortunately Jake Foushee sounds like a sad impersonation of Cullen.
Several characters mention it, and a memorial is seen commemorating the battle of ‘Tarnhauser Gate’ – a nod of course to Blade Runner and another violent robot, Roy Batty.
Do the female robots really have to sashay their hips as they walk? I suppose it’s an improvement that they’re not all coded pink these days. Progress!
Transformers: War For Cybertron: Siege is available now on Netflix.