For those of you who were too young, too old, or living in a cave in the mid-1980s, the Transformers are/were extremely detailed toy cars, planes, trucks, cassettes, stereos, and so on which were designed and sold in Japan before being licensed by Hasbro, renamed (and in some cases recolored), aligned into opposing teams of Autobots and Decepticons, given a backstory involving a crash landing on Earth after fleeing their home planet of Cybertron, and sold to many hundreds of breakfast-cereal-munching boys across America.
This animated film was released in the United States in the summer of 1986, just as the popularity of the Transformers toys and cartoon was hitting its stride both here and abroad. The half-hour cartoon featuring the Transformers had been on the air for a couple of years, and this movie provided a bridge between the second and third seasons--as well as a jump of about twenty years of continuity.
The timing of the movie introduced some interesting toy/cartoon dichotomies. It was written and animation was begun before the second season of the television cartoon, so very few of the second-year toys made it into the movie. On the other hand, almost all the characters introduced in the movie were brand new, and their toys were created from the cartoon instead of vice versa for the first time.
It's full of plot holes, like Transformers who appear in one shot and disappear in the next or who are briefly seen in the foreground several scenes after their death. And, to be perfectly honest, the story is lacking development in so many ways it's impossible to count them. But the animation was (by 1980s standards) top-notch stuff, the fights were great, the soundtrack was a blast (featuring some thoroughly eighties metal (hah!) in "The Touch" by Stan Bush and a reinterpreted Transformers theme by Lion, and Weird Al Yankovic's classic "Dare To Be Stupid"), and the new characters were really cool to look at.
The Story (spoilers follow)
It is the year 2005, the movie announcer declares as the film starts. When last we saw the Autobots and Decepticons, they were still more or less at a stalemate on Earth and Cybertron both. The Autobots had befriended many humans almost immediately upon being discovered here, most notably Spike Witwicky, who was a teenager in 1985 but by 2005 had long since married his girlfriend Carly and now had an eight-year-old boy, Daniel.
In that time the Autobots had also built a large Cybertronian-style city-slash-defense base near the site of their original crash, and while the earlier Autobots had adopted alternate modes resembling Earth vehicles, Autobot City's current occupants included many Cybertronian-style Autobots including Hot Rod (voiced by Judd Nelson), Kup, Springer and Arcee. However, Cybertron is under the control of the Decepticons, with the Autobots staging their rebellion from two moon bases and Autobot City on Earth.
But today is just not the Autobots' lucky day. Decepticon spies have informed their leader Megatron that an emergency shuttle is leaving Cybertron for Earth, and he personally leads his best warriors to hijack the shuttle in mid-flight, kill all the Autobots aboard (and catch a number of prepubescent boys in the audience completely off-guard in the process), and ambush Autobot City in turn by using the shuttle to slip past their defenses.
Fortunately, just before the Decepticons touch down, Daniel and Hot Rod penetrate their deception by--get ready for this--seeing Starscream standing in the gaping hole Megatron left in the shuttle's hull. The Decepticons attack immediately, and while you'd think the Autobots would have the home-turf advantage, the Decepticons have three major advantages: flight, Devastator, and no Optimus Prime. Nevertheless, the Autobots are able to hold Megatron off until dawn, when Prime and another shuttle of reinforcements arrive from Cybertron to kick asphalt and take names.
The result is a climactic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, which would probably have gone as every other one did in the past (i.e., Megatron is defeated and flies away grumbling, "I'll get you next time!"), except that Hot Rod jumped in to try and save Prime. Megatron gets the short-tempered putz in a hammer lock, holds him between himself and Prime, and proceeds to shoot Prime full of holes but, and here's the really egotistical part, without killing him yet. Then he throws Hot Rod away, stands over Prime, and tells him its over, giving him more than enough time to gather his strength for a double-fisted punch across the chest and over a cliff.
So now Megatron's in critical condition, Prime is near death, and the Decepticons are retreating back to Cybertron in Astrotrain's space shuttle mode. On Prime's death bed, he passes leadership of the Autobots to his (new) second-in-command, Ultra Magnus (voiced by Robert Stack), who is an excellent soldier but utter crap when it comes to planning an actual strategy. This leadership is passed in the form of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a kind of gold sparkling softball with handles, which Prime removes from his chest and Magnus places into his own. At the same time, Astrotrain announces that he needs a lighter load if he's ever to reach Cybertron, and the ever-ambitious and still-healthy Starscream encourages the ejection of their most injured passengers, including the unresisting Megatron. Hey, the Decepticons were never the most loyal troops to begin with.
Meanwhile, somewhere in deep space, a giant mechanical planet with horns called Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles in his final role) is watching this all going on. It turns out that he's been waiting a long time for Optimus Prime's death and the Matrix with him, and he's quite annoyed that it's been passed on instead. So he picks up Megatron and his fellow cripples and makes them a Faustian bargain: kill Magnus and destroy the Matrix, and I'll give you new bodies. Megatron reluctantly agrees, and is transformed (ha!) into a purple laser cannon named Galvatron (with a new voice by Leonard Nimoy), while his fellow injured become Cyclonus, Scourge and Scourge's clones the Sweeps. Before embarking on his mission, however, Galvatron takes the time to visit Cybertron, completely disintegrate Starscream during his coronation, claim leadership of the surviving Decepticons, and then continue on without any of them.
Cue the long tedious part of the film: Galvatron attacks Autobot city while they're still rebuilding, forcing the survivors to evacuate in two shuttles. The shuttle carrying Magnus is nearly destroyed, its survivors crashing on the planet of Junk. Magnus is blown to pieces, Galvatron takes the Matrix and leaves, and the remaining Autobots meet Wreck Gar and the Junkions, who are really only here to give the Autobots someone else to fight for a while.
Meanwhile, the shuttle carrying Hot Rod and Kup crashes on the planet of the Quintessons, who likewise serve no useful purpose in this movie except to tie up our heroes until they can be rescued by the Dinobots and Wheelie and escape in a rocket to be reunited with the survivors on Junk. The Junkions reassemble the suitably shame-faced Magnus and everyone flies after Galvatron and Unicron, using a scrapyard spacecraft the Junkions apparently kept around for just such an eventuality.
Speaking of whom, Galvatron has just arrived at Unicron's front door wielding the Matrix and announcing that he'll use the one thing Unicron fears to destroy his new master. Unfortunately, he forgot to check if he could open the thing first. Mildly amused, Unicron transforms around Galvatron in a beautifully animated sequence into the largest robot anyone's ever seen, takes a short flight to Cybertron, and proceeds to tear it to pieces for no clearly explained reason.
About this time Magnus, Hot Rod and the others come charging to the rescue like the Spartans defending Thermopylae against a single planet-sized Persian. They shoot away; nothing happens. Galvatron shoots away; he gets ingested for his trouble, along with the Matrix. Hot Rod flies his rocket through the reflex-less Unicron's eye and, while Magnus, Daniel and the others rescue several other Autobots from digestion, encounters Galvatron.
They fight; Hot Rod loses. Then Hot Rod grabs desperately at the Matrix around Galvatron's neck, which responds and opens for him either because he is the true next leader of the Autobots, or because he's the first to think of using the finger holes in the handles. Hot Rod transforms into the larger and more awkwardly-named Rodimus Prime, throws Galvatron out through a hole in Unicron's side, and opens the Matrix completely. This triggers a chain reaction which destroys all of Unicron except his head, but not before Rodimus can find the other Autobots and lead them to escape through Unicron's other eye.
And so, as the summer ends, the third season of the cartoon begins with Rodimus leading the Autobots on Cybertron and on Earth, the Decepticons homeless and searching for a brain-frazzled Galvatron to lead them, and the throwaway Quintessons manipulating their way into another takeover of Cybertron.