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December 13-19, 2006

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Cult Leader

'80s Metal Rules: There's more than meets the eye to all the fuss over 'Transformers' at the Cameras' midnight movie

By Steve Palopoli

I WAS a couple of years too old for the Transformers craze. I didn't even know the difference between an Autobot and a Gobot, for chrissakes. But if you did, you know why geeks in Silicon Valley have been going batshit over the fact that the Camera Cinemas is showing 1986's The Transformers: The Movie as part of its midnight series this weekend. Even Amy at the Cameras was a little taken aback. She called to ask me about the whole phenomenon, of which I knew zilch. Nor did I know that I was working in a hotbed of transforming-robot nerdiosity. But the minute I started talking to the people around me about it, I was inundated with fan stories.

Felipe the photographer was the most impressive, delivering me an impromptu keynote address on the significance of the Transformers movie. It was actually quite stirring, despite the fact that I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Mostly he was standing up for the movie's most controversial plot point (if it is at all possible that anyone who doesn't know this actually cares, then consider this a spoiler warning): the death of Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. The Autobots, in case you didn't know, are good robots that turn into vehicles. The Decepticons are bad robots who turn into vehicles. They fought in something called the Great Cyclotronian War millions of year ago, then crash-landed on Earth. The idea is they get revived on Earth in 1984 and fight over the fate of the planet.

That got them through two seasons on TV and sold a lot of toys. The movie was designed to provide a bridge between the second and third season of the show. The producers decided to kill off a major character in the process, a move that made it a two-hankie affair for the PB&J set and led to quite a backlash.

But Felipe says the shake-up was just what the series needed—it had been getting boring by the end of Season 2. He points to the live-action Transformers film coming out next year as the ultimate proof that the naysayers were wrong. "They don't realize that the death of Optimus Prime spawned new toys, and a new generation of Transformers fans, and now a new Transformers movie 20 years later. If Optimus Prime had lived, it would have been 'yawn, same old thing.' Where would the story be in that?"

The fact that the movie seems to have a previously unrecognized cult status would seem to back up his point. Transformers have been sighted all over pop culture, especially in the last 10 years. Le Tigre put a song called "Decepticon" on their first record; Kevin Smith can't reference them enough (Clerks animated series and Clerks II); and best of all, the song that Mark Wahlberg sings in Boogie Nights in the recording studio is actually called "The Touch" and is from Transformers: The Movie.

I heard a lot about the death of Optimus Prime from Transformers fans. Music Editor Mike said it was his first experience with a spoiler. "My brother saw it and came home and said that Optimus Prime died," he said. "I didn't even care that he told me. I didn't know what a movie spoiler was. I just couldn't wait to see it."

Maybe the weirdest memory I heard was from my friend Melinda. She was the only girl I encountered who owned up to being a Transformers fan.

"I was in love with Optimus Prime," she told me.

"Really?" I asked. "Why?"

"I don't know. I liked trucks."

Scott Griffin, who books midnight movies for the Del Mar in Santa Cruz, ran into a similarly surprising cult-movie phenomenon when he booked 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it sold out. Who knows what other Generation Y cult movies have yet to emerge? "My Little Pony, maybe?" he theorizes. "Or Newsies? Stuff like that? Who knows?"

Melinda has an idea. Now, keep it mind this is coming from a woman who used to make a doll family out of a Transformer, a Barbie and a G.I. Joe, with a Care Bear, against all odds, cast as the dad.

"People would totally go to The Care Bears Movie," she says.

The Transformers: The Movie plays Friday at midnight at Camera 7 in Campbell on Friday, and Saturday at midnight at Camera 12 in San Jose. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Decepticon to here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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