Saturday, February 2, 2013

Transformers: Prime - Darkness Rising

As some of my previous reviews can tell you, I like Transformers. If you have read any reviews taking place in the current Transformers continuity (known by fans as the Aligned continuity for lack of an official term), you would know that I am a big fan of the Transformers: Prime cartoon on The Hub network, which is going into its third season as of this writing. When this show first premiered, it was in the form of a 5-part mini-series called Darkness Rising (this isn't the first time Transformers has had a five-parter, though the season one finale and season two premier for this show would form an arc lasting seven episodes). In the early stages of this show, Shout! Factory released a DVD that takes this mini-series and combines it into a feature, minus episode breaks and scene repeats. Since this technically makes it count as a movie (the back of the DVD even says it is), let's take a look at Transformers: Prime - Darkness Rising.

The Autobots Arcee (Sumalee Montano) and Cliffjumper (Dwayne Johnson) are on patrol on Earth in vehicle form when Cliffjumper gets a signal of Decepticon activity. He pursues it himself, insisting he doesn't need any back-up. He comes across a group of Decepticon troopers (called Vehicons in outside material) mining for Energon and transforms to take care of them. However, he is outnumbered and gets captured by the Decepticons Starscream (Steve Blum) and Soundwave, prompting the other Autobots, Arcee, Bumblebee, Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs), Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to investigate, coming to a rather unfortunate conclusion about Cliffjumper's fate. On another patrol, Arcee, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead take on a few Vehicons while trying to protect a couple of humans, Jack Darby (Josh Keaton) and Rafael Esquivel (Andy Pessoa); since these two kids know of the Autobots' existence, they are now under Autobot protection, though Arcee accidentally gets another, Miko Nakadai (Tania Gunadi) involved. Meanwhile, things get ugly when Megatron (Frank Welker) returns to lead the Decepticons on Earth. And this is only the beginning.

Though the description above is only one portion of the plot, what follows is rather suspenseful and intriguing. The writing is impressive, feeling like a movie more than a TV series (then again, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are two of the show runners, so it's no surprise). The robots themselves are written well, including Bumblebee and Soundwave, who don't really have any lines, as are the human characters, who stand above much of the human characters in previous Transformers cartoons (though admittedly Miko is a bit of a handful). Due to it being five episodes put together, there's five episodes' worth of twists and turns that will keep you watching until the very end. As for the story flow, it moves very nicely and at a good pace, better than when viewed in five parts.

One praise I can give this feature, animated by Polygon Pictures, is the animation quality. Every movement from a character on screen, including side characters and especially on the robots, is done extremely well, to where it feels very fluid and natural. I especially love all the subtleties in the animation, from the movements in a human characters' hair (when allowed) to the reflections of light and intricate scratches on the robots' bodies. It's worth watching this feature once just to catch the detail on the robots (I sometimes get lost in the down-shots of Optimus Prime's neck and shoulders for this reason). Emotions are another important element that the studio gets right, with humans and even the robots displaying all right feelings at the right times (this extends to Soundwave, who, despite not having a face, manages to be intimidating with his silence and body language). Overall, the animation work is very solid and it really shows that a lot of effort went into it, including inanimate objects and backgrounds.

The Autobots (from left to right): Bulkhead, Arcee,
Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ratchet

Another praise is the voice acting. With so many big names involved in Darkness Rising, including Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Steve Blum, Dwayne Johnson and even Ernie Hudson (as Agent William Fowler) among others, what could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, while not on as epic a scale as another animated Transformers feature, everyone delivers a solid performance that enhances the quality of the movie (including the human cast, which also includes Miko). The most interesting aspect of the cast, however, is the return of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, reprising their roles as Optimus Prime and Megatron respectively from all the way back to the 80's cartoon. For this alone, Generation 1 fans are sure to be delighted. In any case, the voice actors give a really good sense of each characters' personalities and emotions, which is something you can expect from having one of the best high-profile ensembles to hit Transformers or any other cartoon on this scale.

Then there's the soundtrack, orchestrated by Brian Tyler (who also worked on the 2009 Star Trek reboot and most recently John Dies at the End). His work creating the score is pulled off well, giving the film a very cinematic feel that only adds to the suspense and action on display. Alongside Vince DiCola's work in the '86 Transformers movie and the scores for recent installments to the Tron franchise, I would consider the music for Darkness Rising a real masterpiece, and one I am only too willing to purchase on CD (one is available, but it is definitely on my "want" list).

As this is part of a new continuity in the increasingly-confusing ever-expanding Transformers multiverse, it should be noted that this game takes place after the events of High Moon Studios' game, Transformers: War for Cybertron (there's also the Fall of Cybertron material, but War for Cybertron was the only other media at the time of the original broadcast aside from a book and a graphic novel later released as individual comics). The game features the element of Dark Energon as a central item, and while it shows up here, it is explained for those who have not played the game. However, if you play War for Cybertron before viewing this film, it comes across as a little jarring to see the Decepticons act as if they have never encountered it before. While War for Cybertron is an important part of the current continuity, which does get mentioned by Optimus Prime in his explanation to the human kids, it is not required to play in order to view Darkness Rising.

Transformers: Prime - Darkness Rising is an excellent introduction to the Transformers: Prime cartoon and a great way to jump into Transformers in general. On its own, the story is solid and everything comes together excellently, though it borders on a stand-alone movie and 5 episodes strung together. I would say that the quality surpasses that of the live-action movies in some areas, especially how it pulls off its human cast, although it's still very much a (subtle) toy commercial. I wouldn't go so far as to call Darkness Rising the greatest thing ever made, but it's certainly up there with other higher-quality Transformers productions. If you are a long-time Transformers fan, this is a good way to get acquainted with Transformers: Prime to see whether or not you think the new show is worth it (if you like it, the first and second seasons are available on DVD/Blu-ray). If you are a newcomer to the Transformers franchise, this is a perfect jumping-on point for you.

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