Of Unicron and Men: Mank, Transformers, and the Legacy of Orson Welles

In the now over century-long history of Hollywood, there are few careers and legends as storied as that of Orson Welles. His reputation evolved over the course of his life, but his legend only grew, whether as an ambitious young star on the rise, a pinnacle of the industry, and even as the drunk guy in that wine commercial. There is never a lack of things to talk about with Welles, and it is this very notoriety and legend that makes Mank such an interesting addition to an already abundant topic. Rather than simply investigating the established praise he has long received for Citizen Kane, the limelight of Welles’s greatest success is shone on the titular screenwriter instead. If you’re like me, you may have known about his difficult professional reputation, or his extra-cranky golden years, but you knew nothing of the toxic and manipulative relationship he designed with his Citizen Kane “co”-writer or his willingness to put the advancement of his own career ahead of anyone around him. Even when weighing for director David Fincher’s poetic liberties and the protagonist’s opposing point-of-view, the perspective remains a revealing contextualization of a storied life. Mank feels like a revealing of a story long forgotten, like something hidden from the public discourse that had shaped the legacy of Orson Welles and his works. From his reputation establishing War of the Worlds, to his gregarious demands to appear in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed Dune adaptation, to his sublime cameo appearance in The Third Man, Welles’ career has been well documented. Yet, there is one voice that had explored this exact perspective decades before Fincher’s film debuted, and it came from an unlikely source.

Transformers: The Movie is a 1986 animated film that serves as a direct continuation of the television show that had debuted two years earlier. Following the travels and trials of the titular morphing robots — the benevolent Autobots and their archenemy Decepticons — the movie introduces a new character as the primary villain of the story, a moon-sized and god-like robotic entity known as Unicron. A beyond massive consumer-of-worlds, Unicron drifts listlessly from planet to planet, devouring anything in its path with complete disinterest in the reality the Autobot heroes had been fighting to protect. The movie is notable for a few reasons, one of which being its intermittently violent and nihilistic tone; a point expertly explored in YouTuber Hbomberguy’s video “My Transformers Midlife Crisis.” Another would be its dual-function as a refresh point for the series, killing off countless main characters like Optimus Prime, Ironhide, and even Megatron (sort of) in order to rotate in new characters — and therefore new merchandise — into the universe. However, it is actually a third quality that makes Transformers: The Movie notable to this story. And that is the fact that this movie, a children’s movie that features a Weird Al song on its soundtrack, was the final film role of Orson Welles’s career.

Welles serves as the voice for the aforementioned Unicron, in a part that is both light in actual dialogue but heavy in importance. Much like the man himself, Unicron represents a gargantuan force. He dispatches entire planets as if he’s simply breathing air, and the normally impressive Autobots and Decepticons are made specks of dust by his sheer massiveness. As the audience is introduced to Unicron, he appears increasingly immortal, ignoring any resistance he faces as he barrels unchecked through space. Yet despite his scale rivaling those of Lovecraft’s old gods, he still manipulates and controls seemingly the relatively ant-like characters to serve his bidding. In fact, the only threat he’s concerned with is a power as abstract as his own existence. While bombs and bullets mean nothing to him, he seems terrified of the Matrix of Leadership, an powerful artifact that represents the hope at the heart of the Autobot cause, which had been carried by Optimus Prime before his death. And despite his immeasurable power, he is not totally apathetic to the Transformers he meets. As he barrels towards their home planet of Cybertron, he continuously torments and tortures Megatron (who he has reincarnated as the even more powerful Galvatron) at any sign of dissension or disobedience. Even in limited screen time, he appears prickly and stubborn, being pushed to anger more frequently than you’d ever expect from a being with the power he displays. As the movie comes to a close and the Autobots put up their final fight, the planetoid Unicron unfolds into a bipedal, humanoid form.

In his final transformation — which is instigated by Galvatron’s attempt to use the Matrix of Leadership against Unicron — the true Titan-esque scale of their enemy, truly showing just how microscopic Autobots and Decepticons and their own conflicts really are. Upon waking the Devil, the heroes no longer have to overcome an abstract, cosmic force, but to kill the god whose image they were molded in. Yet, as impressive as this reveal is, it is also the moment the once abstract evil becomes a man like them, and even if hope remains dim, Unicron’s mortality is suddenly more real than it ever was before. It is almost immediately after this moment that the Autobots finally find a weakness to exploit, crashing through the most symbolically human feature we have, the eyes. Once inside, our heroes win the Matrix of Leadership from Galvatron, and use its power to destroy Unicron definitively, sending his severed head into the abyss of space, his human form decapitated like Goliath in the wake of David’s unlikely triumph. And just like that, good overcomes the benign force of evil, slaying the elder god and reclaiming the peace they had lost at the start of the film.

"...the parallels begin to stack up in ways that alter your perception of not only Transformers: The Movie but of one of Hollywood’s first great auteurs."

Isolated within itself, the images and themes of this story remain in limited scope, seeming scattered or even random, indicating little to no significance. However, within the context that Mank gives us — as well as Welles’s symbolic casting as Unicron — the parallels begin to stack up in ways that alter your perception of not only Transformers: The Movie but of one of Hollywood’s first great auteurs. The way that the depictions of not just Welles, but also Herman Mankiewicz, William Randolph Heart, and Louis B. Mayer can find parallels in the movie become increasingly rich with significance. The Autobots had been preoccupied with their sisyphysian war against the comparatively inconsequential Megatron and his underlings, much like Mank’s prideful obsession with combating the system built by Hearst and his faithful employee, Mayer (a parallel to the fiercely loyal Soundwave, who’s powers revolve around his control of media and communication). Even Mankiewicz himself can be understood as not simply the new Autobot leader, Hot Rod, but as a stand in for the Matrix of Leadership, a symbol of the power and hope that serves as the heart to the Autobot cause, holding the only power that can defeat Unicron. As the Matrix threatens Unicron’s seeming immortality, so do the ideals and mind of Mank threaten the kingdom and influence Hearst controls, sitting as the only voice of dissension ever found inside his court.

However, just as Mankiewicz’s protests and rants fail to ever bring Hearst’s empire to ruin, it is clear that the Matrix of Leadership was never really going to end the Decepticons reign of terror. Even Optimus Prime — the holder of the Matrix — dies to Megatron in a fight that sees the end of both characters as we knew them. Yet, the movie goes on to show us that the Matrix hadn’t failed, but it had simply been meant for the real villain who our heroes hadn’t even realized was there. Throughout Mank, Orson Welles hardly appears, only talking to Mankiewicz over the phone, and only meeting him in the flesh once, while the writer laid in a daze after a car accident. As the film comes to its end, however, Welles finally appears before Mank, no longer the symbol of power pulling strings from the darkness, but as a man equal to our protagonist. And just like Unicron, this show of humanity is what leads to his defeat. Standing as equals, Mankiewicz is able to make the cracks show in Welles’s formerly pristine image, fighting the authoritarian control he had demanded, and driving him to sudden and unexpected anger, striking his mortality while looking into the same eyes that were Unicron’s downfall. If any Hollywood figure had seemed godlike in their powers, it would be Orson Welles, but one short scene rips that image apart, revealing him as a recklessly ambitious and selfish man. Mankiewicz wins what he was fighting for, claiming the writer's credit he wanted and cementing his name in the movie that defined its era. Like the Autobots, he finally defeated the force that had threatened what was most important to him, reclaiming his artistic voice and securing his place in history.

"Orson Welles went on to become a legend, now considered one of the greatest figures in cinema’s history, while his former co-writer’s story went nearly forgotten."

In both movies, however, the victories are not without loss. The Autobots had lost their leader and dozens of their friends in their battles, faced with rebuilding a world that had been decimated. The Autobots sacrificed a great deal to overcome the galactic threat of Unicron, losing nearly everything just to reclaim their hope and future from the clutches of total destruction. Mankiewicz’s victory over Welles comes at a cost as well, burning his last bridge with Hollywood, further damaging his relationship with his family, and ultimately succumbing to his poor health before ever writing another great screenplay. But unlike the Autobots, the little hope won is much more bitter. There is no bright future for Mankiewicz to ford through, where his story being told at all is perhaps the little gain he earns at all. Whereas Unicron is destroyed in Transformers, the man who would voice him was hardly dented by Mank’s fight. Orson Welles went on to become a legend, now considered one of the greatest figures in cinema’s history, while his former co-writer’s story went nearly forgotten.

In reflecting on the Mank, Unicron, and everything they share, the part I most wonder about is Orson Welles himself. Did Welles know how the role of Unicron would parrot his how career? Did he even see the parallels that reflected the complex role his life played not just in the public eye, but in the many lives who intertwined with his professional life? As he sat in the booth, playing the role of a world-eater whose importance in his universe matches the success and influence Welles gained for himself, did he ever remember the once-friend who challenged him, whose career he destroyed in retaliation? In seeing the figure who would embody his voice, did he perhaps reflect and wonder how it could have gone differently?

Probably not, it's just a cartoon toy movie.

-Reed Sawyer is OBC's Blogster at Large, who unilaterally thinks Zach Morris is trash currently living in the greater Boston area.

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