by Christopher Farris,

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege
The war between the Autobots and Decepticons has reached its darkest point. The Autobots are desperately low on resources and morale, questioning the leadership choices of Optimus Prime and threatening to fragment from exhaustion. Meanwhile, the Decepticons' single-minded goal of conquest has some of the original movement questioning their cause, with Megatron himself lost to his own ambitions. A chance discovery thanks to a neutral Energon scavenger named Bumblebee gives the Autobots a chance at tilting the war in their favor, but then Megatron's side finds something of their own that could instead in the conflict in a horrific genocide. With both sides jockeying for this decisive victory, it may fall to the sudden turns of principled soldiers and third-party interlopers to truly turn the tide of the war.

Once just a background element to the story of the Transformers winding up on Earth, the run-up of the war for their home planet of Cybertron has been gone back to and detailed many times now in the franchise's media history. Netflix's cumbersomely-titled Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege series, the first in a promised trio of shows by Japanese animation studio Polygon Pictures, seeks to be the latest take on this particular part of the story. It's also immediately apparent as having more particularly stylistic ambitions. This is a grim, dark, serious take on the Generation 1 Transformers known and loved in pop culture, presented as a mature ‘anime’ series for grown-ups, but you know, still rated TV-Y7 and tying in with a line of action figures you can buy at Wal-Mart. It wouldn't be Transformers otherwise.

The thing is, while it's easy to cynically snark at Siege's ambitions, it surprisingly works for the most part. The series chooses its grim palette and dark virtual camerawork, but it hardly overplays them in a way that feels like desperately reaching for adult relevancy. It carries a unique-for-the-franchise style of trying to really show the effects of the Autobot/Decepticon war on the planet and people involved. There are medibays filled with wounded soldiers being tended to with resources that are running dry, and the ideologies and principles that led these characters to where they are in the conflict are starting to strain and snap with their nerves. The short, contained nature of the show means we feel like we're only seeing a piece of the broader picture of the whole war, but the general tone, such that Siege is reaching for, feels right enough.

The show pointedly leans on “The 80's cartoon, but grimmer” as a template, yet makes some choices with characters and stories that lead to it feeling fresher in places than you might expect. The most immediately noticeable element, to me anyway, is its take on Bumblebee. Far from the chipper young hero eager to prove himself, Siege takes the little scout in a very different direction. He's placed at the center of the conflict we see in a rather literal way, not being an Autobot yet but instead a neutral player who ends up having to make a choice about where he ends up in the war. It makes him interesting to watch overall, even if his hand is forced by a more obviously story-mechanical development involving a plot device than a decision with such gravity deserves to develop. Similarly, the series uses characters like Impactor (in his first appearance in animation) to demonstrate how loyalties can be tested and changed even late into a conflict by interacting with others on different sides of its effects. Even Megatron's been reimagined into a more purposeful war-scenerio role, showing off his oratorical abilities in using situations to turn public opinion against the Autobot cause.

It's good that the snapshot composition of what Siege shows us mostly works, since there are notable stumbles in how it actually articulates that plot. The most obvious issue is the pacing. Even at a mere six episodes, this thing has ‘Netflix Pacing’ in full effect in stretching what should probably have just been a movie to fit that format. The first few episodes in particular feature extensive sequences of characters standing around and ponderously reiterating the same plans, principles, and doubts that lead them to approximately one punctuating action sequence per episode. The idea is of course to communicate the tiresome ennui of the conflict, but it mostly just makes the show a drag in its first half as the Autobots, Decepticons, and us in the audience seemingly wait around for something to actually happen. The story definitely comes to life in the second half, after several characters have been sufficiently shuffled around to motivate things to move. But it can still be a challenge of engagement to get there after, for instance, an opening scene where a confrontation between Autobots and Decepticons leads to a long-feeling standing argument about how complex and messy the conflict is before Optimus Prime drives in and starts bashing people.

Similarly, the choice in structure limits how we can actually be shown the overall plot of this story. As mentioned, Siege expands on the Cybertronian war that leads to the robots making their way to Earth, but it only focuses on the final days of the conflict on their home planet. The hows and whys of the war are only discussed in knowing vagaries by the characters in those many talking portions, with lots of proper nouns from Transformers history peppered in for some context. Established fans of the franchise will be able to guess at the basic template this iteration of the war is built on, but a lot of the specifics are, for now, left to the imagination: The exact identity of the oppressors that Optimus and Megatron originally rose up against, or who Alpha Trion actually was or what motivation Megatron may have had for killing him. This simplifies some storytelling elements that the writing might trip over otherwise, but ironically means that Siege feels both too long and too short for what it is. Sure there's a Part 2 of this trilogy on the way, but it's built on a whole Part 0 that we never actually saw, and I worry that newcomers to the franchise may have a difficult time parsing all this context allegedly driving it.

At least it all looks nice enough for those coming out. Polygon prove themselves a reliable workhorse in rendering the robots and environments of the show. The general tone of the series means the design and lighting trend darker, but that makes for strong impact in key moments where things actually light up fully. It's still perfectly readable as far as following what action is onscreen, delivering a few ambitiously distinct setpieces like a fight with zombies in the ‘Sea of Rust’ in the latter part of the series. There are some distracting oddities, like most of the character models being so directly based on toys that they've got visible posts and peg-holes, or Megatron's oddly luscious lips, but for the most part it's a sharp and appealing production that sells that ‘Prestige’ feeling it's clearly after.

Things unfortunately don't work out so well with Siege's voice work. Just to clarify, the acting part of the show's voice-acting is actually fine. They're emotive and, as with the visuals, sell the purposeful grim tone effectively. The problem seems to come from the choice in how they're directed. Gone are most of the distinctive tones kids may remember from any other Transformers cartoon, with almost all the characters instead affecting the same kind of weary, gravelly delivery style. It means that huge amounts of the cast sound extremely similar, making little impact in delivering their character in ways the animation and writing have to pick up the slack of. There were in fact multiple scenes where I couldn't be sure who said a line because the voices all run together into the same smoky mush. There are a few concessions, like Soundwave having his famously strong reverb and robotic delivery, but then he comes in alongside Shockwave, who just sounds like an indistinct grunt with a personality and presentation ill-befitting a character who has such massive presence in other Transformers media.

That's a problem with one component of Siege, but the general idea of that issue is as good an explanation as any for why it never reaches the heights I think its potential has. The series is so focused on being as measured and grounded in the gravity of its own tone, that it rarely lets itself cut loose and really play with these toys. There are a few moments where it seems to break free, characters it uses particularly well, and ideas it includes that freshen it up in moments. And thanks to those interest points and the overall consistency of its production, it certainly isn't bad. But overall this feels like it was made specifically for that crowd of fans who have always said they wanted this: A grim, serious take on the classic Generation 1 Transformers and their war for Cybertron, in all its sterling animated glory. It works, but it's ultimately only as ambitious as any of those classic 80's toyline tie-in cartoons.

Overall (dub) : B
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+

+ Solid animation, interesting new takes on characters like Bumblebee, Interesting use of tone to explore the 'war' element of the franchise
Indistinct voice-work, Noticeably padded pacing, Skimmed-over backstory

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Production Info:
Takashi Kamei
Fumio Maezono
Minoru Okamoto
Daisuke Shimamura
Masaki Sugiyama
Art Director: Yoshimitsu Saito
Supervising Director: Takashi Kamei
Executive producer:
Kohei Obara
Shūzō Shiota
Shuzo John Shiota

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Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege (ONA)

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