September 25, 2012

Shadowcon Reviews- Rock Bottom

Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 1, episode 19: “Rock Bottom”

            I’m going to be taking my style in a different direction for the next couple of reviews, partly because I want to try something new, and also because the subjects of these reviews have either simple or non-linear plots, so my normal “take you through the piece while analyzing it” method of writing won’t work with these. Our first outing, “Rock Bottom”, has a simple plot: characters get trapped in a cave and have to struggle to survive. There’s not much more plot or story to this episode than that, so I’ll be instead focusing my efforts on discussing the art, emotion, and character interactions. This means that I’ll be assuming that everyone has seen this episode (though that really should be a given for any of my reviews here), as I won’t really beat around the bush or give a detailed synopsis of how the characters got here or why something is happening. So, with that out of the way, let’s get started.
Right off the bat, I’d like to talk about the animation, which is a big part of this episode. I have watched many Prime episodes on mute because the animation when taken by itself is simply gorgeous, and to me rivals the live-action animation in terms of quality and cohesiveness. “Rock Bottom” takes that up a notch and gives all the characters more life than they have gotten before; dust, pings, dings, rubble, and scuffs are all visible on all the Transformers featured, Bulkhead and Starscream in particular, and clear care and work was put into Miko with her expressiveness and emotional eyes.

Starscream’s model is looking really awesome, covered in dirt and grime, and the dust that poofs up when he moves his joints is a nice touch. The dim lighting and shadows are quite helpful to his and Megatron’s design and gives him more life and character all ‘round. The interactions between Starscream and Megatron are lovely to see; this is the first time that Megatron has actively tried to kill Starscream. He knows that Starscream is a liar and he knows that Starscream has tried to usurp him on many occasions. I’m thrilled about this. It gives Megatron more depth and a sharper mind than most of his predecessors, and it gives Starscream more reason to be a lone agent, as we saw in “Partners”. Megatron’s menace factor is dialed up to eleven here, as he threatens Starscream at gunpoint:

“Do not take me for a fool, Starscream! I have been wise to your transgressions from the beginning. Not only did you pluck the Dark Energon from my chest in a failed attempt to snuff my Spark, but you tried to raise your own undead warrior with it. It is no secret that you lost an arm in the process, which you’ve since had replaced.”

“You… you know about that?!”

“Soundwave is quite competent at surveillance, I can assure you. The fact is, Starscream, despite your treachery, I have allowed you to carry on this long because I took a certain delight in following you string of failures. But you’ve finally become tiresome, predictable. You’ve hit rock bottom.”

“Master, please! Give me one more chance! I beg of you!!!”

This entire exchange is handled beautifully, with Welker doing an excellent job of being threatening and calculating at the same time, which is something that I’ve often seen lacking in previous Megatrons. Starscream’s cowardice is on full display here, making him so lovable, and the way he slowly moves from on his feet to his knees, groveling at Megatron’s feet is really subtle and reflects the growing intensity in the situation.

The firefight that breaks out between Arcee and Megatron and Starscream is beautifully shot; camera angles are wild but coordinated, unlike Michael Bay’s stuff. I love the quandary that Megatron puts himself in here. He takes time out of his threatening Starscream to try to kill Arcee and Jack. This may seem out of character, but it allows for him to then realize his mistake and try to then fire after Starscream, giving Arcee a chance to regroup. I love Megatron here:

“Starscream! You dare abandon me?!”

Well, yeah, dude! You had a gun to my head. That tight zoom-out when Megatron fires after Starscream is really awesome to watch, and I frequently call up that scene by itself just to get enjoyment out of it. Starscream’s transformation while rock is exploding behind him is lovely to see, and the no-cut camera zoom is a great game changer from the all-too-frequent back-and-fourth firefights and chases that tend to show up in Prime. The final shot of the entire cave collapsed is really awesome, with the winding crescendo in the background, and it really hits home the fact that this is a serious situation.

Miko and Bulkhead look great in this episode. PolygonPictures, the people who animated this show, claim that Miko is their favorite character, so they put more detail and thought and care into her model than anyone else’s. I question their taste in characters, but their animation is still really good. Miko here is covered in dirt and grime, and I love how chalky her clothing and skin and hair all are. Bulkhead is likewise sporting some rust and dirt splotches on himself. Their character interaction is by far the strongest it has ever gotten for Season One (I’ll talk more about Season Two Miko in an upcoming review), with Miko’s courage shining through in a believable way. She’s concerned for her friend, even though she knows that she could die and he’ll be left alive holding up that rock face.

“There’s no fresh air down here. If you use up all the air too fast…”

“We could suffocate!”

“Not ‘we’, Miko, you. Autobots don’t need to breathe, remember?”

“Right. Smackdown in outer space. That was cool.”

I like this exchange. Miko as a character hasn’t really gotten to do much up to this point, and now she has a chance to grow. And for this episode, she does, determined to dig their way out even if it kills her. We really feel that determination within her, not only due to the animation, but also due to the voice acting and little snippets of music. Miko and Bulkhead’s relationship is strengthened here as well. Before this, it had been mostly held together by similarities (liking the same music, television, mindless action, etc.), but now its developed into this true friendship that really makes you care about the two as a duo.

I love when they think they’re rescued, but it turns out to be Starscream and not Arcee! That just really throws you the first time you see it. Starscream is all-out taking advantage of Bulkhead’s predicament, taunting him, but not killing him. He sees his capture of Bulkhead as a way to get back into Megatron’s favor, but really, he’s just grasping at straws at this point. I love when Jack rescues Miko, he lets slip that Megatron is in the cave as well in a pretty funny exchange:

“You and I just need to find a way out of here before Megatron digs himself free.”

“Megatron’s here too?!”

Love it.

Jack, surprisingly, doesn’t interact with Arcee at all until the coda to the episode, and Josh Keaton proves that he can hold his own against Frank Welker when Jack comes face-to-face with Megatron. This scene is, again, one of my favorites, because it foreshadows (sort of) the scene in “One Shall Rise, Part 2” where Megatron recognizes Jack in the Autobot’s base, and it’s a very tense scene all on its own. All we see of Megatron is his face, with his glowing red eyes, making him look all that more demonic in his appearance. I like the way Jack handles himself; he’s unsure of what to do, and while he proves to be the better man and not kill Megatron like this, he really isn’t sure what to do with Megatron from there. Instead he just leaves him there, because Megatron isn’t Jack’s primary objective here. Megatron’s speech is pretty fun to listen to as well:

“I suppose… helping those less fortunate would be… completely out of the question. If that is the case, you may as well use your drill to finish me. I guarantee you will never have a better opportunity than right now.”

Megatron is manipulative and cold, just as he was meant to be, and to interact with Jack was something that I’d always wanted to see happen. These two characters are both strong-willed, determined, and courageous (Megatron in his own way, of course). Megatron might see, as the audience does at the end of the “Orion Pax” arc, similarities between Jack and Optimus, and thus is fueled that much more by his hate towards the latter. This was an effective character scene that really played out well. They could have easily cut this and the story wouldn’t have suffered too much, but to include it made this little bottle-show that much more enticing.

The ending is abrupt, but works, and the grime and dirt on the models of Bulkhead and Arcee is brought to its fullest here, as they’re shown in the rising sun, and you really get to see all the detail present. I do like that it’s Jack of all people who takes the higher ground, saying that it wouldn’t be honorable to kill Starscream and Megatron like this. It adds a sense of maturity to the human characters, which is often lacking in most other Transformers television series. And the final coda has Starscream holding up the roof that Bulkhead was holding up, with Megatron’s twisted sneer ending the episode on a perfect note.

Post episode follow-up: Final score for “Rock Bottom” is 10/10. What I really like about this episode is that it feels so isolated; we don’t see anything else besides our characters in their little cave trap here. This makes this episodes’ setting and atmosphere that much more claustrophobic and frightening, and we are constantly aware that our characters on either side have no backup on hand. The entire episode has you at the edge of your seat and just holds you there! I really wish that there had been audio commentary on this, but sadly there is not (at least on the Season One DVD). Hopefully there will be some on an expanded or full Prime DVD release. I would really like to know what the writers were thinking when they were blocking and writing this episode, because whatever they did, it worked really well. The art and cinematography are top notch in this episode, and while the plot is basic, the characters and their interactions with one another as well as the animation and look of the piece more than make up for it, earning it a perfect score of 10 out of 10.

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