Title: Transformers: War for Cybertron: Earthrise
Release Date: December 30, 2020 (US)
Network: Netflix (US)
Note: Right around the time the Siege series debuted on Netflix, Ben's World of Transformers crashed and would be out of commission for months. Along with that went a chance for me to write up my review of the series before this one. It is on my "to do" list (among 100 other things).
Disclaimer: Ben's World of Transformers was provided screeners of Earthrise to review. BWTF offers its thanks to Netflix and Hasbro for this opportunity to review these episodes in advance.
As part of the condition for providing screeners, Netflix has asked that details and plot points from the final episode of the season (Episode 6) not be given away so I will stray away from those and heavy spoilers. I will reveal two character introduction spoilers, but I will try to stay away from the main plot twists and turns. If you want to be completely unspoiled, I recommend you read this after you have watched the show.
Earthrise is the second chapter in the War for Cybertron series. After Optimus Prime and the Ark seemingly disappeared with the Allspark, Cybertron is dying and the remaining Autobots continue their battle against the Decepticons. When Megatron learns Optimus and the Ark were not destroyed, he sets off to find his arch enemy and the Allspark itself. This adventure takes the Transformers on a galaxy spanning adventure that reveals new characters and sets up the third chapter, Kingdom. The season is comprised of 6 episodes with each at about 24 minutes long.
Expanding the Scope
Last season was almost entirely focused on the events on Cybertron and the status of the Autobots and Decepticons in the waning days of their war. This time out, we start on Cybertron but we quickly wind up in space before the first episode ends. There, the Mercenary faction led by Doubledealer find the Ark and brings it to a certain tentacled client who has played a really interesting role in Cybertronian history. There are a lot of shades of G1 coming into play in the story and a hint that the history of the Transformers is partly in dispute (a nod to the varying origins from the G1 era). There is also a suggestion that some worlds were either colonized by Transformers long ago or have alien life forms similar to Transformers, a notion that the original G1 cartoon also used from time to time. This story direction helps address one of the weaker aspects of Siege. Keeping the Transformers on a dying world in the ending days of a war was both dark (visually and storywise) and felt a bit limiting. With the Transformers going from place to place off Cybertron it offers some exciting mysteries into the mix and elevates the excitement level this season.
Expansion is not just limited to locations, there are also new characters this season. It was a joy to see new characters come into play as the season progressed. Doubledealer was one of my favorite new characters. The Mercenary has only been animated in a G1 action figure commercial and made a handful of appearances in comic books (Marvel and IDW Publishing). Sure his Japanese counterpart Doubleclouder was a prominent character in Masterforce, but that was not the same guy. He was one of my favorite G1 toys so it was a joy to see him play a role in a the series. Another character appears in a titanic battle. Yep, Scorponok appears this season but his back story is very different than previous incarnations of the Decepticon. I really wish there had been an episode dedicated to his past. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Scorponok's appearance is that his scene made me want to take my action figures and re-enact his battle sequence!
Many of the characters in the series either get a chance to shine or we get to learn more about them. Perhaps one of the biggest character arcs from season one to now is Megatron's. It is clear from this season he is not just ambitious or power hungry. Instead the character is simply insnae. There is much reference early on to his days as a gladiator and hero, but through the character's own words and actions we learn that he has gone over the deep end and in what may be his greatest failing, he has a complete inability to see his own role in everything that has befallen Cybertron. Instead, he blames others such as Optimus Prime. He seems himself as the hero, making him the most dangerous kind of villain.
Unfortunately, Jason Marnocha's voice is not used to its fullest potential. His portrayal of Megatron in the previous Prime Wars trilogy was nothing short of amazingly brilliant. He gave the Decepticon leader an energy that showed he was a grizzled veteran whose sense of superiority gave him a sense of amusement at all those around him. This time out, it feels like Marnocha is being directed to go low energy and speak slower. In a sense, I can understand why he was directed this way since this Megatron is much more melancholy, but in his more insane moments I had hoped for him to lean more towards an over the top performance but it never comes. There is one scene where the supposedly "unemotional" Shockwave winds up expressing more emotion than Megatron, and it comes off as unintentionally hilarious. That said, Marnocha does get a moment to shine when he voices Galvatron with clear influence from Leonard Nimoy's performace in the 1986 animated film. That entire sequence is one of the best in the season because of all the underlying subtext floating around as Galvatron never fully tells Megatron everything about himself.
A big surprise was the increased role Elita-1 plays in the narrative. Unlike last season where she seemed to be stuck in the lackluster role of questioning Optimus, this time out she is the Autobot leader on Cybertron. She leads, she fights and she also stands up to Megatron in a fantastic way during a tense conversation. She also has a battle with Shockwave, a rivalry that echoes the G1 episode "The Search for Alpha Trion". To me, Elita-1 felt like the embodiment of the ideals Optimus Prime expressed but with more commitment to action and an assuredness that I missed seeing in Optimus Prime during Siege. Linsay Rousseau's performance has definitely stepped up a notch this season, likely due to the character simply having a lot more to do. Her portrayal is strong and full of conviction and I loved it.
That said, Optimus Prime finally does something other than get the Energon kicked out of him and mope around (okay, okay, to be fair in last season's final episode he did get to play the hero). With the search for the Allspark being a priority, he appears to have renewed purpose and energy. Jake Foushee's Optimus Prime improves quite a bit here, with the character expressing a lot more urgency and energy with his dialogue (especially during action scenes). That said, the voice direction still seems to skew the character towards speaking more slowly, an odd choice to be sure. We do get to see Optimus Prime play the action hero this time out and he is less conflicted about what needs to be done to save the day. There is a confidence the character has this time out that I wished we had see more of in Siege. At one point Optimus faces off with Megatron in a conversation and he delivers some of his strongest dialogue in the series thus far and it helped solidify how firm the character is about his beliefs.
Sky Lynx appears this season in a brief, but key role. I will not talk about his arc at all, but I will say that I found his character arc (brief as it is) to be one of the highlights of the season. The writers took a core character element of the the Autobot and incorporated it into the series in a manner that felt both organic and surreal.
While Earthrise was animated right after Siege it feels a lot like the animators got more and more of a handle of the models as time went along. The somewhat odd "flexing robot mid-bodies" from the first season are a lot less apparent here. Also, a lot of the space settings and new characters gave the animators an opportunity to create some beautiful and stunning settings (the Space Bridge comes to mind, you'll see). There is also a sequence at the very end of the last episode that made my brain kind of explode (you'll have to see it to find out what it is!).
This time out I paid a lot more attention to the various textures and shapes used on both the Transformers themselves and the machinery and worlds around them. This show is visually rich and there is a lot to drink in visually. This is especially true when the show allows its characters to be in brighter lighting. One of my favorite details is the use of rust colored details where characters have seams (you will see this most clearly on Bumblebee). While the show does utilize the CAD models of the actual action figures for the character, the colors are definitely unique to this show. One hope I have for next season is that a lot less of the show will be in dark settings, allowing the CG models and environments to shine.
There are times I wish I was some ultra rich billionaire so I could have thrown some funding towards this series. Due to the limited budget, certain key characters never transform. In one key scene, it would have been awesome for Shockwave to utilize his Siege armor from the Leader Class figure, but lack of funding did not allow for that. A limited budget of course also prevented more characters from appearing. The Ark's crew is rather limited (no sign of say, Brawn, Windcharger, Huffer etc.) and the Decepticons are missing some iconic characters too (including Rumble). There are also a couple characters (or if you prefer, character models) that are associated with characters who do appear that do not show up (you'll know them when you don't see them). None of this detracts from the quality of the animation that is there, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it.
Earthrise is an exciting, fun ride and a definite step up from Siege. The environments are more varied, several characters take a step up and some new characters join the fray. Throw in a bunch of G1 references and cool battle scenes and there is a lot to like in this season. Don't get me wrong, it's not perfect. Budget limitations create some restrictions and some strange voice acting direction decisions reduce the potential impact of certain performances. That said, my biggest wish for this season would have been more episodes because there is a lot of potential story to mine here and that I think, is the best compliment I can give any show!
Bonus: There are some very fun G1 references throughout the season. Here are some key ones (I plan to go deeper into them when I write my spoiler reviews):
- The Reflector/Refraktor CG model is recycled as background characters several times over. In at least one scene you will see two of the models painted in the colors of the G1 toys including one that is blue/grey and another that is red/black.
- G1 inspired phrases are sprinkled throughout the show. Of course this includes lines from Optimus Prime and Megatron, but there's even a fun line "borrowed" from G1 Blaster that made me laugh. You'll know it when you hear it!
- The Nebulon system is a key location in the series.
- The portrayal of the Space Bridge is reminiscent of the one featured in Transformers: Prime and like in many G1 episodes it plays a major part in the story.
- There is a fun sound effect Easter Egg related to Scorponok. You'll know it when you hear it if you watched "The Rebirth" (and no, it's not the G1 transformation sound).
- Starscream repeatedly attempts to take leadership and power (and fails) but the total arrogance he expresses through all his efforts is one of the "most G1" elements of the show. Frank Todaro's Starscream continues to be a wonderful homage and tribute to the voice originally introduced to fans by the late Chris Latta.
- There is a scene where Megatron summons an energy that is colored red (this was in the final trailer released in early December). This is a fun callback to the Hate Plague from the G1 episode "The Return of Optimus Prime".
Transformers: War for Cybertron: Earthrise will be live on Netflix (US) on December 30, 2020.