Robots that turn into rocks, and forests that turn into parking lots.


We’ve hit our first memory tied to the specific year. GoBots: Battle of the Rocklords was the first movie that I saw in a theater, in 1986.

Of the ways that the world has moved on, the one that I hate the most is how megacorporations and a car-based infrastructure have created hollow simulacra of urban living, most notably by mixed-use areas being a thing of the past. In the region where I live, the common 21st century commercial development technique is to knock the top off of a hill, pave the whole thing, and then put a big box store at one end (Walmart, Target, Home Depot, etc.) and a couple of strips of stores at the complete opposite end of the lot. In between is only pavement and paint. But instead of building a four-story building with the GameStop and Subway on the first floor and the upper floors all used for office space and residences, it is just a series of one-story buildings that are tens of thousands of square feet. And they are accessible only by car.* And yes, this city once housed more than double the people it currently houses, so there is no shortage of already-developed land to use rather than paving over a marsh or knocking the top off of a mountain.

As a counterpoint, think about being on East Carson Street in the Southside. You pop into the Pretzel Shop, then walk around the corner of 24th and onto Sarah Street, heading for Big Dog Coffee. The businesses have several floors of residences above them, and they are next to houses and parks and public spaces, and there are crosswalks (for the most part: the Southside is slowly getting more pedestrian friendly but Carson often feels like Russian roulette at crosswalks). You get the feeling of being in a place because you are in a place designed for humans.

Now think about the nightmare duchies of McKnight Road as it travels north through Ross and Allison Park and McCandless and on to Butler County. It’s a series of strip malls where the stores are pushed way back from the road and the parking lots are in front: from the first impression, you see the focus is on where you put your car. And each strip mall has concrete walls separating it from the next one, so you are funneled back onto McKnight if you want to go to both Half-Price Books and the cell phone store, even though they are literally next to each other. And you want some real existential terror? Try arriving at one of the cruelly placed bus stops, crossing the highway, and then walking the hundreds of yards across empty parking spaces to the single-story big box store where you work.

I hate it. I hate this whole shitty capitalist country.

The theater in which I saw GoBots versus Rocklords was part of the older kind of strip mall, in which you could park anywhere within it and safely walk to all of the stores without needing to cross a quarter-mile of parking spaces across which F-350s and Kia Sedonas are going 55 miles an hour. And there was even an awning the entire length to keep you dry! What a novel concept. I disliked those kinds of strip malls for so long but now would dearly love to have them back now that I’ve seen their replacements. Sure, that old strip mall still suffered from being in its own demesne of concrete, but at least within that fiefdom, the stores were attached to each other with direct access from one to the next. There’s nothing more disconnecting and sickening than to see employees trying to walk across four-lane streets with no crosswalks so they can get to their job that is isolated as far as possible from anything else. Not a single shit is given to the pedestrian experience in modern commercial designs.

This Rocklords movie was playing at the movie theater in Oakland, Maryland. It had two screens and a tiny lobby, and it was glorious. I saw movies there from 1986 to about 1997, including gems like Jurassic Park and duds like Sphere. I remember standing in lines that stretched out of the theater (again, loved the simple utility of that awning).

I definitely had some GoBots and Rocklords toys. I remember seeing one of them in a box of old junk in my last move, so there’s a chance it is in my basement somewhere as I type this. But while I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the movie or whatever cartoon preceded it, I have many memories of the strip mall. The theater was at the far end, back near the woods. Next to it was a department store (most of its names have been lost to time, but I remember Treasure Island as one). Next to that was a pharmacy, and then at the very end was a bank. A few memories:

  • Treasure Island: I first learned about Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when it was playing on a screen in the electronics section. The movie has some deeply problematic parts that should have been obvious even at the time. But holy hell, Jim Carrey was an endless source of gags and jokes for a ten-year old like me.
  • Pharmacy: I bought some Marvel Overpower cards during the Collectible Card Game craze of the mid-90s, and then tried to use Magic: The Gathering’s rules with them. This was during one of those phases when I wasn’t allowed to just be a kid and enjoy what the other kids were enjoying. I couldn’t play games like Magic: The Gathering or Diablo or Dungeons & Dragons because Pat Robertson on the 700 Club said that it was evil. Fuck Pat Robertson, by the way. The idea that theater nerds playing D&D once a month is somehow more unhealthy than a kid logging 10 hours a day in Call of Duty is our country’s broken protestant soul in a nutshell.
  • Movie theater: since I’m not wasting my 1993 entry on it, I’ll mention Rising Sun as the first nude scene that I saw in a movie theater.
  • Bank: The mom of some childhood friends worked at the bank, and I remember seeing her car parked there. It was one of those childhood revelations: “Oh, people travel here to work because there are no jobs in Aurora.”

That movie theater was about fifteen minutes from my house growing up, and if you’re familiar with the area, that’s pretty danged convenient. Once that strip mall collapsed (commercially and literally), the next closest theaters were in Deep Creek Lake (40 minutes) and Morgantown (70+ minutes). There was a lot of convenience taken for granted during that time: movie theater, bowling alley, driving range, department store, a little shopping district… all of this in a town that at its height never had more than two thousand residents. Now there’s a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s and the commercial equivalents of remoras that are always attached to such things, and that’s about it. The world, as Roland Deschain says, has moved on.

GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords also seems to be a relic of a different time. It was part of a megacorporation’s multi-pronged marketing strategy to sell stuff to parents, to be clear. But it at least had the decency to be a crummy PG movie that tanked at the box office and then we moved on with our lives. The rise of the PG-13 rating, and Disney’s subsequent acquisition of every intellectual property that could be vomited forth in their virus-like distribution strategy, turned every blockbuster movie into a bloodless, joyless golem that is marketed to everyone but isn’t for anyone. Like with the slightly less shitty conception of commercial development of days past, I miss the days of niche movies. I’d rather have a GoBots that I can ignore on Screen 1 and a crummy thriller movie that I can enjoy on Screen 2, rather than Transformers #5 that takes up both screens at the theater and is supposed to be simultaneously for a six-year and for me, and isn’t really for either of us, because it’s not a movie to be enjoyed, but is instead content to be consumed as one installment in a continuous drip campaign of intellectual property.


*Tangent: I remember often hearing people make fun of the working poor with lines like “they live in a trailer but have a brand-new car out front,” as though this is some kind of defect. And holy shit is that mean-spirited, myopic, and reductive. Yeah, the person had to make a decision as to what they could spend their limited budget on, and they had to choose the car. I doubt they made the decision lightly: they chose the car because without it, they couldn’t get to their job that was probably twenty miles away. Don’t punch down, kids.


Other 1986 candidates (another banner year): Top Gun; Crocodile Dundee; Platoon; Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; Aliens; The Golden Child; The Great Mouse Detective; An American Tail; Delta Force; Highlander; The Money Pit; Short Circuit; Big Trouble in Little China; A Fine Mess; Armed and Dangerous; The Fly; Manhunter; Stand By Me; Blue Velvet; The Name of the Rose; Tough Guys; Three Amigos; Little Shop of Horrors


I turn 40 in December. To commemorate the milestone, I’m writing 40 short biographical essays pertaining to a movie per year of my life.