Hampered by wooden action and some infuriating decisions, Earthrise is just about justified by its taut philosophies, healthy debates and some genuine nuance.
Netflix very quietly released the second instalment of their War For Cybertron animated trilogy at the end of 2020, some six months or so after they dropped the first. The story picks up instantly with no room for a recap: Optimus Prime and his Autobots are adrift in space in the Ark, leaving Elita-1 and Jetfire to lead a small resistance back on Cybertron, where Megatron is still reigning over the dying planet. But is Earthrise a worthy follow up?
For the most part, yes, it is. What stands out about this show is the tone. The war for Cybertron has always been essential backstory, but it has never been so fully explored as this. This is war as a grim reality where black and white opposing factions have melded in the face of survival. The original reasons for the conflict have long since been lost due to the length and cost of it all. In many ways, it is the Hundred Years’ War in space. The politics is firmly entrenched in the show’s writing too: the very opening reveals that the Decepticons are keeping their own soldiers as prisoners, in some sort of automated equivalent of a gulag. The reason for this drives much of the Cybertron-set plot: Megatron and his disciple Shockwave (perhaps the Goebbels of the Decepticons?) require energon to power their own ship and find the missing AllSpark (the battery for the planet). Harvesting their own soldiers for this cause is only one element of the series’ complex attitude to war and survival, aligning Megatron’s view of his men with that of Soviet Russia.
Autobot sub-leader Elita-1 gets a healthy amount of screen-time as she leads her Viet Cong-esque group in daring raids on Decepticon camps. Somewhat dissatisfied with Optimus Prime’s decisions from the first six episodes, she feels lost in her cause. Rogue ‘Con Jetfire assists her, with his aerial capabilities proving invaluable. “I’m so glad someone on our team can fly,” rejoices an Autobot, satirising the car-dominated faction and reminding viewers of the undisputed and evil advantage aerial firepower can bring (see: Dresden). This splinter group are drawn to an enormous colosseum that has fallen into disrepair; a painful reminder of the planet’s glory days now relegated to being the emblem of a dissolving Byzantine-like empire. The conflict with Megatron here is the strongest part of the show thanks to some effective characterisation. In essence, Megatron is like Thanos: driven to the extreme by a desire to survive, no matter the taints on his honour. And the show is all the better for that comparison.
Whilst the action is flimsy and repetitive (a battle with the mighty Scorponok seems to last the entire middle section of the show), the importance of the story can be narrowed down to a conversation between Megatron and Optimus Prime. Megatron lies wounded, damaged. Entombed in rubble, the two philosophise together on the war. They acknowledge they can’t exist with the other: Megatron uses Optimus’ threat to keep his subordinates in line and motivated to fight. Optimus, who in this universe lacks the brutality of Michael Bay’s Prime, is overwhelmingly merciful towards his nemesis. Megatron points out that Prime need only walk away, and he will die and end the war, but Prime, in a head-scratching move, opts to save Megatron and potentially doom hundreds in the future. It is nonplussing. Of course, this leads to more back-and-forths where they waste chances to kill each other, which is frustrating.
The six episodes are roughly 24 minutes long, and this makes each instalment in the trilogy feel quick, rushed and slightly dramatically underwhelming. The show could push for eight, or even ten, episodes to make it more efficient and engaging. But the final sequence, which at long last explains the title of this instalment, promises an enthralling final act to this near-revisionist Transformers universe.
War For Cyberton’s latest season is available to stream now on Netflix.