The Transformers film series hasn’t had the most sterling track record, and for good reason — the five (!) Michael Bay films are studies in late-aughts effects bloat and Bay’s signature visual and thematic madness, and Travis Knight’s winsome ‘80s prequel Bumblebee came along too little and too late to reverse course. But Hasbro’s moneymaking machine must keep its gears grinding, and so here we are with a seventh movie about those classic robots in disguise, this time courtesy of Creed II director Stephen Caple Jr.
The results are, arguably, more digestible than ever before: There’s none of Bay’s regressive fratboy antics, the robot designs are (slightly) more comprehensible to look at, and the whole thing is slathered in a family-friendly Saturday morning cartoon vibe that ought to please ‘80s kids and the kids of those ‘80s kids alike. But Caple and the film’s five writers forgot to replace that bizarre trainwreck mayhem with any personality, resulting in a CGI punch-out that’s… less than meets the eye.
Lost in Maximal-ism
The central gimmick in Rise of the Beasts, apart from its ‘90s-era setting (it’s set in ‘94, just a few years after Bumblebee but over a decade before Shia LaBeouf would enter the picture), is the introduction of the Maximals from the Beast Wars subset of Transformers toys. Where the Autobots turn into cars, the Maximals take the form of animals — their leader, Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), is a gorilla, Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) a hawk, the list goes on.
They’re refugees from another world, one destroyed by the all-encompassing Big Bad Unicron (Colman Domingo), who swallows planets whole for their resources. To protect the rest of the universe, they flee to Earth with the Transwarp Key, the latest in a series of MacGuffins the franchise loves to exploit for plot mechanics: most all of these pictures are about the Transformers teaming up with one or two humans to stop bad Transformers from firing a laser beam into the sky, and this one is no different.
The humans in question this time are Noah Diaz (In the Heights’ Anthony Ramos), a down-on-his-luck ex-Marine with a sick brother and even sicker engineering skills, and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a museum intern who inadvertently discovers one half of the Transwarp Key. Together, they end up allying with the Autobots — Optimus Prime (Peter Weller), Bumblebee, and the rest — as well as their new Maximal allies, to stop sneering baddie Scourge (Peter Dinklage, slumming it like the rest of the voice cast) from getting the Key and destroying the world.
From there, it’s the typical Transformers adventure: globe-trotting robots snarking and shooting their way through various murky locales, big, booming music playing overhead. To their credit, Ramos, Fishback, and the rest of the human cast try their mightiest to inject some life into the proceedings: The more physically tangible first act plants seeds of character growth for Noah, who struggles against a world that doesn’t know what to do with vets, and his struggles to keep his family together (including Luna Lauren Vélez in what seems an attempt to corner the market on moms of Latinx blockbuster heroes). What’s more, the first real action scene past the prologue, in which Noah meets wisecracking Autobot Mirage (a mostly obnoxious Pete Davidson) in a merry chase with cops down New York City streets, sports plenty of neat practical car stunts.
Missing All that Spark
But it all goes to pot once the cars turn into robots and it’s time to fight. Say what you will about Bay’s nigh-incomprehensible work, but his whirling compositions and signature Bayhem were at least interesting to look at. Beasts overcompensates, resulting in flat, unremarkable action scenes that lack geography and punch. The film’s climactic battle, with its wide-open brown landscapes and army of disposable silver cannon fodder, might as well be a warmed-over rehash of Avengers: Endgame. Sure, you couldn’t make sense of Bay’s tics either, but at least there was some visual pop to keep your eyes busy. Here, it’s just bland and unremarkable, and it’s hard to even tell how big or small the Transformers themselves are from one shot to another.
The titular characters themselves offer little more humanity than their human counterparts. With the addition of the Maximals, the Autobots here get little to do besides play the hits: Prime is a huffy, violent war criminal, Mirage cracks wise with all the gusto of an annoying ‘90s sidekick, and most everyone else gets more than a few lines to stand out. The dialogue consists almost entirely of plot exposition, weak wisecracks, and pop culture references fitting to the era. (Power Rangers t-shirts and Wu-Tang Clan posters abound.)
Sure, the film offers the closest the series has come to entertaining a moral quandary: Do you destroy the Transwhatsit to keep Earth safe, but deny Optimus et al. the chance to use it to return home to Cybertron? But that conflict disappears as quickly as it materializes, keeping the story centered safely on bashing your toys together. Even a middle-act detour to Peru, sizzling with adventure-serial promise, dissipates the moment Romas’ character opens a door to an ancient temple and blurts out, “This is some Indiana Jones-type stuff” — as if we couldn’t just be trusted with the inference.
Pros and Terrorcons
It’s tempting to write off these criticisms of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts as trivial: these are movies for kids, after all, and Beasts leans hard into the G1-era aesthetics and comic-strip plotting of its original incarnations. In that respect (as well as a pinch of welcome representation with some main characters of color), it’s at least inoffensive for the undiscerning. But with a one-out-of-seven batting average, perhaps its time to put these toys back in the bin for good.
Rating: 3/10 SPECS
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts crashes into theaters on June 9.
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