Thoroughly frivolous and yet somehow still exhausting, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts might have worked fine as a Saturday morning cartoon back in the days when Saturday morning cartoons were a thing. Maybe that’s the problem — that there’s little room left nowadays for simple, childish pleasures, and everything has to be stretched out to a feature-length spectacle that shrieks and howls and stomps for your attention.
It’s a particular challenge for this desperate-to-revive-itself movie franchise, which began in 2007 as a brazenly silly Michael Bay sci-fi epic about huge fighting robots that turn into vehicles, all crashing metal and rolling bluster.
For all the advance hype, that first Transformers picture felt like an unlikely megahit at the time; though based on a line of ‘80s toys from Hasbro, it took itself so seriously that you couldn’t help but admire its perverse bravado, which of course made it an ideal Michael Bay project.
Subsequent entries earned plenty of money, but the series eventually devolved to galactic levels of convoluted idiocy. (2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight was pretty much pure gibberish.). So much so that 2018’s Bumblebee, directed by LAIKA animation honcho Travis Knight, felt like a necessary reset — a modest, almost sentimental little movie about a teenage girl and her car that just happened to have some fighting robots in it. Bumblebee had heart, but you also found yourself missing some of that earlier Bayhem, despite how noxious it had all become by the end. These are, after all, ancient aliens made of steel and oil who transform into cars and trucks and planes and make grandiose, almost Shakespearean declarations. If the films don’t have size and pomposity, what good are they?
Which brings us to Rise of the Beasts, which attempts to strike a middle ground between the smaller-scale charms of Bumblebee and the more apocalyptic canvas that a series like this probably demands. That’s not an unwise approach, but alas, the film, directed by Creed II’s Steven Caple, Jr., winds up achieving neither aim. It’s not spectacular enough to impress us, nor intimate enough to move us. It’s just kind of there — ready to be consumed and forgotten.
Our human heroes this time are Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a young veteran who keeps getting turned away from job opportunities, and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), an intern at an Ellis Island natural history museum. The desperate Noah agrees to help lift some cars, and winds up accidentally stealing Mirage, a mouthy Autobot Transformer posing as a Porsche. (He’s voiced by Pete Davidson, and emits a seemingly endless stream of corny jokes and tired pop cultural references, such as “You know what’s weird? Marky Mark is leaving the Funky Bunch!”) Elena, for her part, has discovered an ancient statuette that holds a part of the Transwarp key, which is a magic space doo-hickey that allows Transformers to open portals to travel through space and time. (The Transformers movies have more magic space doo-hickeys than even the Marvel movies.)
Unicron, the Transformers’ “vile god” that likes to consume entire planets, wants the Transwarp key so that he can come and eat Earth. “An abundance of life…savory!” exclaims his chief emissary, the murderous Scourge (Peter Dinklage), who will do anything to get the key for his master. The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced as usual by Peter Cullen), want the Transwarp so that they can go back and save their own world of Cybertron. Because the year is 1994 (seven years after the events of Bumblebee but presumably some years before the events of the original Transformers movies), Optimus isn’t yet the noble leader he’s supposed to be. Right now, he couldn’t care less about humans and their Earth. He just wants his own home back.
Optimus Prime has been known to occasionally give up on humanity, so this isn’t exactly an original plot point. That compounds the overall dreariness of Rise of the Beasts, which doesn’t bother to give us any new relationships or twists on an old story. Yes, there are some new robots this time: the Maximals, who transform not into cars and trucks but giant gorillas, cheetahs, rhinos, and falcons, a visual conceit that sounds nifty on paper but doesn’t add much grandeur or excitement to what’s actually happening onscreen. For the most part, it’s all the same template as before. Humans discover giant robots living among us. Bad giant robots want magic thing to destroy world. Humans and good giant robots team up, and they all go to some new locale to fight. This time, it’s Peru. Again, it’s the Saturday morning special: The same product, delivered in slightly new packaging, there to keep the kids from tearing apart the house on a day without school.
Ramos and Fishback have both proven themselves fine actors in the past, and you can sense them trying to give the film some human grounding. The movie relies on Noah’s sentimental interactions with his young, chronically ill brother (Dean Scott Vazquez) to provide emotional heft, but the relationship feels tacked on; the script struggles to connect their dynamic to the more immediate struggles of the plot, aside from some awkward blather about how both Noah and Optimus Prime are not so dissimilar. (“When I look at him, all I see is a big brother trying to protect his family,” someone says of Optimus.)
As for Fishback’s Elena, she seems to be there mostly to scream, whimper, and run — which might have worked had other humans in the movie also expressed some similar level of bewilderment and fear. In truth, giant alien robots transforming into cars is probably terrifying thing to witness, and Elena’s reactions should probably be the norm. But because the film mostly allows only her character to show that fear, it reads less as bracing realism and more as lazy writing. All of these sins will probably be forgiven if you’re a devotee of this franchise, and/or these toys. (A cackle-worthy end-credits stinger reminds us that the real auteur of these movies remains the Hasbro corporation itself.) But no movie that’s supposed to be such mindless fun should ever feel so tedious and uninspired.
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