The Transformers movies are bad. Bumblebee (2018), rendered with more love than the rest of the series combined, was too charming to be just acceptable. And the rest of the films, all directed by Michael Bay, fall short of the IP-cromulent benchmark by being a mix of too offensive, too shameless, too ugly, and too careless. The seventh installment in the Hasbro giant robot film series, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, is the only perfectly cromulent entry of the bunch.
Rise of the Beasts is something of a fresh start for the series. The only films it claims relation to are Bumblebee, as a sequel, and Transformers (2007), as a prequel. The connections are little more than typical cape-shit cameos that don’t fundamentally change one’s experience of the film. Using the same recognizable IP that has made the Transformers title one of the most profitable in film history, director Steven Caple Jr.’s (Creed II) take on the franchise goes full superhero. I’m not just talking about a special effects blockbuster with a silly-third act. If our mainstream films are signs for our time, Rise of the Beasts makes it clear that every major studio action film must make the choice: to lean into the superhero of it all or to actively reject it. If a film franchise worth almost $5 billion rejects its own tried and true formula for the cape, there is no going back: everything has been Marvelized.
Even if it’s not a hard story to follow, it is a difficult story to summarize just because of the sheer number of made-up words and silly gimmicks. No Decepticons here, only Unicron, Autobots, a Transwarp Key, Maximals, a Scourge, Terrorcons, and an army of Predacons. Even if the individual words mean nothing, the sum of them tells us all we need to know: the Terrorcons and Predacons, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and serving the dark planet-devouring god Unicron (Colman Domingo), are bad; the Autobots and Maximals are good. The Transwarp Key is the whatchamacallit that both sides need so that X doesn’t happen or so that Y will happen. You follow?
But, unlike the previous six films, there’s a major difference: some of the robots look like animals! The Maximals and Predacons both resemble large, mechanical critters from all over our planet: a gorilla (Ron Perlman as Optimus Primal), a falcon (Michelle Yeoh as Airazor), a rhino (David Sobolov as Rhinox), etc… The casting of bonafide movie stars in the voice acting roles feels self-defeating with two relatively fresh faces in the lead performances. No offense intended to Anthony Ramos or Dominique Fishback, but faces sell tickets; voices don’t.
Unfortunately, for a film with “beasts” in the title, the animal-bots don’t become major players until the second half of the film (or later). It’s a shame, too, because their VFX look flawlessly comprehensible, based as they are on real animal movement. I always struggled with the action scenes in the previous movies because the unique robot visuals always became confused into metal obscurities as they transformed and/or hit each other. Who hit who? Whose arm is that? Those problems become negligible when a rhino fights a bug.
The Marvelization of the Transformers series is a two-sided coin. On the one side, it leads to the most fleshed-out and complicated human characters of the franchise, absent Bumblebee. Noah Diaz (Ramos) is trying to help his mom pay for his younger brother’s medical bills when the talking alien robots offer him a path forward. Elena Wallace (Fishback), who works as an expert (often uncredited) on objects from all around the world and across time and history for a museum, has the perfect set of skills to qualify her for the mission. (I’ve never understood the idea still prevalent in blockbusters that all intellectuals must be generalists rather than specialists.) They both have real goals with real motives and real relationships. Noah even has an ideological moral imperative, even if it’s a simple one: to save his brother, he must save the world at all costs.
Unfortunately, the coin is double sided and the new superhero-ness of it all comes with predictable baggage. At the climactic final fight, the humans become superheroes. And, almost with a smack of purposeful irony, this comes with a noticeable downgrade in the end product of the visual effects– specifically, the helmet/face of one of the humans. It’s not the fault of the effect artists—the higher-up creative and production powers are likely to blame—but I was pulled out of any immersive feeling by the poorly composited face. It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted viewers to be cognizant of their transition into full superhero and there was no better way to signal that than through unfinished effects.
And I didn’t even mention that truly baffling end-credits scene did I?
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
dir. Steven Caple Jr.
Opens Friday, 6/9 in theaters everywhere