From the moment that a giant Transformers testicle swung past us in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we effectively checked out of the Transformers film franchise. We’ve hate-watched them ever since, sighing at the product placement, slo-mo and Mark Wahlberg. We know we should ditch them completely, but like Optimus Prime, we hold on to the smallest glimmer of hope and fight on regardless.
Which probably doesn’t position us as the best reviewer of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Try to accept it as a caveat: what you’re about to read is the reaction of someone who loved the toys, enjoyed the first film (with whacking great asterisks), and got moments of enjoyment out of Bumblebee. Everything else can be chopped up and shoved in the waste disposal.
Talking of Bumblebee, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is its sequel, in what is awkwardly positioned as the second in the ‘new’ Energon Transformers series. It’s a hard one to wrap our head around: it has many of the same characters and character designs as the Bay movies, but the chain of events is different. Bumblebee was set in 1987, Rise of the Beasts is set in 1994, and Optimus and the other Autobots have been here a while, rather than dropping down in the 2000s.
The fact that the Transformers look the same (albeit, with a slightly more true-to-toys boxiness), sound the same, but aren’t the same, and have differing origins and motivations makes this all a bit of a crapshoot. But as long as you’re here for the basic metal-on-metal shenanigans then perhaps this won’t matter much.
Transformers fans will be pleased to know that Rise of the Beasts ostensibly takes on Beast Wars. That means the introduction of the hilariously named Maximals – animals in Transformers form, including their leader, Optimus Primate (ha!) who is a gorilla, as well as a falcon, a rhino and a cheetah. The first two are played by Ron Perlman and Michelle Yeoh, in case you couldn’t place their voices.
They’re up against Unicron, which is something of an unfair fight as he is the size of a planet. Luckily he’s a chunky bugger and can’t get anywhere fast, so he employs Scourge (Peter Dinklage) as his emissary to find something called the Transwarp Key, which would enable Unicron to effectively teleport anywhere he wanted. That key is with the Maximals, and the two sides of the conflict are set up neatly.
Cue Earth. The Maximals have rather unkindly chosen to hide in the foliage of Earth, where Optimus Prime has also set up shop. That brings the Autobots – including new entry Mirage, plus old favourites Bumblebee and Arcee – into the fray. We need some humans too, so out goes Shia and Marky Mark, and in comes Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos, Hamilton and In the Heights) as a reluctant thief who hotwires Mirage and gets something of a surprise; and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback, Swarm, Judas and the Black Messiah), who is a museum researcher who lucks into finding one half of the Transwarp Key.
Ah yes, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts does love a MacGuffin. It seems to have taken notes from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, as there isn’t just a key: there are two halves of a key. Our protagonists need to find both halves, and those halves have maps, and those maps have protectors. It allows the film to prolong itself, with the negative that it makes everything rather video gamey and destroys the tension since you can see the mechanism behind the plot whirring away.
Also rather obvious is how the plot will take the wildest liberties to keep the humans around. It pulls a Hobbit and decides that Noah Diaz is needed because he’s a good thief (he’s not) and can get into small spaces. But we couldn’t help but imagine the writers and directors scratching their heads, wondering how to keep the humans around, simply because the movie would be entirely green-screen and emotionless without them.
I found myself whipping out the ‘is it better than the Bay movies?’ scorecard. In the ‘yes’ column is a pretty fundamental one: it makes sense. By slowing things down, keeping the plot clear and not chucking noise and characters at the screen every five minutes, director Steven Caple Jr has made something that’s actually watchable. Which is a thumbs up in our book.
There’s also less sexism, racism, and general misanthropy in this one. There’s still a very modern predilection for undercutting the action with some quips (Mirage is like a second Bumblebee in this way, turning up with an unwitty one-liner that reminds you that you’re watching toys). And maybe it was just us, but the product-placement wasn’t so egregious either. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t stop the car to pick up a Bud Light and have a sip.
In the ‘no’ column is the action. It might be clearer and less thud-thud-THUD-bang-bang-BANG, and – praise the stars – there is less slo-mo thanks to Michael Bay abandoning ship. But for all his foibles, Michael Bay knew how to construct an action sequence. The ones here are not bad, but they feel like collages of other movies (one sequence rips off Jurassic Park not once but three times, and the ending feels a lot like a mash-up of Infinity War’s Wakanda ending and Halo 3). They also feel like they have been engineered in VFX studio labs, rather than having any grounding in the real world whatsoever. We think back to the city destruction of the other movies, which at least felt like an overlay onto the real world.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is definitely a better movie than the original non-Energon Transformers saga, but also a less exciting one. Now that’s a complicated cocktail for Transformers fans to drink: are you up for a clearer plot, better characterisation and a less offensive script, BUT with the trade-off being some phoned-in CGI and ham-fisted action scenes? We can’t make that choice for you.
It’s not a superlative start for the new Transformers movie series, then, but at least there are no robotic testicles crashing about.