It speaks volumes about our current creatively barren blockbuster landscape that Michael Bay, once the paragon of ugly, unbridled excess, now stands as a last bastion of auteurist style and invention.
Whither the director’s wanton flash, sizzle, stereotypes, and jingoism, which seared the eyes, offended the ears, and pummeled the spirit into weary submission? In the face of today’s Marvel-grade assembly line tentpoles, Bay’s egomaniacal odes to enormity resemble not only quaint relics of a bygone age (which, at the time, many were eager to see conclude), but exemplars of extravagant vision and skill, made by an artist whose gung-ho personality infused every frame of his juvenile, militaristic, sexualized spectaculars.
Confronted by the ludicrous prodigality of 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight (which remains, to date, the director’s fifth and final franchise entry), I wrote, “That Bay is capable of staging computerized pandemonium with this much rapid-fire scale, sound, and car-commercial sleekness is no small feat; good luck finding someone else who can take the reins of this Hasbro-based franchise.” Travis Knight’s 2018 Bumblebee spin-off proved that point to a tee, opting for a more heartfelt and muted approach that drained the action of its crazed lifeblood, and it’s doubly confirmed by Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which premieres June 9 in theaters.
Helmed by Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II), this prequel to Bay’s original 2007 Transformers aims for respectability via breezy comic pacing, progressive casting, and straightforward sound and fury. It’s the safe and simplistic course-correction that—neutered of the very absurdist immensity that was this franchise’s calling card, if not its sole reason for existing—lands with a crashing thud.
In a distant past on an unidentified world, the Maximals—Transformers that take the shape of wild animals—battle a planet-devouring entity known as Unicron (Colman Domingo) and his seemingly indestructible Terrorcon minion Scourge (Peter Dinklage). These villains covet the Transwarp Key, a magical device that opens a portal to alternate universes where Unicron might continue to feed his insatiable hunger. Unfortunately for them, they’re thwarted in their mission by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), the Maximals’ gorilla leader, who takes off in a spaceship after watching his own mentor perish in what may be the most underwhelming opening skirmish in cinema history.
Then again, since Rise of the Beasts doesn’t even bother explaining why alien robots on a far-off land look like Earth creatures, Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, and Jon Hoeber’s script sets expectations at bottom-of-the-barrel levels from the outset, which is where they remain once the proceedings transition to Brooklyn circa 1994.
Following in the thankless footsteps of Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Ramos is Noah Diaz, a military veteran and tech whiz with a financially struggling single mom (Luna Lauren Vélez) and a sick younger brother named Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), as well as a side hustle earning cash by modding cable boxes for friends. When a job opportunity falls through because of his reputation as an irresponsible non-team player, Noah agrees to rob a car at a gala event. The Porsche he tries to boost, however, turns out to be Mirage (Pete Davidson), an Autobot whose wise-cracking is so awful that the film feels obligated to have him apologize for one particularly corny one-liner.
At the same time that Noah becomes trapped in Mirage as he autonomously flees pursuing police cars, museum intern Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) fixates on a hawk statue with mysterious ancient markings. When Elena investigates this artifact further, she discovers that it’s the Transwarp Key, which by this point Noah has come to retrieve on behalf of Mirage and his cohorts Bumblebee, Arcee (Liza Koshy) and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the last of whom wants the Key in order to escape his Earth exile and return home, and who has no interest partnering with humans.
In case it wasn’t obvious from the start that Optimus and Noah are both born protectors who must learn to work together, Elena soon articulates that sentiment—one of innumerable instances in which characters bluntly state things so the film can get back to staging digital mayhem.
Whereas Bay’s installments were narratively gonzo, replete with moon landing conspiracies, King Arthur mythologizing, and Wahlberg’s quasi-incestuous longing for his daughter, Rise of the Beasts’ story is a rote, one-note affair comprised of three separate fights between good guys and bad guys. Its rock ’em-sock ’em centerpieces are drab and crude, marked by everything that its predecessors were not: dim lighting; unimaginative combat choreography; and character designs whose intricately spiky bodies (chassis?) have been reimagined in unsophisticated terms.
Caple Jr.’s prequel strips the series’ every element down to its lackluster basics, thereby rendering it a live-action cartoon without the decency to at least attempt to bludgeon viewers into a sensorial stupor with the finest (i.e., most egregious) orgiastic robo-insanity that hundreds of millions of studio dollars can buy.
Rise of the Beasts’ nominal novelties are the Maximals, and yet only Optimus Primal receives any attention; blink and you’ll miss Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa) and Rhinox (David Sobolov), whose names reflect the minimal imagination that went into their construction. Ramos and Fishback, meanwhile, emote with gusto and frantically scamper about their titanic extraterrestrial compatriots in NYC and Peru.
Despite the actors’ best efforts, their protagonists are as dull as the film’s ’90s-era references (to various hip-hop legends, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and Sonic the Hedgehog) and wan stabs at generating pathos via Kris’ plight and Noah and Mirage’s fist-bumping friendship. Nothing, however, is as lame as Noah’s climactic transformation into a cybernetic pseudo-superhero—a wannabe “wow” moment that reeks of desperate Marvel mimicry, and makes one pine for Bay’s shiny, sleazy, uniquely unhinged immoderation.
Voiced by Domingo with a bellowing growl that’s considerably less captivating than Orson Welles’ senatorial baritone in 1986’s animated Transformers: The Movie, Unicron proves a shadow of his former self, and an additional example of Rise of the Beasts’ discount quality. No matter the closing scene’s tease of a future franchise crossover with another popular ’80s toy property, it’s a reduction posing as an expansion, and the sort of flimsy contraption that, in a prior Bay effort, would have been terminated with extreme limb-ripping, head-decapitating prejudice.
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