Though it’s a slight improvement on its predecessors, the fightin’ robot franchise still feels stale & tired.
The blockbuster landscape shifted with Michael Bay‘s 2007 Transformers movie. It fit his directing style, with his love of explosions and male gazing, but what it amounted to was a guy playing with big, expensive cinematic toys. There was knowledge gained from those five previous installments when the 2018 spin-off Bumblebee had more personality and excitement than any of its predecessors.
This is why Transformers: Rise of the Beasts– somehow the seventh entry in the Transformers franchise – had more promise than previous sequels, even if Bay’s presence lingers long after he’s vacated the director’s chair. Sadly, the result is another soulless exercise, bogged down by its mechanical plotting, and hideous CGI imagery. Rise of the Beasts may be one of the better Transformers movies and still, this Beast gives us nothing to chew on.
It’s 1994 in New York City and six years after the events in Bumblebee. Noah (Anthony Ramos) is a proud New Yorker, ex-military, out of a job, and trying to provide for his mother and younger brother, who’s battling sickle-cell anemia. His desperation leads to an attempt at stealing a fancy car. As luck would have it, the vehicle he chose is a Transformer named Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), which places Noah in the middle of the conflict between Autobots and a planet destroyer called the Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo).
With Optimus Prime (voiced, as always, by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee back, the main revelation is a new robot species of Transformers called the Maximals. They are giant metal animals and include a gorilla named Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman), a rhino named Rhinox, and a killer eagle named Airazor (voiced by Michelle Yeoh). All of them provide new toys to market for kids, but don’t have enough screen time to make a true impact. The other human on board is Dominique Fishback as Elena, a museum curator who finds an artifact that awakens Unicron’s henchman Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage), and allows him to locate the bots on Earth. The goal quickly becomes to save Earth, get the Autobots back to their home of Cybertron, and do it all before everything is destroyed.
For the first 30 minutes Rise of the Beasts has a successful approach: spend time with the humans and the robots will come later. An early car chase and bot battles set a tone, but we still have an hour-thirty-seven to go. And then the robot-destruction starts, and everything begins to crumble. Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. is at the helm, trying his best to expand beyond standard Transformers narratives, but this boils down to a series of MacGuffins. The screenplay from Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, and Josh Peters sends the humans to find keys and codes, while the space robots stand by and watch. How convenient. And as Noah and Elena inch toward the key they covet, they are thwarted, only to discover that there’s actually another piece out there to track.
Nothing is ever really in danger, and death is merely a fleeting plot device. The stakes are consistently low. Metal clangs, some things blow up, and you’ve seen it all before. The very destruction of Earth elicits the same amount of worry as spilled milk on a hardwood floor. That is why Rise of the Beasts feels insignificant. There’s never a doubt that it’s all going to be okay.
Even with these negatives, as far as Transformers movies go, Rise of the Beasts is one of the better installments. There are some genuine set-pieces, and the visual effects often justify the mountains of destruction. But like an automobile with no engine, what is missing is the soul, a sense of groundedness to elevate it beyond just robots smashing into things. I never cared when a robot “died” because a big electric charge can resurrect them. Finding one large enough to do so is seemingly easier than one would anticipate. No matter how elaborate the CGI, it ultimately looks like Ramos and Co. standing against pathetically drawn green screen universes.
There is also no one person to blame for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts‘ shortcomings. It’s a movie geared toward kids, teenagers, and true Transformers fanatics. I am neither of those things, but my 5 year old loved it. Ramos and Fishback are both having fun, never phoning it in. The voice work delivered, especially from Davidson, is more of the standard series of Autobot-themed quips and puns. That is just what these movies are, which is fine, but they also quickly become tedious and boring. They can’t help it. That’s just the nature of the Beasts.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters June 9th.