Without Michael Bay at the helm, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a self-driving vehicle going absolutely nowhere.
I drive a Pontiac Montana. It’s not much to look at, and it doesn’t always agree with me, but more often than not it gets me where I need to go. I don’t ask for much in a car — I got places to be, and things to do, and I just need a pair of wheels that will get me there. But I can’t say the same about the car-centric/alien-centric/hottie-centric Transformers franchise, culminating with its seventh live-action entry, Rise of the Beasts.
The Transformers series wants a tune-up. Or, at least, Paramount and Hasbro, the figureheads behind this capitialistic endeavor, want to slap a fresh coat of paint onto its rusted exterior. Much like my devoted and frustrating Pontiac, it’s a vintage. But unlike my decades-spanning mini-van, Paramount/Hasbro wants to entice and/or reintroduce one of their most profitable film franchises to a brand new decade of theatergoers. The end result is Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, a producer-driven, company-approved effort to mold the latest take on the 80s toy line and cartoon into a blandly familiar blockbuster. One that’s befitting of our listless, cynical cycle of creatively void cinema. Where are wrecking-ball Transformer testicles when you need them?
Starring Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as a pair of unwitting humans who wind up in a globe-trotting adventure with giant Autobots and Decepticons, both familiar and new, Rise of the Beasts is ultimately the movie we deserve for constantly knocking on Michael Bay’s gonzo vision (he’s once again a co-producer, to be clear). Almost entirely stale and saccharine, this auto-revamp awkwardly tries to balance the pulpy thrills of the original films with the heartfelt sincerity of 2018’s clunky, clumsy, but worthwhile Bumblebee with Hailee Steinfeld. By playing it scrappy while still honoring the “we need to save the WORLD” stakes of the sequels, this new addition to the Transformers saga is both lazily uninspired and consciously calculated to do little more than squeeze oil out of a fossil.
A tired attempt at a cinematic universe.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a blatant attempt to relive the glory days and return to the basics — or shall we say “nuts and bolts” — of this franchise’s origins. But it’s also Hasbro’s tired attempt to make their own toy-centric cinematic universe, with the Autobots taking the reigns on a new prequel series with some unclear connections to Bay’s original films.
Ramos plays a former soldier, Noah Diaz, who takes time away from serving his country to care for his sick little brother (Dean Scott Vazquez). He serves as the latest attempt to bring a new Sam Witwicky-esque human protagonist to develop an unlikely bond with the Autobots. But his character decisions feel pre-ordained, as if he’s in the service of a script that he doesn’t know he’s following. Likewise, Fishback’s Elena Wallace, a deeply-knowledgable NYC museum expert who can lend her language expertise to finding a galaxy-conquering MacGuffin, gets a bit more wiggle-room to add personality to her performance, but she rarely has any time to make an impact.
Both fresh-faced actors are solid up-and-coming talents who deserve a blockbuster vehicle (heh) like this to prove their mettle. But they’re unlikely to advance their profile as Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox did with 2007’s Transformers because they’re simply pegs and cogs in an established machine. The script, credited to a slew of screenwriters, lacks any sort of identity. With its lackluster characterization, overworked one-liners, tacky 90s references (if you didn’t know this prequel takes place in the mid-90s, don’t worry, because Rise of the Beasts will make sure you don’t forget), hackneyed emotional beats, lifeless exposition, stunted plotting, and corny needle drops, we don’t need to imagine what screenplays will be like if AI takes over. We get a pretty good idea here.
Bayhem gives way to meh-yhem.
There’s no use trying to defend the original Transformers movies or Michael Bay’s creative choices (though, with that said, I’ll gladly defend his latest film, Ambulance). But when it came to those gargantuan, garish spectacles, at least you were in the hands of a filmmaker. A crass, bombastic filmmaker, but a filmmaker all the same. You weren’t watching the interest of a corporate entity come to fruition. You were watching a madman — cinema’s brash and bullish high school jock with a cocksure attitude — get the keys to the most expensive car in the lot and do wheelies in the Applebee’s parking lot after doing whippets for hours on end.
Those mega-movies were pure delirium, but they were also composed of creative choices that could stay with me, for better or worse (mainly worse). Conversely, It has been a few days since I saw Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and I’m struggling to retain any memory of its existence. It’s safe and serviceable to a fault; the cinematic equivalent of a self-parking car. It’s slick and stripped-down, but dully so. It’s efficient in the sense that it gets to the desired destination, but movies aren’t Toyota Camrys. Or they shouldn’t be, at least.
Rise of the Beasts does attempt to bring the ensemble energy of the original Saturday morning cartoon to the big screen. But director Steven Caple Jr, who previously did an admirable job helming Creed II, lacks the ability or inspiration to deliver any poppy visuals. With its flat, gray aesthetic, you ultimately yearn for Bay’s bright onslaught of whizzy colors. The previous films’ stylistic choices could be headache-inducing in their boorish indulgence, but they buzzed in your head all the same. Caple Jr.’s direction, by extension, feels like it’s storyboarded entirely by the studio, resulting in a sterile and unassuming presentation, even when it travels to some of the world’s lushest, grandest locales. They’ll leave your mind just as soon as they entered.
The only high point of the movie.
But what about the robots in disguise? They’re the main attraction, after all. Featuring the returning faces (?) of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, along with newcomers like Arcee (voiced by Liza Koshy) and Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson). They’re actually the comedic and emotional center of the movie, as Rise of the Beasts is, expectedly, at its most palatable when it focuses on these building-sized personalities. Davidson in particular tries to infuse his fair share of levity and goofiness into the blank proceedings, and he doesn’t always falter. A high-speed, high-energy police chase scene that serves as the introduction to Mirage and Diaz is the movie’s sole high point, particularly as it proves to be the only sequence that actually brings back the fleeting charm of the 2007 original.
But this would-be otherworldly bromance falters under the burdensome weight of plot-heavy mechanics. And the movie provides little room for any sort of genuine emotional investment. At least when Bumblebee copied E.T.’s homework, it didn’t constantly point out that it was basically E.T. Word to the wise: if you’re going to constantly remind us of a better movie, don’t mention said film.
Alas, there’s little in this latest Transformers film to make you excited for what’s to come, unless you happen to hold Hasbro stock. But even then, such an empty, lifelessly cautious movie should reasonably make one wonder if there’s truly a future for this franchise moving forward. But hey, at least Rise of the Beasts holds the unlikely distinction of being the first Transformers flick to feature O.J. Simpson.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on June 9. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS - 4/10