Steven Caple Jr
The story opens with the usual, genre standard, science fiction heavy exposition about an ancient world under threat from a terrible all consuming evil. Which is stopped solely by the brave sacrifice of a handful of warriors, who escape with a McGuffin device that is then hidden on Earth for hundreds of years. Cut to 90s New York and we’re introduced to Noah Diaz [Ramos], a former soldier who is trying to take care of his mother and sick younger brother. As well as Elena Wallace [Fishback], a museum researcher who manages to discover aforementioned McGuffin concealed in a relic. Through coincidence and circumstance, the key activates, luring both the hidden Autobots and Scourge [Dinklage] emissary of the planet consuming Unicron.
Coming off the soft reboot franchise high-point of Bumblebee, a continuation of this revised narrative set in the 90s makes complete sense. And, from the outset, it’s clear several lessons have been learned and applied.. but that spark of heart and ingenuity is tarnished a little by generic developments and unambiguous set pieces. That said, there’s a lot about this movie that will hit in a thoroughly entertaining way for many cinemagoers. The overall tone for 90s Brooklyn is handled deftly and the relatable stakes for the leads feel reminiscent of 2017’s Power Rangers, serving up a grounded story seemingly unfitting of a Transformers film. Less cartoon hijinks and more coming of age drama, with themes of under-appreciated individuals possessing “more than meets the eye.” But, as has been parroted from minute one of these live-action films being released, people aren’t especially interested in the conflicts of the human characters. At least, that’s what fans tell themselves. Sure, we’d be happy with a story told entirely from the Transformers’ perspective but this particular chapter adds a semblance of conflict that requires a compelling human presence.
This is because, a significant portion of the runtime injects a modicum of moral grey area and complexity. Which fosters an initial lack of trust between the Autobots and humanity – specifically their overriding needs to protect their respective homeworlds. As such, the Optimus Prime [Cullen] in this film is not the one audiences may be used to. What we have here is a more embittered General figure, who has to be convinced over time that humans can be allies. As I’ll expand upon later, Rise Of The Beasts is a bit of a misnomer, but the presence of the beast robots (called Maximals) serves as a guiding moral light for characters we have long associated with pure unwavering virtue.
Aside from character development and plot points, Rise Of The Beasts steps further away from the visual assault that Michael Bay’s movies became known for, and presents action that is largely clear and followable – helped infinitely by the solid colours signposting individual robot characters for viewers. Of course, this doesn’t continue throughout the film and, unfortunately, the movie does conclude with a bit of a grey mess of computer imagery being mushed together. But for the most part it’s engaging and well presented.
While this release is a monumental step up from the first five features, it’s also a little disappointingly safe and straightforward. On the one hand, wholly dumber than Bumblebee, but on the other, leagues above what has been endured for 15 years. Speaking of which, it would have been nice to have more connective threads to Bumblebee (rather than just a throwaway line) to avoid this outing feeling like another soft reboot.
But if we’re talking about this movie’s faults and flaws, we have to rollout the usual suspects: flimsy dialogue, egregious plot conveniences, contradictions, a lot of sacrifice and death that minimises the impact of both, random character introductions that go nowhere, and a sweeping lack of unique standout moments that feel iconic to this release. On top of that, Scourge as a villain is quite menacing but for someone who tears apart worlds, it’s never clear why he infiltrates Earth undercover, rather than simply turning Earth upside down to find what he needs.
And then there’s the Maximals – the eponymous beasts which supposedly rise. Running from the late 90s, Beast Wars was a Transformers sequel/spin-off in its own right, and existed with independent story arcs and developments. But when it comes to actual screen-time, the Maximals are an admittedly tertiary presence. For some this will be fine and they’ll relish what’s on offer. For others it will feel like a slap in the face. And, given how the film closes, this won’t be the last we see of these new arrivals, but they will have a tough time fighting for attention in light of where upcoming sequels are headed. And yes, I’m being purposely vague thanks to one of the biggest jaw-drop name drops at the end that, in an age of crossovers and team ups, still manages to feel like an exciting surprise. At least, for an individual who liked to take all his disparate toys and smash them together as a kid.
Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts is by no means a stellar cinematic undertaking but it has the key components of a genuine throwback summer blockbuster, with its target demographic firmly in mind – that being a mix of those pushing forty, as well as those pushing fourteen. In essence, it’s big dumb fun.
09 June 2023
The Scene To Look Out For:
There are plenty of well constructed scenes but arguably a single line of dialogue stood out to me to illustrate the chasm between what had been done before and what these films want to say. Specifically, Elena the history buff is speaking with Optimus Primal (the leader of the Maximals, voiced by Ron Perlman) about these giant mechanised beasts being hidden on Earth for centuries. She suggests that ancient architectural and artistic wonders (such as the Nazca Lines) were built by the Maximals. But Primal corrects her and says they cannot take credit for human ingenuity. Again, it may not sound like much, but considering Transformers: The Last Knight dismissively implied the Autobots were secretly helping the likes of Harriet Tubman, Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo, etc. this movie actively says the great monuments and achievements of indigenous people didn’t come from aliens or external help. Just human excellence.
One of the key new additions is Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson. And, regardless of whether you like the comedian or not, Davidson feels like a perfect fit for the original Transformers line-up. An amalgam of so many cocky, wise-cracking voice actors of the 80s, with an added healthy mix of cynicism and heart.
“I’m not following you, I’m just escaping in the same direction”
In A Few Words:
“Easily the second best of the seven live-action Transformers films. But whether that’s a compliment or such an easy feat as to be insulting, is up to you.”
Total Score: 3/5