Getting Beastly

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

I am not a fan of the live-action Transformers movies. In fairness, I'm not actually a Transformers fan in general, but that's less a hate for anything specific and more just that when I was a kid I went from He-Man into the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. and skipped right over the robots in disguise. They were popular for a lot of kids my age, all during the rise of "Generation 1", but I didn't get that bug.

But my distaste for the live-action films is more specific to the fact that they're awful. The movies, five of which were directed by Michael Bay, are the most successful series of god awful films I think I've ever seen. And the thing is that the go progressively dumber and progressively worse, even as the budgets inflated, the explosions got bigger, and audiences came back in larger and larger droves. Well, right up until they didn't, with the last of the original five (of the pentology) did half the business of its predecessor. That made the film, The Last Knight, a break-even affair (if not a little bit of a flop) and the series needed a rethink.

Note, not a break. Just a rethink. A move towards escaping the worst impulses of the Bay era and evolving into something new. The sixth film, Bumblebee, came out a year and a half after The Last Knight -- a short turn-around for films that traditionally took two to three years to produce -- so it was already well into production when its predecessor failed to light the world on fire. But you can sense that the creators knew they needed to go a new way, and when the corporate mandate likely came down to treat the film as a full reboot, they did. And they made something fresh, fun, and interesting out of the bones that came before. It wasn't a huge hit, making even less than The Last Knight (as the damage had already been done), but it did point the way to a new future for the franchise.

The question then was if the series could learn the lessons of Bumblebee and continue is this new, more fun, more watchable direction. The answer, in short, is "no". While ostensibly a sequel to Bumblebee (with without any characters other than the Bee himself showing up), this film is an ensemble film gathering all the Transformers together, along with a new version of the Beast Machines characters, for a fight against a larger impending threat. But it's also a giant mess of a film that likely confused audiences. It's big, it's messy, and it doesn't really do anything well at all. But, wow, is it certainly loud and stupid. You know, just like the Bay movies of old.

The film focuses on Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a down-on-his-luck former soldier who was dismissed from the Army under less than ideal circumstances. Ever since he's struggled to get a job while his mom is forced to pay the bills with her own, shitty gig. And there's his brother, who has a very bad illness and can't get the treatment he needs because it's too expensive and their insurance sucks. Noah, in short, needs a break. And since he can't get a job he decides to go with a criminal friend to steal a couple of cars so he can make a little scratch and make ends meet.

It just so happens that the car he decides to steal is Mirage (Pete Davidson), a Transformer disguised as a Porsche 964 Carrera RS 3.8. After a run from the cops, with Mirage doing his best to give the kid the ride of his life, Mirage ends up taking Noah back to meet with the Transformers. These robots, hiding out on Earth after the fall of their home, Cybertron, are distrustful of humans and want nothing more than to find a new home and rebuild. But with a looming threat from a foe so powerful he could destroy all life on Earth, the Transformers end up teaming with Noah (and, eventually, museum artifact researcher Elena Wallace, played by Dominique Fishback) to find a way to stop the threat and save the day once more.

There are any number of problems with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, but the key among them is that it doesn't really have any sense of what kind of movie it wants to be. As a sequel to Bumblebee, this movie fails. Anyone coming into this film saying, "hey, I want to see more of what I liked in that movie," would end up quite disappointed. It's not a personal story about a girl and her car (noting that Hailee Steinfeld's Charlie Watson isn't in this movie at all). Hell, it barely is even about Bumblebee as that character is killed off in the first act and is only resurrected right near the end of the film. And it's new pairing, between Noah and Mirage, is forced and flat, having none of the spark or life of Charlie and Bee, or even Sam and Bee from the 2007 film. It doesn't work.

On the subject of characters, there are far too many in this film. What worked so nicely in Bumblebee is that you got time to focus just on Charlie and her relationship to Bee, and then the two of them paired up to deal with a couple of Decepticons that showed up. Tight, focused, to the point (and yes, I know that film has some third act problems, but we'll discuss that in a review of that movie). This "sequel", by comparison, has Noah and his family, Elena and her struggles with her boss, six Autobots (counting Mirage), four Maximal (Beasts), and a bunch of Terrorcons to fight. That's a ton of characters to balance, or really not, and the film barely has the time to give any of them character development, let alone screen time to feel like real people. Even with a runtime just over two hours, most of the characters in the film remain one-note and uninteresting.

And then there's the actual plots. It all focuses on a single McGuffin, a Transwarp key that has been hidden on Earth. The Terrorcons want it, so they can summon Unicron from across space, while the Autobots and Maximals want to find it and hide it. If that sounds an awful lot like the story from previous films (all but Bumblebee), well, it is. Most of the movies had focuses on some silly Transformer techno bobble, a tchotchke of immense power that, of course, has been hidden on Earth for the heroes to find, the villains to steal, and then the heroes to get back after they've killed all the bad guys. This film, for all its talk of being a sequel to Bumblebee, doesn't deviate from that formula at all.

And there's the whole last act which is just unintelligible power slop. It's a long section of action, where everything is done against green screen and 95 percent of it is CGI. Say what you will about the Bay films but they went hard on practical effects whenever they could. The Transformers might have been CGI but all the buildings getting wrecked and the cars blowing up were real. Not so here, where it all not only looks fake but feels fake, making it hard to invest in any of the on screen actions. And then, somehow, Bumblebee is resurrected (the power of Enertron!) and it undercuts the idea that anyone that sacrificed their life during the last act slop did so for a good reason. They can all come back. Enertron!

Weirdly, the film does go hard on shared universe building. The last scene of the film introduces the idea that the Transformers exist on the same world as G.I. Joe and MASK and all the other properties Hasbro owns so they can do a big crossover continuity. It is totally unearned, mind you, coming out of left field with no prior development. And it happens in a movie where you don't care about anything from the previous two hours so why would you give a damn about this shared universe scene as the credits roll? It was a big over-gamble on the part of Paramount and Hasbro, laughable at best and totally never going to happen at worst. The hubris on display is astounding.

As if it wasn't obvious, I didn't like this movie. I did enjoy Bumblebee and I thought it might spell a new way forward for the series. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts instead feels like a giant step back. I won't say it's worse than The Last Knight (as I have yet to watch that film) but it wasn't even as good as the mildly awful first couple of films from 2007. This is a franchise that, even after a reboot, has lost its way. Fives years off, and $290 Mil spent on just the budget alone, and all Paramount could come up with was this lackluster dreck. That's so sad.