Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise was once, for better or for worse, a franchise that largely marched to the beat of its own drum. Guided by Bay’s distinct filmmaking approach, the franchise was an undeniable trendsetter for the late 2000s to early 2010s. After Bay’s films wore out its audience, the studio has now decided to ride the coattails of the most popular filmmaking machine in a blatant attempt at corporate branding. The seventh entry, after the successful prequel/spinoff Bumblebee, starring the famous Hasbro Robots-in-disguise is pointless, disposable corporate junk at its worst.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, In the Heights) is Noah Diaz, a struggling Army vet looking for work to support his ailing younger brother and single mom. Leading to stealing cars in order to get by, Noah makes his way into a nice Porsche that just so happens to be autobot Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson). Noah and Mirage are wrapped up in a mission led by Optimus Prime (character veteran Peter Cullen), to retrieve a macguffin, this time an ancient key that holds the power to open a portal through time and space, thus allowing the autobots to return to their home planet, Cybertron. The key, uncovered by archeological researcher Elena, Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah, Prime Video’s Swarm), is being hunted by Terrorcon Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage) doing the bidding for the planet-killing Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo).
Creed 2 director Steven Caple Jr., a skilled filmmaker in his own right, is swallowed up by the empty CG spectacle and endless stench of studio notes. Bay’s films fetishistically filmed these robots-in-disguise with vivid textures and rich colors, even when his action sequences occasionally blurred the lines between cohesion and chaos. Caple Jr.’s film, contains almost exclusively weightless spectacle that borrows from every major tentpole blockbuster of the past ten years. The film literally ends with a climax set to a murky grey sky backdrop. Instead of feeling akin to the previous films in the franchise, including the charming and heartfelt Bumblee, Rise of the Beasts would much rather be a Marvel knockoff, down to the smartass quipping and even having the Transformers blatantly superhero pose. Even the indecipherable Transformers: The Last Knight felt like the work of a filmmaker unhinged and with nothing to lose.
Rise of the Beasts doesn’t even hold a candle to the still-astonishing vfx work in the first Transformers film from 2007. For the fleeting moments of badassery, courtesy of Optimus Prime, the lack of personality and generic action construction renders much of the coolest moments to hit with a whimper. There’s a shot in the climax meant to look like a oner, but is conceptualized with a lack of innovation, feeling like a video game cutscene from ten years ago than an actual, exciting piece of cinema. You get the sense Caple Jr. is operating with his both hands tied behind his back, with a product that’s as safe and willing-to-please at every corner. The incorporation of the popular Beast Wars, introducing the Maximal characters including Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), an underutilized Gorilla robot, falcon Airazor (Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh) and new autobots Arcee (a lively Liza Koshy) and Wheeljack (Cristo Fernandez) are given little-to-no character or sense of personality. Only Dinklage’s intimidating Scourge makes an impression.
The writing, credited to five screenwriters including Joby Harold (Army of the Dead), Josh Peters (Starz’s BMF), Darnell Metayer (Starz’s BMF) and Erich & Jon Hoeber (The Meg), feels uninspired with character arcs and payoffs that scream screenwriting 101. Ramos’ Noah is told early on “you don’t know how to be a team player” which says everything you need to know about where that character’s growth is headed. With creative decisions that are introduced and taken back within minutes, you can feel the fear of risk-taking put on by its producers. Characters wisecrack and joke off-screen, reeking of studio-mandated ADR to punch up certain scenes with tired jokes. Pete Davidson’s Mirage is stuck with godawful one liners and eye-rolling lines such as “come on Optimus, you gotta lighten up, my man!” . The human characters fare even worse. BAFTA nominee for her devastating work in Judas and the Black Messiah, Dominique Fishback is given the unfortunate task of burning through endless amounts of exposition that, even for this franchise, is nonsensical. Anthony Ramos, a highly charismatic actor, is left with a performance that, like the film, is too eager to please. It really is a shame that two actors of color are set up to fail here, given such lifeless characters.
One of the films few personality traits stems from its period setting of 1994 pre-Giuliani NYC, with Caple. Jr. getting a sense of place by utilizing classic East Coast Hip-Hop. However, even the needle drops grow more tiresome as the film goes on with inspired uses of Wu-Tang Clan and Black Sheep, to eventually lazier ones with LL Cool J and Notorious B.I.G. Personally, getting to hear Cullen’s Optimus Prime utter my name half a dozen times was one of the few semi-exciting things to occur through the 127 minute runtime.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a personality-free, dull and weightless seventh entry. Say what you will about Bay’s films, from the first all the way to the fifth, they elicited some form of an emotional response. Despite being roughly 30 minutes shorter than most other films in the franchise, this feels the longest with tired characters, forced humor and an overly safe approach to filmmaking. Bay’s films may have left you feeling like you had a dozen nails rattling inside your head, but you at least felt something. The most common emotion felt in Rise of the Beasts is boredom, with a slight dose of contempt.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is now playing in theaters.