Transformers Review: Rise of the Beasts Learned Some Lessons from Bumblebee & Michael Bay


When it comes to the Transformers franchise, one tends to grade on a curve: “Well, this one wasn’t as bad as Revenge of the Fallen…” or “That one was a little better than Age of Extinction…” When at least four of the seven films in a franchise are all but unwatchable, damning with low expectations is where we end up.

With the seventh and latest film, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, one might say, “Well, it wasn’t as good as Bumblebee…” but in this case, that doesn’t instantly spell doom. Rise of the Beasts is easily the best movie in the main narrative since the original Transformers in 2007, for which this acts as a prequel of sorts (as well as a sequel to Bumblebee—the series is circling back on itself!). And the lessons learned from the Bumblebee spinoff, the first film in the franchise not weighed down by the heavy directorial hand of Michael Bay and all that entails, have been largely applied here with fairly successful results. The plot is less convoluted and actually coherent, the main human characters are given agency and somewhat fleshed out (especially the female lead) and the action is given decent scope that can even be followed by the normal human eye most of the time.

Of course we’re still talking about a franchise inspired by a line of Hasbro toys that is dependent on scenes of vehicles turning into robots and smashing each other to pieces, so there is a limit to how high even this film can climb on the intelligence meter. But as a kid-friendly summer spectacle, it works to a large degree and is even engaging instead of flat-out, senses-and-brain-cells-numbing.

Director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) handles the action this time and proves himself capable of moving things along in an articulate, fast-paced fashion while allowing his small cast space to breathe as well. The plot this time (inspired by the Beast Wars storyline from the comics, TV shows, and video games, which won’t mean much to non-fans) centers on a MacGuffin called the Transwarp Key, which can open portals between different times and universes.

The evil planet-devouring god Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo) wants this Key so that he can jump easily from meal to meal, but it’s guarded by the Maximals—Transformers that assume the shape of animals—who escape the destruction of their planet by using the Key to escape to Earth and hide it there. Millennia later (1994 to be exact, with plenty of needle drops and pop culture references to remind us), one half of the Key is discovered and accidentally activated by a museum intern and artifacts researcher named Elena (Dominique Fishback, Swarm).

That alerts Optimus Prime (voiced, of course, by Peter Cullen), who knows the Key can get his Autobots back to Cybertron and calls them into action to acquire it. One of those Autobots is Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), who is disguised as a Porsche that, as it just so happens, is in the process of being robbed by Noah (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights). Noah’s an ex-soldier who is forced into crime after being unable to secure a job and medical care for his ailing younger brother.

Noah and Elena soon find themselves aligned with Optimus, Bumblebee, Arcee, and other Autobots as they struggle to keep the Key from Unicron’s agent Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and his team of Terrorcons. As the quest leads them all to Peru, the Autobots discover other allies there: the surviving Maximals, led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), who also vow to stop Unicron from obtaining the Key.

Caple introduces all his characters—humans, Autobots, Maximals, Terrorcons, and other interested parties—with relative ease, and the designs of all the various Transformers makes it less of a chore to keep track of them this time around. The simplicity of the story where everyone’s basically after the same thing allows for less tedious exposition (although there is always some, just look above!) and more room for, dare we say it, character development.

Fishback and Ramos are both appealing, empathetic, and charismatic, with most of the first act spent establishing their stories before the robot action kicks in. Fishback thankfully continues the precedent set by Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee of the women in these movies being more than just the exploitative eye candy of the cringeworthy Bay days.

Even series mainstay Optimus Prime gets to do some character work this time. Not every choice old Optimus makes is the right one, and he’s haunted by past mistakes as well; Cullen inserts a subtle regret into the voice this time. Davidson’s Mirage is the comic relief on this ride, although he’s a fiercely loyal link to the humans as well. Meanwhile Perlman and especially Michelle Yeoh as the Maximal falcon Airazor bring these newest entries to the live-action franchise a certain gravitas and faint dignity.

Caple gives the action sequences the size they require and directs them with confidence and suppleness, but even though he avoids the frenzied, nonsensical composing and editing that were the horrendous trademarks of the Bayhem days, he still can’t always work around the sometimes wobbly CG and the basic problem of watching robots constantly transforming and colliding into each other. The film’s climactic battle is clearly trying to emulate the all-hands-on-deck fireworks of Avengers: Endgame but falls short with just too many similar elements introduced.

Still, the payoff is satisfying enough, with the arcs of Noah, Elena, Optimus Prime, and Mirage in particular all dovetailing far more smoothly than in any previous ensemble Transformers entry (although character arcs were not in abundance in those movies). Peru’s Machu Pichu is an inspired choice for a showdown location—even if there are strangely few people around—and points also go to Jongnic Bontemps’ score, the excellent sound design by Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, and Enrique Chediak’s work behind the camera. This is a big movie made for the big screen in all ways.

While that familiar Transformers numbness begins to set in toward the finish line, the film’s relatively economical 117-minute running time keeps things more or less under control. The final scene before the credits roll should also send Hasbro fans out on a high note (and yes, there’s a mid-credits scene as well). Not being a fan of the franchise in general, we can say that Rise of the Beasts kept us hooked almost all the way through. And that’s not even grading on a curve.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on Friday, June 9.

The post Transformers Review: Rise of the Beasts Learned Some Lessons from Bumblebee & Michael Bay appeared first on Den of Geek.

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