VERDICT: It might be damning with faint praise, but this reboot finds more fun (and visual coherence) in the toy robots than the five earlier efforts directed by Michael Bay.
It’s too soon to know if the prequel Transformers: Rise of the Beasts will erase the five previous Transformers movies directed by Michael Bay from the franchise canon, but it’s safe to say that this latest adventure of the robots in disguise represents a marked improvement from the visual cacophony and irritating (and occasionally offensive) screenwriting that marked the first wave of Transformers movies.
Closer in tone to the stand-alone Bumblebee prequel — briefly acknowledged here, and still the best of the Transformers movies — which put at least as much stock in its human characters as it did in the CG alien cyborgs that turn themselves into motor vehicles, Rise of the Beasts gives you some people to care about, sprinkled among the clanging heavy machinery that remains the real star of the series.
In a flashback introduction, we meet the Maximals, a race of robot beings in animal form — including gorilla Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman), soaring bird Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), feline Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), and armor-plated Rhinox (David Sobolov) — who band together to hide the film’s magical, mysterious object away from the evil, planet-consuming Unicron (Colman Domingo). This MacGuffin remains hidden on Earth for millennia until 1994 when museum intern Elena (Dominique Fishback, Judas, and the Black Messiah) finds part of it hidden inside an ancient statue.
At the same time, an army veteran and electronics whiz Noah (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights), desperate to pay for healthcare for his ailing younger brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez, Theater Camp), contemplates stealing a Porsche that winds up being one of the Autobots, Mirage (Pete Davidson), in disguise. Once inside the car, Noah has second thoughts about the theft, but at that exact moment, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) summons all the Autobots to rendezvous; it turns out that Unicron isn’t the only one after the artifact that Elena has uncovered, as Optimus Prime hopes to snag it first so he can use it to take all the Autobots back to their home planet.
After an initial skirmish between the Autobots and Omicron’s henchman Scourge (Peter Dinklage), everyone realizes that the Maximals split the magical object in half, so Noah and Elena, and the Autobots are off to Peru to get the other piece. To its credit, Rise of the Beasts actually does a little grappling with the morality of trying to assemble the artifact — on the one hand, it will save the Autobots, but on the other hand, in Unicron’s possession, it will destroy the Earth. (Take that, Oppenheimer.)
Unlike the underwritten ciphers portrayed by Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg in earlier installments, Elena and Noah actually emerge as fun, interesting characters whom you want to see succeed. (Noah can’t get a break in the job market, while Elena knows way more about arts and antiquities than any of her more-educated bosses at the museum.) It’s also great to see viable characters of color in a Transformers movie, especially after the stereotypes of Mudflap and Skids in Revenge of the Fallen.
The team of screenwriters has figured out a way to let the humans be more directly a part of the action and to do less standing around than their counterparts in earlier chapters, and Fishback and Ramos inject empathy and wit into these characters. (Noah gets a last-minute pep talk from Kris that should be hokey, but dang if the actors and director Steven Caple Jr. don’t make it work.) When the robots are talking to each other, however, the results remain flatly declarative, despite Yeoh and Davidson’s best efforts.
The army of visual-effects artists employed here quite effectively integrate their CG creations with breathtaking Peruvian locations (while also unobtrusively putting the Twin Towers back into 1994 Manhattan). Alas, one element of effects wizardry remains elusive in these movies: when one robot battles one robot, it’s exciting. When 50 robots battle 50 robots, it’s a million-pixel pile-up. The garbled mechanical masses make the crowded but visually distinguishable frames of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse look even more impressive.
Everything leads up to a coda that is clearly set up to launch a new cinematic universe, which won’t be spoiled here. It’s notable, however, that the government’s reward to Noah for saving the Earth is a medical treatment for Kris. In Bay’s 1998 Armageddon, the roughnecks who rescued humanity all won tax exemption for the rest of their lives, but the connection between tax cuts and a broken U.S. healthcare system is perhaps best explored elsewhere.
In any event, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts defibrillates a moribund franchise; the patient may not quite be up and running, but it’s standing more solidly than it did before.
- Director: Steven Caple Jr.
- Screenwriters: Joby Harold and Darnell Metayer & Josh Peters and Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber
- Cast: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Colman Domingo, Michelle Yeoh, Pete Davidson, Peter Dinklage, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Peter Cullen
- Producers: Michael Bay, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Duncan Henderson, Don Murphy, Mark Vahradian
- Executive producers: Valerii An, David Ellison, Bradley J. Fischer, Dana Goldberg, Brian Goldner, Don Granger, Brian Oliver, Steven Spielberg
- Cinematography: Enrique Chediak
- Production design: Sean Haworth
- Costume design: Ciara Whaley
- Editing: William Goldenberg, Joel Negron
- Music: Jongnic Bontemps
- Sound: Felix Andrew and Simon Poudrette, sound mixers
- Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, New Republic Pictures, Di Bonaventura Pictures, Bay Films, Entertainment One, Allspark Pictures, Hasbro
- In English, 117 minutes