It’s been five years since Travis Knight did the unimaginable and actually made a great live-action Transformers film with Bumblebee. Now, director Steven Caple, Jr. (Creed II) is taking a swing at building upon the soft reset that Knight pulled off with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. While Caple is able to keep the chaos mostly contained, unlike Michael Bay, some of the same problems with the Bay films come roaring back, and the goodwill with longtime fans that Travis Knight built up is tarnished.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens with a scene that longtime toy fans have dreamed about for decades: the coming of Unicron (voiced by Coleman Domingo), complete with Vince DiCola’s 1986 theme from Transformers: The Movie, as the Dark God of the Transformers universe sets his sights on devouring an unknown planet populated by the Maximals, a faction of good Transformers from the far future. The Maximals hold a special artifact called the Transwarp Key that can allow Unicron to warp through time and space to eat world after world, so Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) and his team escape the planet while their leader, Apelinq, holds off the attack by Unicron’s minions, the Terrorcons, led by Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage). Primal’s team jettison away while Unicron feeds, and Scourge and his Terrorcons are sent out into the greater galaxy to find the artifact.
The action picks back up on Earth, circa 1994, in New York. Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is an electronics whiz with a sick kid brother (Dean Scott Vasquez) and an overworked mother (Luna Lauren Velez), who’s just trying to find a job after being discharged from the Army. When he agrees to boost a car for a low level street thug (Tobe Nwigwe), his target, a Porsche, turns out to be Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), who happens to be a robot in disguise hiding out in New York with the rest of his Autobot allies, Arcee (voiced by Liza Koshy), Bumblebee, and Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen).
At the same time, on Ellis Island, a young museum intern named Elena (Dominique Fishback) stumbles onto a weird statue that contains alien technology and when she accidentally activates it, it brings both the Autobots — including Mirage and his new “friend” Noah — and the Terrorcons to her location, beginning a prolonged battle/race to secure the Transwarp Key to either prevent Unicron from finding Earth — or calling him to dinner.
What follows is an adventure that brings our heroes to Peru, where Prime discovers the Maximals, including Optimus Primal, Airazor (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), Cheetor (voiced by Tongayi Chirisa), and Rhinox (voiced David Sobolov), and together they find the Transwarp Key, and hold off the Terrorcons in an epic battle in Machu Picchu with Unicron looming over everything.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a continuation from Bumblebee, establishing a “new” timeline where the Autobots have been on Earth for seven years, having first come in 1987, ignoring (thankfully) the muddled mess that each of Michael Bay’s films built, so the fact that Unicron is his own character and, you know, not the actual Earth, as explained in Transformers: The Last Knight, is a welcome course correction.
Sadly, the film still falls into the same pitfalls that the Bay films suffered from, including zero characterization from any Transformer not named Optimus Prime or Bumblebee, and in fact, we barely even see the Maximals in their bot forms at all. When they do transform during the epic battle, Caple neglects to show off the bot forms of Rhinox and Cheetor in any clear way, and Airazor is never transformed.
Instead, we get overly long transformation sequences from the bots we know — do we need to see Prime transform in detail ever again after five previous entries (he was barely in Bumblebee)? — and the new faces are largely ignored. Pretty crappy seeing as the entire film — as well as the title — is centered around these beast warriors. It’s Grimlock and the Dinobots in Transformers: Age of Extinction all over again.
Also, the juvenile humor returns, with Mirage making a few pee/body fluid jokes and one “elderly” bot coughs up a catalytic converter. It’s not as bad as testicles on a Transformer, but it echoes the groan-inducing “humor” of the Bay films and immediately made me worried that more of this type of humor was coming in the series. Another issue comes in the way certain iconic characters are redesigned for live action. Wheeljack (voiced by Cristo Fernandez, Dani from Ted Lasso) has one of the most iconic Autobot heads/faces in the history of the toy line, and yet here he wears glasses for some reason — along with constantly adjusting them like some lab nerd — and there is nothing about him that resembles the toy and character that generations have grown up with and love, this writer included.
Caple at least allows the action to be seen by the audience, even when the heroes are battling hundreds of drone bots and scorponoks, and even if we never get good looks at most of the combatants. Caple also handles the human story very well, peppering the soundtrack with 1990’s hip-hop and focusing on the two main characters’ connection to Brooklyn as their uniting drive to save the world.
The script by Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, based on a story by Harold, does a decent job creating a reason to introduce the Maximals and build upon greater Transformers lore with Unicron, but once again we see these characters looking for and fighter over a MacGuffin that can miraculously help end the war on Cybertron. Every Transformers film besides Bumblebee had some form on artifact that was hunted, and it’s a very tried trope, not just for Transformers films, but film in general. Give it a rest and come up with something more creative next time. And if the final scene is any indication, there are plans for a next time — with some new recruits coming in the form of another popular Hasbro toy line from the 1980s.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts largely avoids the countless issues that Michael Bay created with his run on the property (he is back as a producer here, and maybe that is part of the reason there are problems), but fails to come close to the magic that Travis Knight created with Bumblebee. Rise is still better than any of the Bay films, so that’s saying something, but Hasbro and Paramount very much need to understand that this property came be so much more — something Knight not only realized, but executed wonderfully. You can’t sell toys based on characters we never see, and maybe in the next film or films, that promise from the final scene can come to fruition, helping right two Hasbro toy-based properties that have stumbled with critics, fans, and at the box office thanks to creators who don’t understand what they are working with.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is rated PG-13 and is in theaters starting on June 7
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