Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Is Bad, but It’s Not Michael Bay Bad

Movies Reviews Transformers
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Is Bad, but It’s Not Michael Bay Bad

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is among the best live-action Transformers movies, though that may come as faint praise if you sat through any of Michael Bay’s directorial extravaganzas. While the requirements of robot fights and threats to global security don’t leave ample room for deep characters, the film maintains an emotional core and believable motivations. Rise of the Beasts is shorter, faster and generally more economical than most previous Transformers, but has begun leaning bigger and badder after the more compact Bumblebee. Steven Caple Jr.’s third feature film is thematically and aesthetically on a spectrum between the Bay films and Travis Knight’s picture, struggling for a soul of its own as one more studio uses reboots and sequels to create another exhausting crossover franchise.

A Transformers movie has a now-familiar template: A misunderstood young person (ex-Army tech wiz Noah, played by Anthony Ramos) going through hard times (low income, brother needs constant medical treatment) discovers a car that is actually an alien robot in disguise (Pete Davidson, as Mirage of the Autobots) hiding on Earth from evil robot aliens (led by Peter Dinklage, as Scourge of the Terrorcons). The protagonists must find an object (the Trans-Warp Key, which allows intergalactic travel) and keep it out of the enemies’ hands for as long as possible, and then fight once the enemies seize the object and bring about catastrophe. On the way they learn about the power of friendship and how cool transforming robot cars are.

Ramos and Dominique Fishback (playing museum intern Elena) play well off each other, while Peter Cullen is reliably excellent as the surprisingly blunt and brutal Optimus Prime. Among the new Maximals, Michelle Yeoh (the giant falcon Airazor) and Ron Perlman (robo-gorilla Optimus Primal) believably embody the characters, while Dinklage and Colman Domingo (his boss, Unicron) are appropriately yet not memorably menacing. The rest of the robots have little characterization, but there sure are a lot of them.

There are countless similarities between the story of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and its genre and franchise predecessors—from Star Wars to Galactus, from Man of Steel’s World Engine to Justice League’s The Unity. The final fight scene is as gray as Endgame’s ultimate battle. A smaller cast means the individual characters can shine slightly more with their moments of spectacle and triumph, but less familiarity with the characters limits the appeal. However, this franchise deserves commendation for its persistent commitment to visceral robo-gore.

Part of the formula for Transformers movies is having enough flesh-and-blood humanity to give us something to hold onto as unreality encompasses them, while simultaneously fulfilling our craving for robots fighting and cracking wise. If the past of the franchise or the recent history of the four-quadrant blockbuster are any indication, escalation will always skew toward bigger threats rather than more intimately intense emotional stakes. The way to maintain humanity with the fate of the world in balance is to establish characters and tie us to their concerns clearly and firmly. Rise of the Beasts does that; it perhaps slightly overdoes it, and overestimates the success of its protagonist, but it is still on the right side of the ratio.

In fact, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts differs from most of its predecessors in several obvious ways. For one thing, it takes time to let the audience get to know its leads without making them annoying or difficult. Ramos and Fishback don’t quite have the easygoing charm of Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson in Bumblebee, but their problems, for better or worse, feel more adult. The character work and dialogue surpass the Bay movies by not being entirely groan-inducing. Relatedly, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts doesn’t present anyone hatefully and maintains a sense of restraint until the massive fight sequence. It’s also generally less valorizing of police and military than the first several Transformers movies. To contrast it with other recent blockbusters, it doesn’t lean super hard on nostalgic applause-break moments, though it isn’t completely bereft of them.

There’s also the home-borough love for New York that saturates the film, complemented by the ‘90s East Coast rap flavor of the soundtrack, led by Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. This sets the scene, as Caple Jr. and cinematographer Enrique Chediak produce some watchable chase scenes and do a great job showcasing the crowded streets of New York and the natural beauty of South American mountain ranges in overhead pans—although they aren’t as creatively destructive with real vehicles as Bay and his collaborators.

But Bay would never have Maximals speak to Indigenous people in the Andes—in Quechua (the largest living language family indigenous to Peru), no less—as Ron Perlman’s character does to Amaru (Lucas Huarancca). To its credit, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts goes out of its way to ensure the robots do not claim credit for the ingenuity of ancient Incas. However, the inclusion of the tribe loses some of its gusto, because they’re basically background characters. They’re separate enough from the other human characters to serve mainly as a backdrop. The whole movie needn’t be about the 5000-year relationship between these people, their ancestors and the near-immortal animal-robots they befriended, but the relationship could be worth more than a couple expository sentences. 

I recall the first run of Transformers movies, where the characters weren’t particularly likable and the romances lacked chemistry but were always being shoved down our collective throat. Here, the jokes are smarter and less ignorant, if not profound. The human characters are more fun to be around and we get lots of robots. Sometimes you wonder how comic book and toyetic adaptations get overcomplicated. Glancing at a summary of the plot of any of the older Transformers movies raises those sorts of questions. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts keeps it simple enough, which is smart, because franchise creep is going to hit like a ton of bricks within a sequel or two, especially given its ending. Rise of the Beasts isn’t quite as intimate or grounded as Bumblebee, but neither is it as cumbersome or dull as the other Transformers movies. Perhaps being a half-competent crowd-pleaser should not be enough to enter the rarified air of “top two live-action Transformers movies,” and yet here we are.

Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Writer: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Tobe Nwigwe, Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Liza Koshy, John DiMaggio, David Sobolov, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Pete Davidson, Cristo Fernández, Tongayi Chirisa
Release Date: June 9, 2023

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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