1. Michael Bay has probably made critics bang their heads against their desks more than any other modern filmmaker, but it has always been foolish and short-sighted to simply dismiss him as a hack. Bay’s aesthetic, as numbing and demoralizing as it can sometimes be, has an undeniable power and, even, urgency; he might make dreck, but in his own way, he works hard to give you that dreck. When Bay feels like he has something to prove, he can shake you, often a lot more than you might have wanted yourself shook. After the intense critical drubbing the second Transformers movie took—it was totaled in a way that was unique even to Bay—the director decided to make the third film, Dark of the Moon, as massive a spectacle as he, the maestro of spectacle, could pull off. The result wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it was an undeniable achievement, Bay dancing as fast as he could to blow your minds. After the staggering, nearly hour-long destruction of Chicago sequence that ended that film, I left the theater in a daze, as if I’d just been pummeled, repeatedly, with something blunt, heavy and angry. But I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t felt something. As the failures of all the Bay pretenders—McG, Jonathan Liebsman, even Tarsem—show, duplicating what Bay does is harder than it looks, even as you wonder why anyone would even try. When Bay has his heart in it, he can still knock you over, whether you’d like him to or not.
2. Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth entry in the franchise and supposedly Bay’s last, does not feature Bay working harder for extra credit. Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about this entry in this already-quite-dispiriting franchise is that Bay does not particularly seem to care one way or another this time. All the signature Bay Movements are here, the slow-motion hero shots, the scale so vast that even planets look small and modest, the aggressively dorky jokes, but they all have a perfunctory feel, like even Bay couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm this time. The Last Knight is meant to be both an ending to the Bay version of this story and the kickoff to a (God help us) Extended Transformers Cinematic Universe, which gives it so many masters to serve that Bay seems to sort of just throws up his hands and stop trying. The previous installments of the series may have been bad, but they still had Bay’s full attention. This one is perfunctory and even a bit dull. The proceedings plod along so begrudgingly that you almost wish Bay would just hit you with something blunt and heavy again. This franchise isn’t even bothering anymore.
3. Mark Wahlberg is back in this one as the impeccably named inventor Cade Yeager, now living in hiding with several friendly Autobots (including a couple voiced by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi in the worst possible Big Lebowski sequel) before coming across a refugee girl (Isabela Moner) who has been living with several Autobots (who are now hunted by the world’s governments) in the old Pontiac Silverdome. (Don’t ask.) Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins is an old leader of a secret society—that included Queen Elizabeth and Frederick Douglass—that has been keeping Transformers’ presence on earth quiet since the age of King Arthur, and there’s a genius professor who also looks Michael Bay Smokin’ in a dress (Laura Haddock). There’s also Optimus Prime, the hero Transformer who goes back to his home planet and is told he must destroy Earth to save it. There’s also … you know, there’s just a lot.
4. None of this really goes anywhere, which isn’t unusual for a Transformers movie, but The Last Knight doesn’t even go through the trouble of giving us one of those Bay showstoppers that you typically get at least one of in these movies. There are plenty of car chases, sure, and robot fights, and explosions, but they are so unceasing and uninspired that you barely even notice them while they are happening. The tone is relentless and droning, like Bay can direct these in his sleep and decided to do just that. (Imagine how heavy a sleeper Bay must be to make something so loud while still dozing.) In the past, you could even have the side show of watching a respected actor (John Malkovich, Jon Voight, even freaking Frances McDormand) goof around a little bit, but here, it’s more depressing to see Anthony Hopkins call Mark Wahlberg “dude” or flip a guy off in traffic. Wahlberg isn’t much help either. Even Wahlberg’s defenders would not argue that self-awareness is among his strengths, so he’s essentially stranded here trying to mouth exposition to green screen robots. This is Mark Wahlberg Talks to Autobots.
5. There’s a lot of Bay’s usual cultural insensitivity here. Skids and Mudflap are gone, but there’s still a “punk-ass” robot that bears many of their specific linguistic qualities—and I honestly cannot believe even Bay would be so doltish to film a scene in which the robot Bumblebee helps our soldiers fight the Germans in World War II. (Suffice it to say, a Transformers movie is perhaps not the right place for Nazi symbol and imagery.) But to cite all of it and attempt to break it down—or to attempt to make much rhyme or reason out of any of this—would be to put more effort into this particularly enterprise than Bay appears to want to himself. This is Bay’s fifth movie in this franchise, which means five of his 13 movies (and five of the last seven) have been Transformers. That’s a demoralizing sentence to type. Imagine having lived it. Michael Bay, I swear, is a talented filmmaker, able to use the tools of cinema to make a profound impact on his audience. Sure, he hasn’t used his powers for good. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have them. The problem with Transformers: The Last Knight is that he’s now not using his powers at all. He’s clearly checked out; he’s done with this franchise. And if he’s done with it, why in the world shouldn’t you be?
Director: Michael Bay
Writer: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner
Release Date:June 21, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.