When discussing Michael Bay movies, the conversation almost turns political. There are defenders of the filmmaker’s bombastic directing style, and there are the vicious Bay detractors who want the filmmaker’s career to die in a ferocious Armageddon-inspired asteroid-like explosion. Personally, this writer enjoyed the first Transformers. Mainly because Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints existed beneath Michael Bay’s cringe decisions. At the time, Spielberg had been shepherding the film to the big screen. The sequels are another story entirely, providing four of the most migraine-inducing follow-ups in science fiction history.
Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) gave us a glimpse with Bumblebee of what a Transformers movie could be without the insane instincts of Michael Bay. The 2018 spin-off brought back the Spielberg influences and gave us a wonderful lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld. Which leads us to the return of the Autobots. Director Steven Caple Jr.’s (Creed II) sequel/reboot Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a conflicting turn for the saga. On the one hand, the franchise’s new direction is less mean-spirited, less misogynistic with the camera, and more character-focused. And at the same time, the grand operatic scale of Michael Bay’s action is replaced with a more kid-friendly aesthetic to the set pieces.
Gone are the days of large-scale destruction, explosions, and over-the-top robotic mayhem. The new approach is in the vein of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The question faced in this new film will be: How much is lost and how much is gained with the removal of Michael Bay?
[Warning: Light Spoilers and Impressions of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts are below!]
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts: The story
The new film, written by Joby Harold (Edge of Tomorrow, The Flash), Darnell Metayer, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber, and Josh Peters (writers of Black Mafia Family on Starz), brings the Autobots to 1994. This is a choice that the film repeatedly drives home with references such as A Few Good Men and TLC’s “Waterfalls,” being discussed by robots and humans alike.
The film begins off-world with an existential threat named Scourge (Peter Dinklage) trying to possess a key to an intergalactic way of traveling for the robots. The Maximals (Autobots that look like familiar animals such as apes, tigers, etc.) take the key off their home planet where it can’t be found, with Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) serving as the team’s Alpha. The reasons for the Maximals’ appearances are never explained, but it’s a Transformers movie. Logic has never been a selling point for this franchise.
Soon after, we are dropped in the 1990s setting of Brooklyn, where we are introduced to our new main leads. The first is a charismatic ex-soldier named Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) from Brooklyn. Diaz is an ambitious tech geek doing everything he can to find proper healthcare for his little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez).
At a point of desperation, Noah takes a job that could land him in trouble. In doing so, he unwittingly lands inside the seat of an Autobot named Mirage (Pete Davidson), resulting in a hilarious string of action scenes that place them in the path of an artifact researcher named Elena (Dominique Fishback). With Elena having possession of a resource Scourge desires, she, Noah, the Autobots, and the Maximals team together to stop a world-ending threat known as Unicrom.
A sequel with stronger character writing
When the film starts in Brooklyn, moviegoers will notice a change in the human components of the film. Much like Bumblebee, the writing does a more substantial job of making the lead performers feel grounded. Shia Labeouf’s portrayal of Sam Witwicky was entertaining, but at times, he and the roles of Witwicky’s parents felt ripped from an SNL sketch. Noah is a sincere written character with actual sentimental motivations behind him. His main character arc is more meaningful than chasing the hot girl from high school.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton) also brings a leading man charm that suits well for this entry. Ramos has a healthy balance of serious acting and comedic timing that enhances various moments of the film. When he needs to convey desperation, he does so effortlessly. When Ramos has to share the floor with Pete Davidson, he matches the comedian’s banter. Davidson does a solid job as Mirage, but using the former SNL star brings the same baggage as using Seth Rogen. The immersion of the experience is removed because we hear the comedian talking, not the character.
The Autobots are also stronger here, with more character moments given to the robots. It’s not the robot-centric story we deserve, but it’s closer than the franchise has seen before. Even the film’s climax has very few human characters in the mixture.
However, at a brisk runtime of two hours, Dominique Fishback’s (Swarm) role of Elena feels like an afterthought. We know almost nothing about the character beyond her profession, but Fishback does everything she can to inject dimension into the role.
Less inspired action in this new Transformers film
There are countless valid reasons to dislike Michael Bay. His movies can be riddled with racist stereotypes; his films can be highly male gazey to an unfortunate extreme, and the action can be incoherent to the point of inducing fatigue.
Let it be known, Michael Bay should never return to this franchise. However, this writer’s wish is that the filmmakers stepping in going forward learn the lessons of what worked in the films from before. For all its warts, Transformers managed to blend photo-realistic CGI with practical destruction. When a Decepticon smashed a city bus in half, the verisimilitude was on point. It felt like it was happening in our world.
The action in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is fun but is more artificial in execution. Last week, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse hit theaters and wowed audiences with its animation. Across the Spider-Verse felt more realistic in some of the action sequences than a movie like this, based in a live-action setting.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts teases an interesting future
Without saying too much, the sequel promises some interesting notions for the next franchise chapter. If the studio builds on these promises correctly, the next phase of Transformers could be the most fun the franchise has ever had with itself.
The character development is in better shape, but the franchise needs a stronger sense of action. If Paramount plays its cards right, it could have a game-changer with the next film if the creatives step up their ambition in this category. Bayhem is not required; give the audience verisimilitude.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts possesses all the character work we longed for in the franchise but none of the pyrotechnic-crazed action from the old movies. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this can be either positive or negative. Despite some mixed feelings, the final moments should leave fans excited for more.
My rating for this film:
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts arrives in theaters this Friday! Will you be checking it out? Let us know on Twitter, or in the Cosmic Circus Discord.