Michael Bay was somehow allowed to make five Transformers movies, yet they all blur together into one long fever dream of jagged metal and Shia LaBeouf. Indistinct action sequences stuffed with explosions, sweeping camera movements, and sweaty, sun-baked soldiers. The only thing memorable about the Bay-formers era is that one installment where statutory rape was somehow a major plot point. Imagine how surprising it was when Bumblebee was released and we actually got a good live-action Transformers film.
Serving as both a prequel and soft reboot, Bumblebee was helmed by Travis Knight, who has kept stop-motion animation alive as CEO of Laika. Bumblebee was far more successful at giving audiences a Spielbergian coming-of-age story thanks to Knight’s nuanced approach in comparison to Bay’s shock & awe direction. More importantly, the Transformers actually looked like their iconic incarnations from the original G1 animated series. Optimus Prime was back to being a flat-nosed semi-truck without any goofy flame decals though Bumblebee retained his Bay look.
Rise of the Beasts takes place in 1994 with the stranded Autobots in hiding, waiting for a signal from their leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is a former soldier desperately looking for a steady job in order to pay the medical bills for his younger brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez). After another interview ends with a cold rejection, Noah decides to make money in less legal ways. His buddy Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) talks him into cars from the wealthy elite during a charity function. Of course, the one car Noah picks turns out to be Mirage (Pete Davidson), a fast-talking Porsche with the ability to generate holograms of himself.
Elena (Dominique Fishback) is an intern at a history museum with more knowledge and passion than her boss. She inadvertently discovers a glowing artifact known as the Trans-Warp Key. The Key has the power to open portals through space and time. It was hidden on Earth long ago by the Maximals (from the Beast Wars series), Transformers with alternate animal modes, who are led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman). The Maximals have vowed to protect the Key from Unicron (Colman Domingo), a planet sized Transformer that gobbles up entire worlds. Long time fans will remember the character debuting in Transformers: The Movie, voiced by Orson Welles. Unicron dispatches his henchmen the Terrorcons, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage), to retrieve the Key and feast on an intergalactic buffet.
Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) takes over directing duties from Knight. Visually, the film looks very modern, but Caple sets the mid-90’s stage with OJ references and a soundtrack of timely hip-hop beats from The Notorious BIG and A Tribe Called Quest. Caple also ups the ante from Bumblebee’s intimate girl-meets-car story by introducing the largest threat in Transformers lore. Shots of Unicron chomping down on entire worlds look like they were copies from the animated movie. Unfortunately, we never see him transform into his gargantuan robot mode. After several shootouts and car chases, Rise of the Beasts culminates with a massive battle royale as the heroes battle a swarm of insectoid drones. None of the action is particularly memorable, but the Transformers don’t jumble together into a lump of solid sameness. You can clearly tell the difference between Cheetor, Arcee, and the others.
In some ways, Rise of the Beasts leaps forward while simultaneously taking a few steps backwards into Bay territory. The story repeats the standard tropes from previous films in which the good guys and bad guys go to war over a cosmic MacGuffin. Long-time Transformers fans have already derided the cosmetic changes to Autobot mechanic Wheeljack to a doofus with eyeglasses, duck lips, and a Mexican accent. Beyond the obnoxious stereotype, there isn’t much to the character or any of the others, be they human or robot. Mirage is just Pete Davidson dialed down a few notches with a handful of one-liners sticking the landing. Peter Cullen brings gravitas once more to the role of Optimus Prime though the noble Autobot leader is more bloodthirsty than he should be.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is about as good as you’re going to get from a $200 million movie about robots from outer space. The screenplay (credited to five different writers) is completely cliched only slightly elevated by the A-list actors stunt casted to voice the Transformers. Anybody out there hoping for a Hasbro cinematic universe will be pleasantly surprised by the end.
Film Rating: 6/10