REVIEW: Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023, dir. Steven Caple Jr.)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 117 mins

UK Distributor: Paramount

WHO’S IN TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS?

Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Vélez, Tobe Nwigwe, Dean Scott Vazquez, Peter Cullen, Pete Davidson, Liza Koshy, Cristo Fernández, John DiMaggio, Ron Perlman, Michelle Yeoh, David Sobolov, Tongayi Chirisa, Peter Dinklage, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Colman Domingo

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Steven Caple Jr. (director), Joby Harold, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber, Darnell Metayer and Josh Peters (writers), Michael Bay, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy and Mark Vahradian (producers), Jongnic Bontemps (composer), Enrique Chediak (cinematographer), William Goldenberg, Stuart Levy and Brett M. Reed (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1994, Optimus Prime (Cullen) and the Autobots make new alliances to defeat a planet-sized villain…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS?

Although he is no longer the leading creative force (but still onboard as a producer), Michael Bay will forever be associated with the legacy of the live-action Transformers franchise, for better or worse – but mostly worse. We all know how overly bombastic and incomprehensible his entries ended up being, and we’re all familiar with the several negative traits he would define the series with, from the nonsensical plots to the annoying comic relief to racist stereotypes to, of course, explosions galore, but thanks to Bay’s establishment of this headache-inducing identity for the series, it appears we have all been conditioned to automatically expect the worst whenever a new one rolls out, even when Bay isn’t in the director’s chair.

Perhaps this explains not only the box office disappointment of director Travis Knight’s 2018 prequel Bumblebee (which, despite near-universal praise, remains the lowest-grossing entry with a worldwide total of $468 million), but also the noticeable lack of hype or awareness for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, this one directed by Steven Caple Jr. The brand has become so tainted by Bay’s influence, with the bar being set incredibly low as a result, that people seem nervous about even seeing a new entry at this point, because after five or so movies doing pretty much the exact same thing over and over, they seem to already know enough to decide whether they want to see it or not.

However, the bar being set so low by Bay does mean that any new vision, in this case from Caple Jr., is almost always bound to be a step forward, even if said vision ends up being entirely mediocre – and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is still a notch above most of what came before, even though the film itself is never better than simply “okay”.

Set in 1994, the film sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced as ever by Peter Cullen) and his small team of shapeshifting alien robots including Bumblebee, Mirage (Pete Davidson) and Arcee (Liza Koshy) discover the existence of the Transwarp Key, an artefact said to possess the power to warp space and time that could restore their lost home world of Cybertron. For their mission, Optimus reluctantly enlists humans Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a former soldier looking to fund treatment for his younger brother’s rare illness, and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a museum researcher who discovers the Key’s secrets on a Peruvian sculpture, and along the way they encounter a new breed of animal-shaped Transformers known as Maximals, led by the gorilla-like Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman). Of course, they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the Key, with the ruthless Terrorcons and their leader Scourge (Peter Dinklage) also seeking it out so that they can bring their giant planet-devouring master Unicron (Colman Domingo) closer towards Earth.

As you may have done with Bay’s entries in the series, it’s best to expect complete and utter nonsense before going into Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and in that respect, you’ll be completely satisfied. Yes, it’s a film about robots from outer space who can disguise themselves as vehicles (as per the Hasbro toy line that the whole franchise is based on), but the plotting in all these movies, including this one, almost always seems to be making stuff up as it goes along, like introducing new elements surrounding the central MacGuffin that conveniently help the good guys and disarm the bad ones at the right moment, just so the plot can keep moving. It also has the habit of drowning itself in exposition dialogue that endlessly explains the mechanics of said MacGuffin as well as how it can be used to create tons of damage to the space-time continuum, which is oddly never really gotten into as much as it could have been (especially for a heavily expository film like this), a move that dilutes much of the fun because you’d much rather they just did a lot of this cool stuff rather than talk about it all the time.

The five-person script (!) shares another unwanted holdover from the Bay films, that being its severe imbalance of tone, with the comedy often clashing greatly with moments that are meant to be taken much more seriously. A lot of that comes from Pete Davidson’s Mirage, who’s often there to just deliver smart-alecky one-liners, even in scenes that take place right after something pretty dramatic has happened, like someone close to them being killed off (though in this case, it’s obvious from the moment it happens that their demise is going to be a temporary one). You’ll have some tender and rather touching moments between other characters being suddenly interrupted by Mirage doing a bunch of slapstick and saying things like “you’ve been inside me” to Anthony Ramos’ Noah, which although nowhere near as bad as whenever that type of stuff would happen in the Bay movies, still disrupts the flow considerably.

It’s true that Transformers: Rise of the Beasts shares a lot of the same problems as the previous movies, but it so happens that this one is just a little better at pulling them off. For one, Caple Jr. is a competent filmmaker who has the restraint to shoot action sequences where you can actually make out what’s happening, sometimes in long extended takes, and bring to life characters who, as stock or even as irritating as some of them can be, you can at least identify as characters, with arcs and personality traits that make them more empathetic and tolerable as the movie goes along. When someone meets their demise, you do genuinely feel bad for both them and the person forced to make the kill, because they’ve been established as magnetic enough presences to get you on their side, and it also makes things a bit more satisfying during a fairly entertaining climax with comes with quite a few applause-worthy moments and some nifty needle-drops of 90s hip-hop classics, including when certain perpetrators are brutally given their comeuppance.

Overall, though, the movie is largely mediocre as it dopes rely on heavily generic blockbuster storytelling and a slew of (occasionally ropey) CG effects to offset its imbalanced writing, but its mediocrity still ranks higher than most of what came before it, because whatever you make think of it, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts at least feels like a movie, one that’s not very good but also isn’t causing you to have a migraine whilst watching it.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a step up from many of Michael Bay’s previous entries, thanks to competent filmmaking by Steven Caple Jr. and some decent character work, but its generic and nonsensical storytelling combined with a tonally imbalanced script still leaves it a bit of a mediocre mess.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is showing in cinemas from Thursday 8th June 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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