The first entry since 2018 is one of the worst studio films in recent memory, a towering anti-blockbuster that's rotten to the core
Across the street from M&M's World in London’s Leicester Square are two “life-sized” Transformers. The location is appropriate, because Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is the M&M's World of movies. Lifeless, transactional kitsch, both are designed for people whose decision to enter takes no more than ten seconds. Otherwise you might pull yourself together. Rise of the Beasts is the latest example of big studios relishing in the vampiric nature of modern-day capitalism, as well as a movie in which a character actually says “the vampiric nature of modern-day capitalism.” But no amount of garlic, holy water, crucifixes or stakes through the heart will get you through this.
Rise of the Beasts is adapted from the 1996 toy range and TV series Beast Wars, the first Transformers reboot (you can see where this is going). The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced as always by Peter Cullen) join forces with a different breed of space robots called “Maximals,” led by, wait for it, Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), to take down a malevolent world-destroying space robot god called the Unicron. Meanwhile in “the real world,” Anthony Ramos is Noah Diaz, a down-on-his-luck veteran who finds himself on the Autobot team when he tries to steal Mirage (a fantastically annoying Pete Davidson), who’s disguised as a fancy Porsche.
After an incoherent and frankly ridiculous opening action sequence in which the Maximals dupe the Unicron to secure their sacred Transwarp Key – the bad guy, finding himself foiled, delivering the most lethargic “nooooo” I can remember from any film character in memory – our introduction to early-90s New York shows signs of promise. Steven Caple Jr. with Creed II showed he is a reasonably stylish director who can shoot actors in a compelling way (even if he doesn’t tell a story particularly well). We open on Noah’s bedroom as we hear Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.”, a less generic pick than you might expect for a character introduction like this. Caple Jr.’s Brooklyn also looks pretty lifelike. And in case you miss the time stamp, there must be about two score “only 90s kids will remember this” nods to Tupac, Power Rangers, Air Jordans, E.T., Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros., the Indiana Jones films, and the OJ Simpson trial. Oh, and the Twin Towers are still standing, three separate shots inform us.
The overreliance on pop culture for signalling its characters’ personalities is a window into a wider problem with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts – and, dare I say, where our culture is. Virtually all of the film’s primary human characters are nothing more than the references they make. To paraphrase Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, they’re only what they like, not what they are like. Name-dropping Bowser makes you a nerd, a Wu-Tang poster means you’re in-tune, hitting the pavement in Jordans means you want to be seen. It’s hard to precisely place blame for this, but such a lazy, even insidious shortcut to fully drawn characters has come to permeate virtually all mainstream pop culture. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One both explored and indulged in this same conceit. If it had come out before 1994, someone in Rise of the Beasts would’ve mentioned it.
The trouble for this Transformers entry is that its faults aren’t just big-picture. They’re everywhere. The action sequences are so bland that I feel my M&M's World analogy is a bit harsh on talking chocolates. At least they’re different colours. A woeful, zero-effort script sees characters talking past each other for minutes on end. At the end of one important sequence, Bumblebee – who speaks only through what he’s heard through the radio – uses the famous Jack Nicholson quote from A Few Good Men to tell Optimus Prime: “You can’t handle the truth.” It makes almost no sense as a reply to what he’s just been told. Prime’s reply to that – “We need to stop you going to these drive-in theatres” – means scant more. That this is played for laughs borders on insulting. Who does this film think we are?
The voice actors certainly aren’t sure. Across the board, we get tedious, phoned-in performances by genuinely talented actors like Perlman, Peter Dinklage and Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh might be the worst offender, who sounds like she’s reading her lines for the very first time, and felt the first take was good enough (it wasn’t.) She’s not helped by the sheer silliness of her character, Hellraiser, a Maximal hawk whose demise is a low-point for action direction and, perhaps, for art itself. Ramos does reasonably well despite what he’s dealing with, as does Dominique Fishback as Elena, a museum intern who finds herself roped into the alien war for similarly spurious reasons that involve an appropriately half-arsed homage to, I think, The Maltese Falcon?
While on the subject of half-arsed: the Transformers series (and to a much lesser extent the Marvel films) have got away with clunky writing by having prestige actors deliver the goods. 2017’s The Last Knight starred no less than Anthony Hopkins, while Kelsey Grammar brought genuine gravitas to 2014’s Age of Extinction. Rise of the Beasts has no such luck. There’s no cover. It all just sounds deeply stupid.
Economist and philosopher Milton Friedman argued that there is no such thing as collective ownership or responsibility. A garden wall owned by nobody, he said, will rot. Though the debate he stoked has raged for more than half a century, Rise of the Beasts might finally have given us an answer. The latest Transformers film has no author, no guiding force, no one who appears to be proud of their work. No one owns this. The rot is real.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is released in UK cinemas on 8 June.Where to watch