“As a prequel, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is an overlong toy commercial that jettisons even the superficial illusion of stakes.”
- The humans are likable enough
- The action is coherent
- The transforming still looks cool
- The Transformers are bores
- The prequel plotting has no stakes
- The voice actors are unrecognizable
- The style is anonymous
- Optimus Prime is still a jagoff
The Transformers, hulking hunks of sentient extraterrestrial hardware, are never more appealing than when doing what it says they do on the box: Seven entries into a movie franchise that stubbornly refuses to make like a Hasbro product and break already, there’s still some faint fun in seeing a sports car disassemble and reassemble, mid-joyride, into a towering stack of arms, legs, and gleaming attitude. The fun sputters, though, once they open the mechanized communication slots that pass for their mouths, and an autotuned stream of what passes for dialogue spills out.
Rise of the Beasts, the latest playset, dramatically expands the Transformers line of whirring, now-available-in-stores robots, which this time includes a noble, time-traveling species of life-sized action figures that take the immutable form of cybernetic animals. In terms of personality, however, they still only come in two varieties: annoying and [404 error: character traits not found]. The Maximals, as these zoological refugees are called, were introduced in a mid-’90s television series that boasted some very early, very primitive computer animation. Nearly three decades later, the CGI has improved. The writing, not so much.
Though billed as a spinoff, Rise of the Beasts mostly functions as another showcase for the bestselling playthings from the toybox. That includes, naturally, the yellow Camaro with the radio soul, Bumblebee, the only Transformer deemed likable enough to carry his own movie. Bumblebee has the advantage of communicating solely through sound bites not written by the screenwriters of the Transformers series; the movie follows his lead by stocking its own jukebox with borrowed cool—the quick wit outsourced to the likes of Biggie and Tribe and the Wu-Tang. Did we mention that Beasts is also a prequel, set in the ’90s for no discernible reason?
Optimus Prime, the humorless, baritone leader of the Autobots, remains a real jackboot of a guy. Does he remind kids of their own looming, overbearing fathers? If nothing else, he’ll prepare some of them for the drill sergeants they’ll endure later in life, perhaps after consuming a lifetime of Marine propaganda disguised, Transformers-style, as innocuous Hollywood thrill rides. There are actually two Primes, God help us, in Rise of the Beasts, with Ron Perlman lending his own low octaves to a gorilla-themed descendant. Not that you can necessarily identify his signature growl by ear. The movie assembles an impressive new ensemble of voice talent—Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Colman Domingo—only to obscure their contributions behind computerized gargle. At least Domingo can boast that he’s following in the footsteps of a legend; like Orson Welles before him, he’s earned a paycheck lending a planet-eating robot his pipes.
As usual, puny humans pick up the dramatic slack. Helping the good alien robots defeat the bad alien robots is Noah (Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos), an ex-soldier now trying to make ends meet in Brooklyn and get medical care for his sickly sitcom brother, who says stuff like “Bros before hos” when not turning on the cute-kid charm. (That Noah is a veteran who can’t get a job or secure health insurance for his family is the latest example of how the Transformers franchise seems caught between slobbering over military technology and vaguely criticizing the military-industrial complex, or at least making it look feeble.) The other flesh-and-blood character is Elena (Swarm‘s Dominique Fishback), a put-upon museum researcher around mostly to spout jargon. These two are among the more agreeable humans to ever trade quips with a Transformer, but is that saying much in a franchise once headlined by Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg?
Speaking of the latter, he gets winkingly namechecked by the script. Are Marky Mark and future Autobot ally Cade Yeager the same person? That’s the kind of nutty conspiracy nonsense that characterized the earlier entries in the Transformers saga, most of them directed by Michael Bay. Those movies were hyperactive headaches, scrambling time and space as chaotically as their main attractions rearranged the architecture of automobiles. But at least they could be said to possess a style, a kind of fever pitch of bad taste. Rise of the Beasts, directed by Creed II‘s Steven Caple Jr., streamlines the singular incoherence of Transformers—the Bayhem—into an anonymous blockbuster competence, a CGI boilerplate so damnably machine-tooled you have to wonder if Optimus himself was actually behind the camera.
Rise of the Beasts, in other words, is Transformers shorn of all stylistic lunacy. And as a prequel, this overlong toy commercial also jettisons even the superficial illusion of stakes. We know the world won’t be destroyed, because it’s still there, spinning, in the other Transformers movies. And we know the popular Transformer who gets killed won’t stay that way, for the same reason. So what does that leave? Stilted banter, twisted metal, a lot of familiar wrestling for a sci-fi device both sides want, and an army of biomechanical heroes with less dimension than whatever your average 8-year-old might grant them during playtime. Their personalities must be sold separately.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters everywhere Friday, June 9. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.