THE STORY – Optimus Prime and the Autobots take on their biggest challenge yet. When a new threat capable of destroying the entire planet emerges, they must team up with a powerful faction of Transformers known as the Maximals to save Earth.
THE CAST – Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Vélez, Tobe Nwigwe, Dean Scott Vazquez, Peter Cullen, Pete Davidson, Ron Perlman, Michelle Yeoh, Peter Dinklage & Colman Domingo
THE TEAM – Steven Caple Jr. (Director), Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes
After Travis Knight’s standalone “Transformers” film “Bumblebee,” it felt like a new lease on life was given to the franchise. Michael Bay was out of the mix, and new artists were free to take these beloved characters from those flawed blockbuster films and put them in unique situations which could help audiences see them in a different light. But such a fresh approach was not meant to last forever because with “Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts,” Optimus Prime (a returning Peter Cullen)and the rest of the Autobots are back with Bumblebee, once again fighting another robot space alien force in their neverending struggle to make it back to their homeworld Cybertron. It definitely has a been there, done that sort of feel but many of the problems that plagued the Bay films are at least now extinct, allowing us to focus on a new set of imperfections in the process.
Set in 1994, Noah Diaz (“In The Heights” and “Hamilton” star Anthony Ramos) is an ex-military electronics expert who lives with his family in Brooklyn. After a job interview for a security position with the United States Government doesn’t go his way, Noah is looking to score cash however he can to support his family; his single mother (Luna Lauren Vélez) and sick eleven-year-old brother (Dean Scott Vazquez). He turns to his Twizzler-eating friend (Tobe Nwigwe), who offers him a job to steal a parked car at a high-society function. Just when Noah is about to have second thoughts, the blue and silver Porsche car suddenly drives itself, evades the cops, and transforms itself into the wise-cracking, smooth-talking Mirage (hilariously voiced by Pete Davidson), an Autobot spy who can project himself into holograms. Mirage reports Noah to Optimus and the rest of the Autobots and offers Noah the chance to sell him if he helps the Autobots locate the Transwarp key – an ancient artifact that had the ability to open a portal through space and time, thus bringing the Autobots back home to Cybertron. The Transwarp key is in the unbeknownst hands of Elena (“Judas And The Black Messiah’s” Dominque Fishback), an intern at a museum and an artifact enthusiast. When Elena accidentally triggers the Transwarp key, it alerts the dark god, Unicron (Colman Domingo), who is so giant, he can devour entire planets. Not at complete form yet, he sends the powerful Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and the Terrorcons to Earth to collect the key so he can consume more planets and conquer the universe (or eat it, it’s unclear what his end goal is). Along with Noah and Elena, the Autobots are aided by the Maximals, Transformers who transform into beasts instead of cars (don’t question the biology of these creatures at this point, please), who have traveled through time to stop Unicron from ever possessing the Transwarp key led by the western lowland gorilla transformer Optimus Primal (Yes that’s really its name and yes, Ron Perlman provides the voice).
Bogged down in silly exposition and cheesy dialogue (one of the retentions from the Bay films that hasn’t managed to improve that much), “Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts” tends to be one of the more satisfying “Transformers” movies on the strength of its new characters, mainly Noah, Elena and Mirage. Optimus Prime’s distrust of humans and imperfect leadership qualities give the iconic Autobot leader some intriguing levels of depth for this go around. Still, it’s nothing substantial, while Bumblebee is missing for a good chunk of the movie (but is given maybe the film’s most satisfactory action beat). Much of the focus is placed on the new human characters Noah, Elena, and Mirage (whose core relationship with Noah is set up as firmly as Sam Witwicky’s and Charlie Watson’s was with Bumblebee). Whether its Noah’s urge to help his little brother, Elena having to deal with an obnoxious boss who takes all of the credit for her hard work, or Mirage simply wanting to be friends with Noah, each one of them has something relatable or likable presented well enough by the filmmakers to help us care about each of them. Such an emotional attachment goes a long way toward forgiving the film for some other issues along the way.
There’s a bit of give and take here; while the juvenile humor of Michael Bay is now absent, so too is his incredibly kinetic action-style filmmaking, which involved a lot of practical explosions and a dizzying sense of scale when those alien robots would go toe to toe. Steven Caple Jr. (“Creed II“) does an admirable job with the action setpieces (the final battle, in particular, is pretty awesome) but much of it feels like a back-to-basics approach with little spark. Steve Jablonsky’s better-than-you-probably-remember compositions are also sorely missed, instead replaced by Jongnic Bontemps, who does decent work but nothing as epic sounding as what Jablonsky was able to conjure for the Bay films.
This is now the seventh time we’ve seen these giant alien robots fighting each other, and each time, it feels more rusty and worn out than the last. Hunting down some sort of artifact which can bring the Autobots home? Check. Sky beams? Check. Unintentionally hilarious on-screen holograms which magically display how the entire third act will play out? Check. Radio snippets from Bumblebee that straddle a fine line between inspired and cringe? Check. Even the inclusion of the Maximals feels like a missed opportunity as their presence doesn’t add a lot to the story and, instead, only further introduces more ridiculous leaps in logic (even for the science fiction world these characters inhabit). At least the 90s setting provides a different setting for the story to take place in (and an opportunity to use some fun soundtrack choices), but, for all the grumbling, I’ll never complain about Michelle Yeoh (who voices a Maximal who can transform into a peregrine falcon), Ron Perlman, or Peter Dinklage doing what they have to do to get paid in this industry. Want to show up for a few days of work, never show your face on the screen, and collect that bag? Like Noah, we’re all doing what we need to do to get that money. I just wish this franchise would try to stray away from its now-predictable formula like “Bumblebee” did to earn our money.
Despite all of this, maybe because the bar was set so incredibly low following Bay’s abysmal “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Bumblebee” bought so much goodwill, “Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts” contains enough new compelling characters, amusing moments and solid action to push the franchise further away from Michael Bay, making it the most enjoyable Transformers film since the first film from 2007 (Also, clocking in at only 127 minutes further proves how foolishly excessive the films had become under Bay). Comparing “Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts” to “Bumblebee” feels wrong because of how much of a standalone movie that felt in many ways, but compared to the Bay films that came before it, this is a step in the right direction, and allows enough room for another filmmaker to come along and transform this franchise into something (if the cheer-inducing ending is anything to go off of) even better.