Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
2023, PG-13, 127 min. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.. Voices by Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Pete Davidson, Liza Koshy, Colman Domingo. Starring Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Tobe Nwigwe.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., June 9, 2023
Admire or loathe the Michael Bay Transformers films, at least they were always fascinating to watch, as the unbridled, merciless vision of the man that helmed them was allowed to run rampant – the facade of a multibillion-dollar toy franchise as the conduit for the intuition of an absolute lunatic.
In contrast, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a studio executive’s ideal version of a summer blockbuster, an amorphous blob of big-budget franchise filmmaking that actively resists anything of artistic merit out of a fear of pushing any buttons. It feels like a direct response to all the common criticisms of the franchise up to this point: The films were too mindless, too juvenile, too ludicrously destructive. All fair points, but we’ve now course-corrected too far in the other direction, into nothingness. Travis Knight’s crowd-pleasing, agreeable Bumblebee was enjoyable, and a first step in this direction, but now the franchise has churned out something utterly indistinguishable from a landscape resplendent with vacuous blockbusters.
Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) helms this entry, though it feels more the product of studio interests and spreadsheets who needed a hired hand to put in the credits. He trudges us through a lifeless story (thought up by five writers) about Noah (Ramos), a bland, techy guy in Nineties Brooklyn where he struggles to land a job and to support his family, including his younger brother, Kris (Vazquez), whose hospital bills have racked up past their breaking point as he lives with sickle cell anemia. Desperate for cash, Noah agrees to take part in the heist of, you guessed it: a car.
That car carries the voice of Pete Davidson for some reason and is actually Mirage, part of the crew of Autobots led by Optimus Prime (Cullen) along with the likes of Bumblebee and Arcee (Koshy). One thing leads to another, and the crew of alien robots decides to enlist Noah to help them retrieve a Transwarp Key, which will allow them to return to their home planet of Cybertron, that’s been accidentally activated at a museum in the city by curator Elena Wallace (Fishback). Of course, they aren’t the only ones after the key, as the evil Terrorcons need it to power their planet-devouring master, Unicron (Domingo).
Things escalate and the heroes are sent on a globe-trotting, world-saving mission to find the final piece of the space thingy before the Terrorcons get their hands on it. It all plays as the ideal, flavorless template for a franchise summer blockbuster: Intermittent, formulaic action sequences between big CGI robots are intercut with tedious exposition and dull drama that’s difficult to take seriously. Once they start trying to sell the emotional beats of the robot gorilla Optimus Primal (Perlman), one of the titular Beasts, you actively start to question what the value of translating a toy/cartoon franchise to live action is if it’s going to be just so self-serious.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a sense of humor – it has one all too often, in fact. Much of the dialogue resorts to your standard wisecracks that are only half funny and mostly annoying, and having jokes doesn’t actually mean this film has an air of levity about its own existence that may have made this entertaining. Much the opposite: The story about the giant toys come to life is meant to be taken with the utmost gravity and esteem for its place within pop culture, its own force against the Marvels and DCs of the world. I guess it fits right in with the worst of them: The third act is yet another grayscale mishmash of weightless, digitally rendered havoc. When the cut-to-credits stinger teases a future for the franchise that bears no contextual meaning for what these films have offered so far, you’re meant to cheer simply because you’re being sold a thing you recognize.
It’s a notion that plagues the current blockbuster landscape, and it’s one Transformers has now resorted to with seemingly nowhere else to turn. This hunk-of-junk piece of IP commodification truly can’t be regarded with any further value other than that: a transactional piece of content. At least a movie like 2009's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was so miscalculated I could never forget it. Rise of the Beasts is so unremarkable I don’t know how I could ever remember it.