Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Seven movies in, the live-action 'Transformers' franchise is still largely as dull as a smashed headlight.
June 22, 2023
In the breakout movie of 2022, Michelle Yeoh was everything and everywhere. Multiverses are like that. Now, the Oscar-winner voices a space-robot peregrine falcon in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and viewers should wish that this only existed in Everything Everywhere All At Once's kaleidoscope of realities. Alas, in this very realm, the newest Transformers film is indeed flickering through projectors. The toy-to-screen series it belongs to is now seven live-action entries in and — apart from 2018 spinoff-slash-prequel Bumblebee — largely still as dull as a smashed headlight. Set in 1994, the current instalment is a sequel to the last 1987-anchored franchise flick, which focused on the yellow-hued mechanised alien that can morph into a car, and also a prequel to 2007's saga-spawning Transformers. It draws upon the Transformers: Beast Wars animation, comics and video games, too, and feels in every frame like a picture that purely exists to service intellectual property that does big box-office business (2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon and 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction each made over a billion dollars).
Michael Bay, Hollywood's go-to director for maximalist action carnage, might've been enthusiastic about Transformers when he started the silver-screen series nearly two decades back — the Ambulance filmmaker was definitely devoted to crashing together pixels replicating chrome in all five titles he helmed, including 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight — but these movies can't be anyone's passion projects. They show zero feeling, and seem to keep rolling out because the saga assembly line has already been established. New faces and a new guiding force behind the lens can't dislodge that sensation with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. The five-person team responsible for the script give no signal that they even wanted to. The feature's latest two leads do resemble people better than most flesh-and-blood characters in the Transformers world, welcomely, although one gets a sick-kid backstory and another a bad boss. Were the Transformers themselves asked to write the most cliched screenplay they could?
Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Swarm) are Transformers: Rise of the Beasts' prime living-and-breathing figures, running, chasing and palling around with Autobots as Shia LaBeouf (Pieces of a Woman), Megan Fox (Good Mourning), Mark Wahlberg (Uncharted) and Hailee Steinfeld (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse) all have before them. Ramos plays former solider Noah Diaz, who has that ailing younger brother (Dean Scott Vazquez, also an In the Heights alum) and massive medical bills to prove it. Fishback is archaeology intern Elena Wallace, whose vapid boss (Sarah Stiles, Billions) constantly cribs from. Both of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts' on-screen stars are excellent actors — Ramos was in Hamilton's debut Broadway cast, while Fishback has a BAFTA nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah — and the film benefits from their presence. Still, even the best thespians can only do so much when they're primarily tasked with rushing around and peering upwards at CGI chunks of walking, talking metal.
That dashing and staring, and befriending extra-terrestrial machines in general, is the result of doing things that neither Noah nor Elena are meant to. They're strangers with Brooklyn in common, and soon trying to save existence as well. He gets light-fingered for a payday, attempting to steal a Porsche that's actually the Autobot Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson, Bupkis). After hours, she's examining an unusual artefact with intriguing markings, which happens to be a key that lets the Transformers warp between different worlds, including back to their own. That discovery sets off a beacon in the sky, earning the attention of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, whose time in the role hails back to the OG 80s animated TV series) just as Noah and Mirage are getting acquainted. Also paying notice: Scourge (Peter Dinklage, Cyrano) from the nefarious Terrorcons, who wants to use the pivotal device to bring the planet-devouring (and -sized) Unicron (Colman Domingo, Fear the Walking Dead) to earth.
The mission: fend off those evil shapeshifting droids, protect the gadget at all costs and, gratingly, talk about it while mentioning Autobots, Terrorcons and the transwarp key as much as possible. Director Steven Caple Jr (Creed II) endeavours to give Ramos and Fishback more character-building moments than their franchise predecessors, but they're always saddled with spouting rote, jargon-laced dialogue that somehow needed The Flash's Joby Harold, BMF's Darnell Metayer and Josh Peters, and The Meg's Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber to write. Given the hefty cast list, there's a wealth of talent reciting bland lines, including Ted Lasso's Cristo Fernández, Loot's Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and Poker Face's Ron Perlman among the Transformers. The latter voices Optimus Primal, the gorilla-esque leader of the Maximals, aka the animal robots that the movie's title references — and just one of the moves that the film makes to create a Hasbro Cinematic Universe.
As plenty of franchises are woefully guilty of recently — see: the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania for one of the worst examples — Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has its focus on the future over polishing up its current instalment. Indeed, too much that's meant to give this robo-battle personality is lazily sprinkled in, such as the hip hop needle drops because it's the 90s (cue: A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Notorious BIG and LL Cool J) and pop-culture references (such as Super Mario Bros on Game Boy). A self-aware mention of Marky Mark leaving the Funky Bunch for acting falls flat, as does calling out Indiana Jones while aping that franchise's cave-searching adventure plots in Peru. In fact, namechecking Mario when it's been given the big-screen treatment again in 2023, plus Indy when that series' latest picture hits cinemas the same month as this, just reminds viewers that they might want to be watching other films.
Much of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts incites that reaction anyway, especially its visually uninspired special effects and action sequences that look about as appealing as throwing household electronics in a bin. When they're undisguised junk for the eyes, every aspiring and actual blockbuster that follows Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse this year will spark one question: why is this live action? When animation can look as astonishing as all things Spider-Verse do, and when CGI can be as dreary as it is here, surely these space robots should go back to their cartoon roots. Thankfully, with 2024's Transformers One, they are. Unlike The Transformers: The Movie managed to score, no future animated flicks will ever boast Orson Welles among its voice cast, though — he loaned his tones to Unicron in that 1986 effort — but they also can't be as tedious as Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
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