How can a movie be both underdeveloped and overdeveloped at the same time? And how can this movie still be good? Ladies and gents! I introduce you to director Michael Bay’s swan song for the TRANSFORMERS franchise, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT. While it’s not as engaging as AGE OF EXTINCTION, there’s a shedload of fun to be had dissecting its particular brand of crazy.
Back in the dark ages, Transformers helped Merlin (Stanley Tucci, whose short screen time is the most indelible of the series) and the Knights of the Round Table, bestowing upon them a talisman and magical staff. Since then, Transformers have appeared in times of crisis to help lend a hand. But currently, the world is engaged in a war between humans and Transformers. With Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in space, human allies to those bots left on Earth are sparse, but there are a few. Those include exiled Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who runs a junkyard with Jimmy J (Jerrod Carmichael), intelligent orphaned spitfire Izabella (Isabela Moner), English lord Sir Edmund Burton (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and Oxford professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). If it’s not enough that the TRF task force is out to destroy all remaining Transformers, once-vanquished enemy Megatron (voiced Frank Welker) returns, wreaking havoc. There’s also a giant planet careening towards Earth, threatening to steal our life-force. The key to disseminating these threats lies in an undiscovered past.
The plot is pretty straight-forward, despite the elongated run time indicating otherwise. The adventure, when boiled down to its basic elements, has the same beats you’ve seen before: The heroes and antagonists battle it out for a macguffin (two of them here, a talisman and staff). A little friends become enemies, enemies become friends happens far-too-briefly when Optimus Prime is corrupted into Nemesis Prime. Plus there are pursuits by the authorities – like Josh Duhamel’s completely superfluous returning character. However, what’s in between these trite, rudimentary plot points makes this film insanely buoyant – even if logic, reason, and character motivations sink. And boy is there a lot to unpack. Bay, along with screenwriters Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan (who share story credit with Akiva Goldsman), take their time padding the proceedings with layers of incoherence that are gloriously magnificent and massively entertaining. In any given scene, there are at least four things going on – many of which don’t make a lick of sense, adding splendid distraction from wafer-thin character development. Why strip things down when you can just add more?!
Logic need not apply in this franchise – even moreso in this fifth chapter. Though, if you nitpick, there’s fun found there too. I celebrated its inability to answer the hows, whens, and whys, and yet over-explain its scientific nonsense babble through Tony Hale’s manic JPL-engineer character. Other main characters disappear for large chunks of time. Just go with it. By the time you get to the meta humor of Cogman (voiced by Jim Carter), Sir Edmund’s C-3PO-esque butler with a rage problem, playing the organ as Sir Edmund has his third exposition dump, you’re already endeared to (or annoyed by) the narrative’s scattered tendencies. Forget about when Sir Edmund, Cade, Cogman and Vivian commandeer a submarine to reach a spaceship sunken on the ocean floor. If that last sentence sells the batshit qualities accurately, then I’ve done my job!
The filmmakers handle tone effectively, as they lean into the audacious, bombastic silliness. This is the WINTER’S TALE of TRANSFORMERS movies. Overall, the stark juxtaposition of the lightness of a popcorn movie with the gravitas of a war film is balanced with surprising efficiency. They embrace the “WTF” elements with panache – specifically anything surrounding the “Witwiccan society” and John Turturro’s character, who literally phones it in. There are a few scenes where tonal shifts oscillate from wildly comedic to straight-faced serious, beginning with Merlin downing a bottle of liquor intercut with BRAVEHEART-esque scenes on the battlefield. Listen, I wish the entire movie was set in the dark ages, but for some reason the filmmakers felt the need to move on. We do get a bonkers glimpse at Bumblebee fighting Nazis, another entire movie idea left unexplored, but at least there’s that kernel.
This also shows a marked, albeit partial growth for Bay when it comes to how he introduces his female characters. The first woman we see is a fierce, fearless and fully-clothed Izabella taking on a military drone head-on, with her robot invention Sqweeks (voiced by Reno Wilson) by her side. The young boys observing value her smarts above sex appeal. Next we meet Vivian, again fully clothed and minus lip-gloss, engaged in combat on the polo field. Yes, a few minutes later we get Bay’s practically patented glamour shot of her changed into the “sexy librarian” trope, and later, we see a [shudders] leering cleavage shot of young Izabella, but for a wonderful few minutes, we were able to bask in their forms left unexploited. For balance, we’re offered a few shots of Wahlberg’s abs – and I suppose that’s a win for equality?
If it’s not Wahlberg’s complete and utter commitment to silly lines like, “I fought with one of the greats – Optimus Prime,” or the outrageous, absolute berserk goings-on, this film will make you wonder, What exactly happened last (k)night?
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT opens on June 21.