Transformers: The Last Knight is probably better than at least some of the four other Transformers films. This is high praise. Maybe?
Now, I never saw the fourth film, Age of Extinction, and the first three all sort of blend together in the memory — though I still maintain the second is one of the worst films I’ve ever watched. But I laughed a few times at The Last Knight, and a couple of those laughs were intentional. It has a certain gonzo purity that kept me waiting for the movie to find some other gear it never located.
By the time the film reaches its final battle, it’s essentially impossible to distinguish it from any other film in the Transformers franchise, even though this one features a three-headed dragon and Anthony Hopkins calling Transformer Hot Rod a “bitchin’ ride.” At one point, I half wondered if I had fallen asleep and missed some scenes, because the movie seemingly skipped over such a major plot point (one that all of the marketing has centered on!) so quickly — but a viewing companion assured me that, no, the movie just worked that way.
True to the spirit of the film (I guess?), it’s easier to distinguish each Transformers movie from the others by which toys are involved in the battles. The dragon’s presence in The Last Knight might well be the only thing I remember about the film’s final battle a month from now. It might be the primary thing I remember about it now! I could tell you other things about it, sure, but inevitably I’d keep coming back to that dragon. It’s really cool! I’ll bet the action figure of it is cool too!
In the end, The Last Knight kinda washed over me, like all the other Transformers movies. Others with more affection for the franchise have suggested it worked really well for them. So, sure: If you like the Transformers, you might like this a lot. If you’re mostly indifferent, it’s not going to change your mind. But I also had a hard time hating it. There’s fun to be had in The Last Knight, if you can find it among the chaos — and if you can remember it after the fact.
The Transformers franchise continues to be our semi-regular deep dive into the psyche of one Michael Bay
The Last Knight is a good reminder that in the eyes of director Michael Bay, the Transformers movies have always been at least one part disaster flick. (One of Bay’s earliest hits was Armageddon, and almost all of his films since have carried a sense of impending apocalypse.)
Here, a diverse, disparate cast of characters scattered around the globe have to deal with the latest threat to humankind posed by the Transformers: the arrival of the planet Cybertron into near-Earth orbit, that it might suck up all of our resources and return to glorious mechanical life. There’s some business with Arthurian legend, but the bulk of the film consists of waiting for Cybertron to show up.
That diverse, disparate cast of characters includes Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), the hero of the last film, who is here reduced to standing around while people and/or robots tell him how important he is; when it’s revealed what role he has to play in the overall plot, it’s over so quickly you might miss it. (Free idea to the online video makers of the world: Transformers Minus Transformers, which is just Mark Wahlberg wandering around, shouting at giant robots that aren’t there. I think it would most accurately capture the spirit of his performance.)
He’s joined by plucky young orphan Izabella (Isabela Moner) and love interest Vivian (Laura Haddock, bringing a surprising amount to an underwritten part), who was, I suspect, originally written as “British Megan Fox.” And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the motley cast, which includes everybody from the voice of John Goodman to Jerrod Carmichael.
And finally, there’s Hopkins, who is having the time of his life as an elderly British lord who really cares about Transformers. The movie gives Hopkins the most preposterous dialogue, and he delivers all of it like it’s grand theater. He elevates the movie at least a half-star.
The imminent arrival of Cybertron is, as robot disaster movies go, not a bad premise for a robot disaster movie. But it takes forever to get to this point — much less to externalize the threat Cybertron poses to Earth beyond really, really fucking with our tides. This leaves the first hour (of a 160-minute running time) for the film to catch up with all of the returning characters and the state of the world in re: Transformers since the last film. (My favorite detail: Cuba is now a safe haven for Transformers, where they reside under the watchful eye of Castro and John Turturro.)
This gives the film the weird sense of being the season premiere and season finale of a TV show awkwardly sandwiched together. Here’s the episode that catches us up on where everybody is after the cataclysmic events of the last finale, along with some new character introductions. Then there’s a little world building in the midsection (including the slightly daffy reveal that almost every significant person in history — including Harriet Tubman! — has had as one of their primary goals keeping the existence of Transformers a secret). And then we pivot, almost immediately, into the big final battle.
Oh, sure, there are some distractions along the way, like a lengthy prologue set in the times of King Arthur — who was a real dude in the Transformers universe — that is mostly notable for its choice to cast the great Stanley Tucci as Drunk Merlin, a goofy con man who accidentally stumbles upon a downed Transformer ship and makes it the source of his magic. (There’s a weird current of “Magic vs. Science” running throughout The Last Knight, even though the movie’s version of “Magic” is just “Really Advanced Science.” Throughout much of the final battle, Tony Hale — yes, that Tony Hale — runs around screaming, “Why don’t we try physics?!”)
But for the most part, this is Transformers: Another Transformers Movie. It avoids the lows of the second film, in that its story mostly makes sense if you don’t try to think about it for two seconds, and its actors (especially Hopkins and Tucci) are having fun. But it also doesn’t hit the “highs” of the first movie — a movie I don’t really like but still one that tried to tell an actual story about a boy and his cool car, which just so happened to be a robot from beyond the stars.
It, like so many other major Hollywood franchise films, feels like another installment in a middling TV show you keep up with when new episodes hit Netflix.
This means essentially everything the movie has going for it rests at Bay’s feet. So much of this movie has seemingly been hammered out via committee — four credited screenwriters! six or seven credited editors! — that Bay’s hypermasculine, sun-streaked aesthetic becomes the only thing to hold on to.
Bay’s style has a lot of problems (as this movie proves, he tends to shoot all women as if he’s ogling them, including teenage girls), but he gets really, really excited about the prospect of making impossibly good-looking robot disaster movies. Somehow that sweeps the audience along, just as long as you don’t think about any of this for a moment longer than the shot lasts on the screen.
But Bay is also chronically incapable of making action scenes that make any goddamn sense. His sense of geography within a scene is so bad that it affects his sense of geography on Earth, as when the characters enter an “abandoned town” in South Dakota, then race into a skyscraper (in an abandoned town in South Dakota?!) and seem to exit it in an abandoned New York City. Yet he’s good at creating stylish individual shots where you can sort of try to figure out what happened in between them, like in a comic book.
Oh, and, also, there’s a Shia LaBeouf “cameo,” of sorts, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it — or, as with so much in The Last Knight, immediately forget it.
Transformers: The Last Knight is showing in theaters starting Wednesday, June 21, with preview screenings Tuesday, June 20. The fact that the review embargo lifted exactly as preview screenings were beginning on the East Coast doesn’t suggest the studio is super confident in it.