I am not precisely sure when I lost the plot of Transformers: The Last Knight, but I think it was probably around the time that a drunk Merlin — yes, that Merlin, of the Knights of the Round Table — showed up at the ruins of an ancient spaceship and began pleading for help from a giant alien robot.
Merlin is somewhat mysteriously played by Stanley Tucci, who appeared in the franchise’s previous installment — 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction — but as a completely different character (the scheming technology executive Joshua Joyce). The wizard engages in a bit of comic monologuing, until the robot hands him a staff, which apparently allows him to control a three-headed robot dragon. The dragon emerges from a cave and swoops over the British hillside — it’s really quite pretty — ultimately joining an ancient battle, already in progress, to help the Knights of the Round Table defeat the Saxon army. There are a lot of fireballs and explosions and punishing subwoofer rumbles that seemed designed to test the strength of your kneecaps.
All of this happens in roughly the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest of the film makes about as much sense as the opening. Later on, there’s a fire-breathing baby dinosaur robot, and a bigger dinobot companion (left over from Age of Extinction) that has to be scolded, like a rogue puppy, for eating auto-junk. Steve Buscemi drops by to trade a few quips; he’s a robot, of course. So does franchise regular John Turturro, wearing silly shorts while watching over sun-bathing Transformers in Cuba, because, well, why not?
There’s also a comic-relief butler robot who assists Anthony Hopkins’s character, who turns out to be the last guardian of the legend of King Arthur. And somewhere in the middle of the film, Hopkins delivers a 15-minute-long monologue in which he reveals that Bumblebee, one of the franchise’s key Transformer characters, was actually a legendary World War II hero. There’s an evil Cybertronian sorceress-bot named Quintessa who can control other robots. Unrelated (I think), there is also a series of mechanical horns that were planted around the Earth before the continents separated. Somehow Stonehenge is involved.
After the opening sequence, I never quite recovered my sense of narrative balance, but I sort of enjoyed myself anyway, in part because I knew what to expect right from the start. The Last Knight doesn’t make any sense, but neither do any of the other Transformers films. The franchise is one giant, explosion-riddled mashup of wacky plot contrivances, dazzling special effects, and merchandising opportunities. It’s nonsense, sure, but it’s meticulously crafted, delightful nonsense that falls perfectly in line with both its roots in a line of robot toys and director Michael Bay’s extravagant sensibilities — and that’s part of its charm.
The Transformers films aptly capture the imaginative mindset of a child
“Magic does exist. It was found long ago — inside a crashed alien ship,” the disembodied voice of Anthony Hopkins says as Merlin stumbles upon his robot interlocutor, as if that explains anything.
But explanations are not what’s on order in The Last Knight. Indeed, the moments at which the film attempts to explain itself, to provide context or plot cues, are among its most incoherent. For example, Hopkins’s aforementioned extended monologue is supposed to explain the movie’s complex mytho-historical backstory, which dictates that the Knights of the Round Table were real, but also that they all relied on the aid of — you guessed it — giant sword-wielding robots.
What’s more, the whole thing is punctuated by a slew of pseudo-comic distractions and interruptions, including the appearance of an organ playing butler-bot, as if to make sure that viewers can’t possibly focus or concentrate for too long. I got the gist, which is essentially, Actually, the Transformers were a crucial part of the Knights of the Round Table. But I doubt I could explain much more.
With that said, I’m not sure it would make any difference if I could. Like most of the rest of Bay’s cars-and-robots franchise, The Last Knight dips in and out of history and legend, myth and nonsense, cynicism and silliness. It is not just impossible to follow; it comes across as intentionally designed to repel logical thought. It is a machine made to dampen thinking.
Even more than its predecessors, the film is a maelstrom of spectacle and sensation, a special effects–driven free-for-all that has somehow escaped the gravitational pull of traditional storytelling in favor of something more immediate and abstract, a kind of caffeinated nonsense cinema, designed to pleasure even as it pulverizes. At their best— or at least their most brutally effective — the Transformers films induce a form of audiovisual euphoria that seems to cast a spell over viewers, one that renders plot and narrative conventions useless. The Transformers movies speak to something deeper, something primordial, deep inside your mechanized lizard brain, the place where three-headed robot dragons live.
That’s fitting for a franchise that is, after all, based on a children’s cartoon designed primarily to sell a line of toys to preadolescent boys. For better or for worse, Bay has crafted a series of films that replicate the mindset of an 8-year-old kid playing alone in his room, letting his imagination run wild as he goes about inventing the most elaborate adventure he can think of. The films are both deeply focused and easily distracted. They are built around jokey comic relief and mindless violent conflict, as well as simple character relationships in which recognizable adult characteristics or responsibilities are entirely absent.
They possess deep mythological backstories, some of which are interlaced with real-world events, but they rarely make sense when considered for even a moment. They can be obnoxious and creatively scatological — if you’ve ever wished to see a giant robot car “urinate” on John Turturro, Michael Bay has your back — but for the most part, they are rather naive, and even innocent in their outlook on the world.
Bay’s Transformers films do not merely appeal to a childlike sensibility; they capture it, channel it, inhabit it. They are stunningly complex $200 million studio blockbusters that seem to have sprung directly from the sugar-addled fantasies of a particularly inspired child.
Michael Bay knows what he's doing; there’s clearly a method to the Transformers films’ madness
The Transformers films have grown more abstract over the years, less tethered to the mechanics of character and causality. And in the process, they have made their director's intentions even more clear.
The first movie, 2007’s Transformers, is the most coherent — and arguably the best — of the bunch. It’s a relatively conventional YA story about a young boy who gets a car that turns into a robot. But in the decade that’s passed since its release, the franchise has only grown stranger and more abstract.
The first sequel, 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, revolves around a MacGuffin called the Matrix of Leadership and a machine that makes suns explode, which requires the matrix to work. It also involves secret cosmological signals being implanted in Shia LaBeouf’s brain, which can only be translated by John Turturro. Actually, that makes it sound more straightforward than it is. But if summarizing the movie’s plot is already difficult, trying to explain it is nigh impossible. Don’t believe me? Read this old FAQ, which attempts to break down what actually happens in the film and why — and ends up making painfully clear how disjointed it is.
The other sequels aren’t any more cogent. The third film in the franchise, 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, ties the Transformers movies to the moon landing, and includes a scene in which the evil Decepticons plan an attack while casually lounging around the monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
And when giving an interview about the fourth film, Age of Extinction, screenwriter Ehren Kruger described it as “quasi experimental” and said that as a writer, “you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all.” That film ends with an absolutely bonkers sequence in which a massive magnet sucks up all the metal vehicles in Hong Kong, and then Optimus Prime brandishes a sword and rides a robot dinosaur:
But the Transformers films’ nutso, erratic storytelling isn’t the result of Bay not knowing what he’s doing. His nonsense narratives and hyperactive editing are consistent stylistic choices. His smaller films — in particular, the smartly satirical criminal-bodybuilders film Pain & Gain — tend to be more narratively coherent. And he has been willing to toy with his own image as a filmmaker who puts “awesomeness” — usually in the form of explosions that escalate in both size and scope — above all else.
The careful attention Bay devotes to these trademark elements is apparent in The Last Knight; on several occasions, the film comes across as more than a little self-aware, piling on frenetic explosions and showdowns and special effects extravagance, deflating its own self-importance even as it builds it up. It never quite descends into self-parody, but it winks and nudges you, letting you know it knows exactly what it’s doing, even amidst the chaos.
There's a sense that somehow Bay is in control, that he is orchestrating all of this for your delight, that he genuinely wants to entertain you, and is willing to work to do it. You didn't really decide to see a Transformers movie for the plot, did you? Bay's movies are expensive (but confident) bets that you did not. And they are bets that have consistently paid off. The first four films have earned more than $3.5 billion combined at the global box office.
The Transformers franchise’s whiff of organization among the chaos is also part of the secret to its charm: Michael Bay knows his movies are silly and ludicrous and deliriously nonsensical — and he wants you to know he knows too.