You know what this is: the FIFTH of Michael Bay’s inexplicably-successful Transformers movies. I’ve never met a single person who genuinely likes these things, and yet they still continue to pull in astronomical Box Office figures, so there must be someone, somewhere, who’s going to see them. This review is for those people, whoever and wherever they might be.
What’s this one about?
It’d be easier to ask what this one isn’t about. Because these things are still insistent on leaning all their weight against the preposterous idea of Transformers having meddled in the entirety of human history, the action spans from medieval battlefields to contemporary urbanity to the cosmic reaches of outer space. It’s using a broad retelling of the Arthurian legend as a kind of shorthand explanation for all our myths and old stories of magic and wonder really having been Transformers all along; the magical McGuffin this time around is Merlin’s staff, which continues the long series tradition of being a random object someone pulls out of nowhere that suddenly becomes the most valuable artefact in the cosmos.
The staff is important because there’s a new baddie, Quintessa (Gemma Chan), whose dastardly scheme is to fling a gargantuan homemade planetoid at Earth, and for some reason, an old magic wand will help. But the staff is missing, of course, and the best person to find it is the hilariously-named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who, since Transformers were deemed illegal in the last movie, has been living off-the-grid as a do-gooder fugitive who shelters refugee robots in a junkyard. People believe that he doesn’t really exist and refer to him unironically as “The Legend”, which is just one of the ways that this character encompasses exaggerated versions of every Mark Wahlberg character in a process I’ve dubbed “The Wahlbergian Singularity.”
Anyway. Cade teams up with a British professor of art and archaeology, Viviane Wembley (Laura Haddock), and they’re both enlisted by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), a castle-dwelling Lord with a sociopathic robot butler (Jim Carter) who just so happens to be the last remaining descendant of the Order of the Witwiccans, a secret society that includes notables such as Shakespeare, Mozart, Harriet Tubman, Stephen Hawking and Shia LeBeouf’s character from the previous movies.
This all comes together in ways that are as bizarre as you’d expect.
That sounds confusing.
It is. And it’s made even more so by a number of incredibly strange character turns and plot swivels that seem to exist for no better reason than they make for a fun line of dialogue or an interesting action scene. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) heel-turns into Nemesis Prime, an ostensibly evil version of himself, but he doesn’t do anything particularly evil besides reiterate that, yes, he is indeed Nemesis Prime now. Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl) apparently fought behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany during World War II, Megatron (Frank Welker) negotiates a Decepticon prisoner release in the middle of the desert that includes folding tables and binders like a WWE contract signing, Wahlberg gets a Transformer version of Excalibur, for some reason Cuba is perfectly okay with Transformers and they get to lounge around on the beach there and play football with the locals, and Hot Rod is now inexplicably French, complete with a classic Ah, ze Eiffel Towair accent straight out of The Aristocats.
So it’s terrible?
Not terrible, no, but certainly bad. These movies have been around so long, and have so defiantly resisted change, that they’re still lugging around the same problems that nobody can be bothered to fix. They’re all at least an hour too long, they’re cacophonous, incoherent, thinly-plotted, rife with unsavory humor and regressive characterisation, and slavishly devoted to a ludicrous, uninteresting mythology that nobody cares about.
All of these criticisms do indeed apply to Transformers: The Last Knight.
That sounds terrible.
It does, doesn’t it? But what’s weird is that for 90-minutes or so, this is the most fun I’ve had at a Transformers movie. Bay and his crackpot team of writers and producers have been making these things for about a decade now, and it seems that with this one, they’ve finally figured out how to do certain things that they should have been doing all along. For once, there’s a clear, three-act story structure. Sure, it’s unnecessarily stretched out, but the middle act is fun because you get to see Anthony Hopkins and his manservant, Cogman, sell the hell out of the silly Transformers plot stuff, and it builds towards an impressively large-scale denouement that feels very much like an ending – not to the series, obviously, but at least to this movie, which has the good sense to stop right there.
It also finally feels like there’s enough mythos and iconography now that these films can finally do fan-service moments properly; Optimus Prime’s moral pivot obviously doesn’t work in a story sense, but you can see how certain fans would get fucking pumped when he flies into the scene on the back of a robot dragon and faces down the bad guys again – the movie has a few moments like that, too.
Hang on; are you saying you liked this?
Not really, no. All the usual problems are still there, but they’re the same problems these movies always have, and it’s boring reiterating them. Besides, the few things it does well – or, at least, better – are much more interesting to talk about.
For instance, one of the new heroes is a 14-year-old streetwise Latina orphan, Izabella (Isabella Moner), and she gets to be a Transformer repair-genius, have badass standoffs with the Decepticons, and she even has her own adorable pet Autobot named Sqweeks. The movie’s pretty fair to her. It does, admittedly, forget about her for most of the second act, but at the very least it contrives a way to have her show up for the climactic battle even though there’s no reasonable explanation for it. (She’s asked flat-out how she got there, and she replies, “I don’t know.”)
So, what’s the verdict?
Same as always. Look, you already know whether or not you like these movies, and trying to meaningfully critique them is rapidly becoming a pointless endeavor. If you’re one of these fabled, mystical people who really like Transformers, you’re going to dig this one. For what it’s worth, I think it’s one of the more enjoyable installments, and it takes some small steps towards quality that have been five whole blockbusters in the making. So there’s that.
But, if you believe (like a lot of people do) that these movies are an affront to cinema, then this isn’t going to change your mind. All the essential flaws are still there, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they’ll ever not be there. This is a series that is in service to sound and sensation and merchandise; a series in which faith, family, friendship, and the U.S. Army can save the world over and over again, but only if they’re accompanied by the right brand of action figurines. I’ll put a score here, but it seems pointless. I’d be better off putting a price.
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