I was almost 11 years old when Michael Bay’s first Transformers film came out in the summer of 2007, and while I was never a fan of the toys (I was severely gay, and therefore loved my sister’s Barbies), I found a lot of charm in such a dark take on a children’s toy line, and Megan Fox helped me push off being gay for a little while longer because she was so stunning, and still is (that only sufficed until age 13). Even in the light of 2023, with knowledge of how this series progressed, as well as my insanely different taste in films since I was in between elementary and middle school, the first Transformers film still has a goofy charm to it that perfectly captures pop culture in the bubble that was the tail end of the Bush Administration: tacky, self-serious, but somehow endearing all the same. Something I cannot say for its resulting sequels and reboots, from the Shia LaBoeuf-led films to the Mark Wahlberg ones. Each film in the series became more of an aggressive assault on the senses than the last, and while the narrative of this franchise is built on its stupidity, there still is a time when things can get pushed too far into the realm of just being entirely unpleasant and insulting to audience members.
Yet, out of the shadows, came a miracle for Paramount: Bumblebee, the standalone prequel and the first Transformers film not directed by Michael Bay, snuck up like a bandit, resulting in a film with a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score and a sizable $468 million return on a $100 million budget. Led by an always lovable Hailee Steinfeld (Hawkeye), and with a much more human-focused story that operated on a much smaller scale than any of the previous films, what started as a last-ditch effort for the series to endure became the most respected entry in the entire series. Frankly, I can’t blame Paramount for wanting to give the series one last go after such an unexpected success. Ditching the standalone formula, we’ve returned to the mainline series, albeit still repping the period prequel setting, with the 1994-set Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is a down-on-his-luck ex-soldier living in Brooklyn in 1994, struggling with paying medical bills for his brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vasquez), who suffers from sickle cell disease. Desperate for a break, Noah begins boosting cars for extra money. Meanwhile, Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) is a young artifact researcher for a museum who discovers an ancient artifact that reveals itself to be that of the Transwarp Key, an ancient key from the Maximals, a species of Autobots, and sought after by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the remaining Autobots on Earth to get back home to Cybertron, their home planet from which they are stranded on Earth away from. After accidentally boosting an Autobot named Mirage (Pete Davidson), and involving Elena with the Transwarp Key, Noah and Elena embark on a worldwide journey to recover the key from the evil Terrorcons, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage), and return home.
Are you following? Because I absolutely wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts drops a metric ton of convoluted plot onto the audience very early in the film to get through it quickly and justify the means of destruction that, let’s face it, if you’re going to see a Transformers film in 2023, you came for. This being a dumb collection of vignettes formed from far more fleshed out lore from many longer-form television series isn’t the main problem with what makes Transformers: Rise of the Beasts so entirely underwhelming, but it’s the insistence on creating a new, rebooted, “shared universe” for the Transformers series, even after the success of Bumblebee, which soared on its standalone nature and human element. This rebooting leaves nothing about the actual film feeling anywhere near complete. Things start relatively bog standard for the franchise, but as the film reaches its “conclusion,” things become insanely clear that everything was merely a brief introduction for what seeks to become another cinematic universe for audiences to consume like candy. It might not be as insultingly stupid as Michael Bay’s entries into the series, but it’s shameless soullessness is what is the most disappointing.
With this being the second reboot of the mainline franchise, we’re now introduced to the third cast of characters for the franchise going forward, and while we aren’t making literally any progress on the front of character depth in the mainline franchise, I can at least attest to the fact that the film, headed by Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah), has the least annoying of the crop of protagonists the mainline series. Comparing that to the likes of Shia LaBoeuf (Transformers) and Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction) isn’t saying much…at all…but I will at least give credit where credit is due. I did find Ramos to be a pretty stock protagonist, very reminiscent of other characters we’ve gotten from him over his career, but Fishback, fresh off of what should be an Emmy-winning performance in Prime Video’s Swarm, is acting circles around the rest of the cast. Again, we’re not working with much character material here, but there is such a quiet, somewhat nerdy lovability to Fishback, particularly as this broad archetype, that did make it really hard to dislike her in this, even in the film’s worst moments.
Conversely, the film, like all Transformers films, features a shockingly stacked cast of actors voicing the different Transformers throughout, with new faces this time around featuring current reigning Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Pete Davidson (The King of Staten Island), Liza Koshy (Cat Person), Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (tick, tick… BOOM!), Cristo Fernández (Ted Lasso), John DiMaggio (Futurama), Ron Perlman (Hellboy), and Optimus Prime himself, series staple Peter Cullen (who sounds like he recorded all of his lines in one session on his iPhone voice notes). These never amount to much, honestly, but going in without a knowledge of who is in the voice cast makes for a fun game of trying to place the voice to the character. I needed to have fun with this film in some way.
And that’s perhaps the biggest sin of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts: it’s just boring. There isn’t even enough dumb explosive fun to justify the price of admission as even the massive city destruction with big sets and some (get this) practical effects scattered throughout aren’t here, in favor of the Marvel-ified “Large Flat Empty Computer-Generated Field” third act used for so many soulless blockbusters at this point, which is just such a lazy and familiar copout that it was hard to feel enthused about any of it. You can call the Bay films a lot of things: frenetically directed, offensively written, blithely misogynistic, sometimes *very racist*; things that you thankfully cannot ascribe to Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, but the one thing that you couldn’t describe them as was lazy. Terrible as they were, Bay made an effort to make something that remarkably horrendous. That makes me sit and ponder, would I rather sit through something remarkably atrocious or merely something unremarkably bad. I’ll remember the worst that Bay had to offer in his Transformers films, but I don’t know if I’ll remember anything about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts at all.
I suppose I can go ahead and answer that question and say I *guess* I would rather settle for something unremarkable, but not an absolute insult to my existence, and that makes Transformers: Rise of the Beasts the best mainline sequel of the franchise, but this is not a high bar to clear. Nor is it one I will actually care to remember when looking back on this franchise. But why should I have to settle for either? Especially when so many better offerings of summer blockbusters are already out in theaters needing to be seen. This only proves that no lessons were learned about what made Bumblebee work, and any attempt to recreate that short spark of life into something more financially lucrative for Paramount and Hasbro is completely dead on arrival.
At least Rise of the Beasts clocks in at under two hours. I suppose I can give it that.
In theaters June 9th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Transformers: Rise of the Beasts website.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.