Tolerated film Franchise Transforms for retro Thrills


With Rise of the Beasts, the rickety live-action Transformers film franchise officially downshifts from headaches to head scratching.  It may be more palatable, but all is never quite clear.  For one thing, you may wonder, “Is it consistent that this handful of Autobots are secretly biding their time in parking garages and whatnot years prior to the events of the Michael Bay movies??”  Hmm.  But then, one must remember that when it comes to things like coherent timelines and internal mythologies, such elements have never been anyone’s creative priorities when crafting the other Transformers films.  

Also, you may question how it is that even though Rise of the Beast incorporates more aspects of different Transformers lore into one story than any previous installment (and hitting some pretty revered notes in the process), it somehow feels smaller, perhaps even lesser in scope?  (Case in point: 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon spends like an hour obliterating downtown Chicago with loud panache.  This new film culminates amid ancient ruins in a grassy clearing in Peru).

This seventh entry (if you count 2018’s Bumblebee) not only plays out in the bygone year of 1994, but in several cases, utilizes brighter vintage character modeling instead of the darker, more visually aggressive designs of the film franchise.  It’s been many years since I’ve seen Michael Bay’s original 2007 Transformers, but I seem to recall the Autobots first settling onto Earth (with the help of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox) in that contemporary tale.  Or is that simply when they realize that the Decepticons are also here, and they’re the only ones who can stop them…?  Eh.  Whatever.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, by virtue of being an altogether palatable sit (clocking in at a mere 127 minutes), surpasses the whole of the Bay quintology on general principle.  As directed by Steven Caple Jr., the movie thankfully puts aside the adolescent preoccupations of past entries (farewell to forced badassery, dopey schoolboy tensions, and oiled-up supermodels in cutoffs) as well as Bay’s notorious middle-America-baiting military and American flag venerations.  

On the downside, Rise of the Beasts does not trade Bay’s impressively exhausting directorial style for another obvious auteur.  Caple Jr. does a good job of holding down the fort in order to get the story concoction put forth.  The give-and-take here is resonant, as it is past time another filmmaker had a shot at this franchise- but it would be good if said filmmaker had some kind of demonstrative visual chops beyond the kind of kinetically generic competence we see here.

The story focuses on two new dynamic human characters, unemployed ex-military guy Noah (Anthony Ramos) and unrespected artifact expert Elena (Dominique Fishback), both of whom are people of color (as is the director, perhaps accounting for the thankful absence of the racially insulting Autobots from Revenge of the Fallen, Skids and Mudflap).  When the economically desperate Noah gets caught up in a plot to steal a lonely, parked Porsche, it just so happens that said Porsche is actually Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), an Autobot with a surplus of comedic energy built up from his extended stint of laying low.  It also just so happens that right as Noah gets into the unresponsive driver’s seat, Mirage is called into action along with all other nearby Autobots (all two of them in this movie, fan favorite Bumblebee and Arcee [voiced by Liza Koshy]).  This is due to a sudden energy signal emitted by Elena’s accidental discovery of the all-important Transwarp Key, which was hidden in a mysterious Maltese Falcon-like relic she’d been researching after hours in the museum where she works.

Actually, it’s only half of the darn key, which means that the other half must be uncovered before the bad guys can get to it.  Who are the bad guys?  Not the Decepticons.  There are actually no Decepticons in this movie.  The attacking bad-bots are led by the trophy-hunting warrior Scourge (voice of Peter Dinklage), who leads the deadly Terrorcons.  Scourge is in the service of iconic big-big-BIG bad, Unicron.  Like his debut in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie (still the greatest of all Transformers films), Unicron is a massive mechanical planet-eating planet with a deep voice (Colman Domingo) and terrifying influence over his underlings. 

As a lifelong fan of the 1986 animated movie, I was quite pleasantly surprised to not only see Unicron turn up in live-action and looking a lot like his old Welles-ian self, but also hear him accompanied by the original ominous synth chords of Vince DiCola.  (It’s a bit buried in the mix, but it’s there).  I was also happy to see Optimus Prime finally resembling his old self (as opposed to Michael Bay’s dark blue design with red flames).  It’s also always great to hear the Autobot leader voiced by Peter Cullen.  

I was less happy about Prime’s apparent directionlessness and gripey frustration with being trapped on Earth.  His whole motivation to retrieve the Transwarp Key is so that they can use it to get back to their home planet of Cybertron and rejoin its ongoing war.  The good news is that the screenwriters know and understand that Prime is in a funk and needs to motivated beyond it.  Based on the writing of previous installments, I wasn’t quite sure if that would be the case.

That brings us to the titular variable that affects everything once deployed.  I’m referring to the franchise-insertion of some 1990s Transformers: Beast Wars heroes (known as Maximals), particularly their leader, a gorilla with the voice of Ron Perlman called Optimus Primal.  The Maximals have made their way to Earth following Unicron’s decimation of their planet at the start of the movie.  Beast Wars was a bit after my time, but my kids grew up watching it via an old DVD box set.  Consequently, my young son who went with me to this screening was really happy to see some of those characters in Rise of the Beasts– even if they don’t turn up again in it until its final act.

Can the Autobots and the Maximals work together to beat back Scourge and his Terrorcons before they usher Unicron to Earth?  Not without a whole lot of clanky combat, laser shooting, and brutal chopping.  As predictable as most of this I.P. interbrand juggling act is, I will say that the film’s epilogue genuinely caught me off guard in a way that every end credits scene wishes it could.  

On the whole, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a very mixed bag of reasonable ho-hum and the series’ most solid fan service to date.  Is this colorfully heightened and broader incarnation of Paramount’s Transformerspreferable to the Michael Bay bombast of before?  For me, begrudgingly, yes.  If this is the new template for a more Fast and the Furious-like version of this series that delivers what it delivers every few years, that might be okay.  We go in, we have fun, we get out.  We might not remember much of it, but it doesn’t beat us up, either.  As a Generation One Transformers fan, I’ve always understood that this business of robots from space that turn into vehicles and fight isn’t exactly brilliant mythmaking.  At times, though, it can be some engaging fun.  Rise of the Beast definitely lives up to that.  At times.