3.5 out of 10
Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager
Directed by Michael Bay
Transformers: The Last Knight Review:
Michael Bay’s Transformer films have been many things: loud; obnoxious; loud; silly; overtly racist; nonsensical; loud; annoying; unfunny; and loud. But for all their many, many, many, many problems, they have at least never been boring. At least not until now.
For those who have been following the story of the Transformers films up until now, you probably shouldn’t because it is very clear Bay and his producers aren’t. The series is a panoply of overriding plot repetitions built on an idea of ‘if it was cool the first time…’ which lead to continuous outbursts of ‘but wait …’ from viewers who attempt the Sisyphean task of keeping the series’ mythology straight. But here goes…
After once again being reduced to old myths and hidden wonders, the Transformers burst onto the scene in a battle which decimated Chicago and sent Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Cullen) off into deep space to seek the mysterious creators of the Transformers and warn them to leave Earth alone. Unlike the previous umpteen million city-destroying Transformers attacks, this was seen as the last draw, leading to the robotic warriors being outlawed and forced into hiding along with their handful of human supporters like inventor/Transformers savior Cade Yeager (Wahlberg). When Yeager discovers a mysterious medallion, he unknowingly makes himself a target for the revived Megatron (Welker) and quickly discovers the links between Earth and Cybertron, home of the Transformers, are greater than anyone has ever dreamed.
There are a handful of things which seem to interest Bay about Transformers, or at least within a Transformers story. We can tell, because he keeps repeating them over and over again no matter how hard it is to fit into existing story structure as he attempts to refine the franchise to its Platonic ideal. He has not succeeded, but the almost obsessive compulsive way he keeps repeating the same story should give future generations some idea about how not to do it.
First and foremost, he loves the idea of the Transformers secretly taking part in Earth history, be it their creation of the Egyptian pyramids to hide an ancient weapon, or being the real reason for the moon landings. Or here turning out to be the originators of the legend of King Arthur after they give advanced Cybertronian technology to the wizard Merlin (Tucci) in order to defeat a Saxon army. It should come as no surprise that The Last Knight gives preference to individual scenes and moments over anything like coherence and the latest opening – which plays like the beginning of Gladiator but with giant robots added – is as good an example of that as any bit in the series.
If that sounds like the silliest thing ever in not just a Transformers film but any big budget tent pole ever made, you’re probably right. Nothing else in The Last Knight rises to that level of ridiculousness, not because the film gets better but because the rest of it is so plodding and repetitive, it’s impossible to care what’s going on at any one moment. At least the brief bout of Arthurian derring-do has Stanley Tucci’s drunken Merlin in scenery chewing cameo, which makes it clear how aware he is of the ridiculousness he’s involved in. The rest of the film has Wahlberg and Josh Duhamel.
And yes, Anthony Hopkins, but much more on that later.
Bay also likes having his humans and Transformers being hunted down by the military (only slightly more than he likes having them fighting with the military), so he has to find some rationale no matter how slim to turn them into outlaws in almost every incarnation. After the destruction wrought on Chicago in Age of Extinction, all Transformers have been outlawed and gone into hiding, hunted down by the newly-formed TRF mainly as an excuse to fetishize military hardware by the soldiers who use it. Which leads early on to a hilarious scene where soldiers insist the only way to save a bunch of kids from the giant robot standing next to them is to shoot missiles right at them.
He has at last finally given up on the idea of people somehow forgetting giant transforming robots showing up and wreaking havoc, but he has no idea, and never has, how to integrate that into the world in a realistic way. For the most part, the Transformers exist next to the human characters not among them, spitting out sound bites in a sped-up manner which suggests the dialogue was forced to fit between whatever a person said on the set rather than decided on and integrated from the beginning. More importantly, the world never seems to reflect one with giant robots living and fighting in it. Yes Chicago is mostly a wasteland – primarily as a means to introduce spunky teen inventor Izabella (Moner) who lives in it – but when the film cuts immediately from that to historian Vivian (Haddock) playing polo at Oxford, it makes the reactive elements come off as cursory. Even the Transformers themselves only seem to care about fighting each other and playing beach volleyball. Because Bay isn’t interested in world building, even though the only thing The Last Knight actually seems interested in is world building.
After spending a good bit of time introducing Izabella and Cade’s new comic relief Jimmy (Carmichael) and following Optimus Prime’s return to Cybertron and Quintessa (Chan), the creator of the Transformers, The Last Knight ditches all of those characters and plot points for the next ninety minutes and whisks Cade off to England to learn about the Secret History of the Transformers™. Despite clearly no one having any idea who they were or what they did in the first film, it turns out the Transformers have been part of human history since the Arthur days, helping out with everything from the American Revolution to World War II. Because only the most recent Transformers film has ever existed for Bay, the rest has all been a dream.
All of this, plus some truly endless lectures about the genealogy of Merlin and his descendants, is delivered by Hopkins, a member of a secret society who has followed the adventures of the Transformers since the days of yore and spouts off about it continually. Since Burton is a walking talking exposition machine, casting Hopkins is a good idea since you can at least get pleasure from the way he says words no matter how nonsensical, and he clearly knows how to do that well.
On the other hand, it gets us Cogman (Carter), one of the worst things Bay has ever come up with for these films (and that is saying a lot). Cogman, Burton’s Transformer butler, seems to be the result of Bay and his screenwriters binge-watching Downton Abbey while feverishly writing The Last Knight script and getting the two somehow intertwined. He’s meant to be a bit of comic relief to create pauses in Hopkins’ endless recitation of fake history, which gives us the spectacle of Carson the Butler alternately singing, attacking Mark Wahlberg or randomly screaming profanity. It’s so strange, it almost manages to render concepts like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ obsolete.
In the process of the hour plus we spend in the English countryside,the rest of the film continues on and leaves the rest of us running to catch up (if at that point you care at all). Because the biggest obsession Bay has and continues to have with his Transformers is spending hours and hours explaining the minutia of how Transformers have always been here and how we found out at the expense of laying out basic ideas like who the bad guys are, what do they want, how are they going about what they want? We learn Megatron, killed off in the third film, has returned in a bit of throwaway dialogue in the first five minutes and it’s never brought up again (the robot himself, like everyone else not named Cade Yeager, shows up, disappears for 90 minutes, then returns for the final fight). We discover there is a link between the Transformers home world and Earth and one or the other must be destroyed, but why? Anyone not deeply immersed in Transformers mythology will have no idea or what the stakes are. Words like ‘Unicron’ are spouted out without context, because that would mean taking time away from Cade and Vivian having dinner on a sunken submarine.
Because Bay is, and has always been, interested in moments not wholes. He approaches each scene as a universe unto itself and never mind whether it has been built up properly or connects to anything else. He has a clear understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking but doesn’t seem to understand that it takes more than a low angle and blaring horns to make a scene or the actions in it iconic. Like a bunch of Transformers parts spontaneously reassembling themselves, all of these little things have to come together into a whole or they’re just a random assortment of parts. And who wants to look at that for two-and-a-half hours?