Michael Bay-lieve it or not, they’re still making Transformers movies! Last week saw the release of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of the decade old Blockbuster franchise based on some Hasbro toys. Join Max Robinson and Patrick Stinson this week as they brave the dubious racial caricatures and ever-increasing plot devices, and mighty robots of
The Gobots The Transformers.
Patrick: Well, The Last Knight is currently in theaters, and it’s kinda simultaneously more over-the-top than ever and also more focused on the robot characters and their world. I quite liked it overall, but part of the problem with it is it’s the fifth Transformers Movie By Michael Bay. To make a splash it would have to be the very best one, but it’s not.
Max: The Last Knight is the first tangible result of the Michael Bay-insisted Transformers writers room, a LITERAL room with a candy wall and TV screens playing Transformers media. Apparently if you put Akiva Goldsman, Robert Kirkman, and a bunch of other Hollywood scribes in a Hasbro hot box for a few weeks, you get a really bonkers movie out of it. I really dug this one, and it’s the first time when a Bay Transformers outing felt like it really hit the right tone. The Last Knight *opens* with a drunk magic-less Merlin begging ancient Autobots to help save Camelot, reveals that Autobots fought in EVERY AMERICAN WAR and implies that Harriet Tubman and Stephen Hawking are all members of a secret society of Transformers allies. As with prior installments, it feels like two or three different scripts Frankenstein’ed together but it is a neopolitan ice cream of bugfuck Transformers mythology insanity.
Patrick: I’m glad you mention tone, because this movie feels like the balance of lighthearted adventure and intense action that the movie series was going for in the first place. In other words, it’s a lot like Revenge of the Fallen. Just subtract the Jar Jar Binks sense of humor and add in an Actual Script. Notice that it picks back up the plot ball of “secret history” and more or less acts like it’s a new thing.
What interests me more though is something that all of the other movies but the first one get wrong—each featured Transformer on both sides has a name, has lines, and gets to do a cool thing or two. It’s a bit like if the Godzilla series took a hiatus on stomping on buildings between its first and fifth movie. Watch G1, watch Beast Wars, and you get this same feeling of toys clashing together. It may not impress the critics, but this is what Transformers is for.
Max: The fact that critics and audiences have been staggeringly indifferent to this Transformers movie probably says more about how we’re all feeling right now, but the reality is this is a very fun, dumb action movie. There’s an entire scene of Megatron negotiating the release of his Decepticon crew with a bunch of scared government lawyers and every Decepticon gets their own Con Air style villain intro! A Transformer pocket watch killed Hitler! The Dinobots take on a bunch of federal agents and uh also there are baby Dinobots now. The movie goes crazy with actually funny gags and weird set pieces and it honestly feels like the closest we’ll ever get to a live action take on Scioli and Barber’s seminal toy comic text G.I. Joe vs. Transformers.
The thing that really struck me about The Last Knight is how, at this point in the franchise, the Transformers movies are now full-on dystopian sci-fi. The movie pretty much starts with a bunch of kids sneaking into the now-cordoned off remains of Chicago, which is a crumbling empty tomb patrolled by unmanned drones. Our new plucky teen protagonist, Izabella (Isabella Moner), lost her family in the events of Dark of the Moon, and the streets boast anti-Autobot propaganda posters. Even later on in the film, Cade and co. are hiding out in an abandoned southwestern town and the implication is that the mere destructive presence of Transformers has left a lot of places this way.
Patrick: I love the feeling of the world here. Transformers just keep showing up. There is a new equilibrium, with Transformers being treated (except in Cuba in a rather funny beat) as “illegal immigrants.” This is pretty dark, but not as dark as the previous movie where they were treated as raw materials. This sets all the human characters up to have arcs regarding their relationship with the aliens. There’s Cade and Izabella, who are rebels helping them out (refreshingly, the script remembers that the protagonist should act like a good guy and so we get a much better Cade this outing). There’s Santos, who recognizes that Decepticons are way worse than Autobots but still doesn’t want any of them around. There’s returning character Lennox who strikes the balance between those two. Then we hop over to England and get Sir Anthony Fuggin’ Hopkins, “I’ve always known everything about them and I’m sassy af,” and Vivianne, “I’ve never gone out and seen them before so I don’t have an opinion yet.”
But it’s Bumblebee who’s the real star of the movie. While he always got the most toys and the most love from kids, his cute’n’adorable war wound kept him from really coming to life as anything other than “Sam’s companion.” In an arc liberally borrowed from other recent Transformers media, Bumblebee “grows up” and takes charge in the absence of Optimus. If half this movie is taken from the insanity blitz that is G.I. Joe vs. The Transformers, the other half is taken from the more grounded TV series Transformers Prime.
Max: Bumblebee (and new robots like the decidedly french interpretation of Hot Rod and Anthony Hopkins’ psychotic metal butler Cogman) take on the spotlight here while Optimus Prime…well, shows up long enough to get mind controlled by Transformers creator Quintessa, a Very Michael Bay take on the sinister Quintessons from Transformers: The Movie. On one hand, Optimus sitting most of the movie out keeps things rolling pretty nicely, but on the other hand, it’s a bummer that the Michael Bay version of Nemesis Prime is just ordinary Optimus with a magical face tattoo.
Patrick: I do think it was necessary to reboot Murder Prime by making him be Actually A Bad Guy for most of the film. Yeah mind control’s a cop-out, but on the other hand, he’s a frickin’ robot! We therefore have an opportunity for a fresh start. And Nemesis Prime is just sort of a catchall name for various evil guys who look like Optimus Prime—it can be anything from a human-built drone to the hound of Unicron himself, so I appreciated the name use here. It felt relevant and a good way to clue in the not-so-Transformers-obsessed set when Prime was bad and when he was good. Besides, if they really want to revisit the concept they will, remember how “Devastator” showed up and was killed in movie 1?
Max: The Last Knight feels like a kind of appetizer sampler platter for a few different Transformers films. You’ve got your King Arthur and his Autobots of the round table movie, you’ve got an Inglourious Basterds-style Bumblebee movie set in WW2, you’ve got the very National Treasure-y segments with Anthony Hopkins as the mentor to Cade and a stuffy British academic/love interest. You have this Prometheus-y major plot where we’re finding about the entire ancient history of Cybertron and how UNICRON IS ACTUALLY PLANET EARTH. Like, where do future Transformers even go from here? We’ve cranked the widescreen robot action dial to 11.
All of these things, on their own, are pretty fun but it’s definitely ten pounds of movie crammed into a five pound bag. The fact that the next Transformers film is a smaller scale solo Bumblebee period piece set in the 80s and geared a little more towards kids makes me think that even the people making these realize it might be time to ease up on the throttle.
Patrick: I could get sidetracked into talking about 80 different kinds of fanservice, but I do have to put my foot down and say this movie has the problem of a lot of movies these days—too much plot for the story. We just get ahold of the Megatron’s Decepticons + TRF gunning for the junkyard storyline when everyone up and charges off for the UK. Then we get a huge blast of exposition and a weird scavenger hunt through London. All of this could have been much more streamlined. Instead of giving one MacGuffin to Cade and one to Vivianne and having them get together in some sort of Keymaster thing, there should have been one MacGuffin. And it should have gone to Izabella, the movie’s best character, who is completely absent from the screen for about an hour in Act 2.
Max: It’s especially egregious when Wahlberg and Bumblebee just straight up walk out of one plot line so they can meet up with Anthony Hopkins across the globe. Izabella gets a great intro, has a pretty solid hook and even has her own BB-8 rip off sidekick in the form of Squeeks. Why is she stuck on the sidelines in Wyoming for a third of the movie? I will say, as low a bar as this is, it’s nice to see two pretty decent female characters in a Transformers movie, even if Vivianne spends most of the movie doing some Sam and Diane from Cheers romance schtick with (the much older) Wahlberg.
Patrick: It’s definitely a case of liking all the stuff in the bag but the bag’s just way too small. I have nothing against Vivianne, but you can’t introduce a co-lead a third and then some through the picture. That said though, this movie’s excesses pay off by the end, where chunks of Cybertron are swinging to and fro, a three-headed dragon enters the mix (beating Godzilla 2 to the punch), Optimus takes on a combiner, and they somehow cram in a little button or conclusion for almost everyone who’s opened their mouth during the film. There’s a lot I can’t defend about this film, but it gets the most important thing right; it’s a whale of a time.
Max: The Last Knight is probably my favorite of these movies (admittedly based off one viewing) purely because it’s biggest sin is it’s overstuffed, not that it’s insultingly underwritten or unpleasant. That’s damning with faint praise, maybe, but watching these movies struggle to figure themselves out has been so interesting. Michael Bay gets a lot of flack for…well, being Michael Bay, but the thing is these movies are interesting studies. When have we EVER gotten huge budget studio films that boast one director’s singular vision over FIVE films? Bay says this is his last entry in the franchise, but what if he keeps making these progressively stranger Transformers movies for years? It’s like watching a guy run a marathon for a decade.
Patrick: Even if Bay can and does pull in a marginally stronger movie 6, I wish he would call it donezo. I thought this after 3 and 4, too. I honestly want the guy to finish high. While you and I find a lot to love here, the disproportionate critical shellacking and the apparent audience apathy are signals that it’s time for a change, and baby, Bay ain’t gonna change. There is no reason why live-action Transformers need to be in Bay’s unique style, and maybe the Bumblebee movie will let it sink in. Keep the writers though! Paradoxically, I’m more excited for the Transformers “cinematic universe” than ever.