By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Flashback to 2011 with the release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the Transformers franchise is one of the most popular blockbuster franchises out there. Despite receiving mixed (at best) reviews, Michael Bay’s trilogy of films were mammoth box office successes and hold a special place in the hearts of many fans who grew up with the films. The series, however, began to see diminishing returns with its fourth film Transformers: Age of Extinction and its fifth film Transformers: The Last Knight lost $100 million for both Hasbro and Paramount. Attempts to revive the series to its 2007-2011 glory eventually resulted in Bumblebee, a prequel with a smaller scale and a bigger heart that didn’t quite capture audiences the way Bay’s films did. Now, with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, audiences are reunited with the iconic Autobots as they face off against the villainous followers of the all-mighty Unicron.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is set in 1994, after the events of the 80s set Bumblebee. The film occupies a somewhat ambiguous place in Transformers canon in that Rise of the Beasts can be seen as a chronological predecessor to Michael Bay’s five films or as an entirely separate entity, with the story never retconning anything from Bay’s movies, but also not having its events inextricably tied to previous plot threads. The film follows Noah (played by Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos), a down-on-his-luck New Yorker whose attempt to steal a rare artifact from a museum puts him on a collision course between the Autobots and the Terrorcons.
Regardless of the canonicity of Bay’s films, the filmmakers behind Transformers: Rise of the Beasts are well aware of the faults of the original five Transformers movies and take strides to craft a movie that dodges those potholes. Increasingly convoluted and messy stories hindered Bay’s movies, whereas Rise of the Beasts adopts a more streamlined storytelling approach. Although there is still plenty of Cybertron and Autobot backstory and mythology to get lost in, Rise of the Beasts takes a page out of the likes of Avengers: Infinity War and Star Wars: The Force Awakens in realizing that sometimes, for these larger-than-life blockbuster epics, simpler is better.
The story unfolds as such…Optimus Prime and the other Autobots, with the help of Ramos’ Noah and Dominique Fishback’s Elena, want to obtain a Transwarp Key, a device that will allow them to return to their home planet Cybertron. This puts them at odds with the menace Unicron, who has dispatched Scourge (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage) and other minions to Earth in an effort to possess the Transwarp Key for himself and, in turn, exert further dominance in the galaxy. The story is simple, refreshingly so when compared to the jumbled plotting of Bay’s films. Good guys want to obtain a key and the bad guys want to obtain the key. That’s pretty much all there is to it.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts also overcomes a primary issue that plagued its predecessors’ action sequences and visual effects. While the Autobots and Decepticons in Transformers (2007) were groundbreaking visual effects achievements, Bay’s penchant for dynamic camera movements, distinctive low angles, handheld tracking shots, aggressively paced editing, and extreme close-ups of action became increasingly unwieldy as the series progressed. It became difficult to fully appreciate the impressive visual effects when the action sequences were directed with such chaos. Thankfully, this is not an issue in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Steven Caple Jr., who previously helmed Creed II, brings a much-needed steady hand to the Transformers franchise. With an intelligent decision to use more wide shots, Caple Jr. allows the audience to actually see the film’s (many) action sequences and appreciate the remarkable visual effects that bring these characters to life.
The visual spectacle is particularly evident with the film’s introduction and conclusion that convey an immense scale. Planet-sized characters and world-destroyed devices make for a sprawling viewing experience in which the human characters look like ants compared to the robot aliens around them. The action sequences are also well lit, while the use of practical effects to capture certain shots is extremely effective.
With less Bayhem, however, comes a Transformers movie that is decidedly safer. It’d be harsh to say Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is merely a run-of-the-mill contemporary blockbuster, but it doesn’t take any significant creative risks. Yes, this means the garishness and offensiveness of Bay’s movies are (thankfully) absent here and yet it also means that Rise of the Beasts plays out in a frustratingly straightforward manner. It’s got the action sequences, the obligatory speeches, the epic music. All of it works, surprisingly well actually, but it’s not exactly accelerating toward anything particularly noteworthy.
Despite its lack of novelty, Rise of the Beasts also excels with a solid cast. Anthony Ramos steps into the lead role and has relatively big shoes to fill given the presence of Shia LaBeouf, Mark Wahlberg, and Hailee Steinfeld in previous Transformers projects. Ramos as Noah Diaz is excellent in the film, packing his performance with an endearing quality and witty charm that make it easy to root for him. His motivation to help the Autobots on their quest is a bit of a stretch and the film’s attempts to strike an emotional note with Noah and his brother’s relationship fall flat. However, Ramos shows that he is more than capable of leading a film of this scale and is never overshadowed by the gargantuan robot aliens he’s surrounded by. The other central human character is Elena Wallace, a museum researcher played by Judas and the Black Messiah’s Dominique Fishback, who is serviceable in a relatively uninteresting role. Meanwhile, taking the place of Bumblebee as the main Transformers character is Mirage, who is voiced by Pete Davidson. Mirage delivers the film’s most memorable lines and jokes as Davidson brings immense personality and charm to the rebellious Autobot.
Further adding quality to the latest Transformers film is its warm embrace of its 1990s setting. Taking place in Brooklyn 1994, the film is filled to the brim with neat 90s references that will be nostalgic for anyone who grew up in the era. One character has Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers on his bedroom walls, another repairs a device while listening to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.,’ and all the costumes and cars are accurate to the decade. With Stranger Things, the 1980s have been mined as a setting for so many films and television shows, but the 1990s remains a relatively unexplored era. Hopefully, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ushers in an affection for the decade in other films down the line.
Without giving away any spoilers, the only fitting way to conclude this review is to briefly touch upon the film’s ending. To say Transformers: Rise of the Beasts concludes on a jaw-dropping note is not an exaggeration. As genuinely surprising as it is breathtaking, Rise of the Beasts ends in resounding fashion and brilliantly sets up for exciting sequels.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts excels in many areas Michael Bay’s films faltered, featuring a refreshingly streamlined plot and delivering terrific action sequences that audiences can actually appreciate, but is a safer, more run-of-the-mill action blockbuster. Anthony Ramos charismatically leads the film, which wonderfully embraces its 1990s setting, while Pete Davidson brings humor as the rebellious Mirage. With an ending that simply has to be seen to be believed, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has filled up the tank with enough gas to carry this franchise on to more adventures.