Principal Cast : Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez, Dean Scott Vazquez, Tobe Nwigwe, Sarah Stiles, Leni Parker, Aida Devine, Michael Kelly, Voices of Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Pete Davidson, Liza Koshy, John DiMaggio, David Sobolov, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, Colman Domingo, Cristo Fernandez, Tongayi Chirisa.
Synopsis: During the ’90s, a new faction of Transformers – the Maximals – join the Autobots as allies in the battle for Earth.
I’m not sure what to expect any more with these Hasbro-backed Transformers movies, now that they’re moving away from the sturm und drang nonsense of Michael Bay’s creative direction (hell, I didn’t even understand them then!); Rise Of The Beasts, the seventh live action feature film adaptation of your favourite robots in disguise is a blandly engaging bout of routine deception nonsense, loosely a sequel to Travis Knight’s Bumblebee and set in the mid-90’s, before the events of the 2007 Transformers film starring Shia LaBeouf. The film sees a new clutch of humans join together with Optimus Prime and a smattering of Autobots, together with a new subrace of transformers in “the Maximals” (who happen to look like African wildlife, despite originating on an alien planet in the film’s cold open), all trying to prevent the arrival of planet-sized villain Unicron, who literally devours planets in a galactic buffet of destruction. Although Rise Of The Beasts doesn’t do a lot of “rising” or offer much by way of background for the Maximal’s character arcs, if you want solid Transformers action then this film is the one for you.
To be honest, although the bright colours, constant explosions and nonsensical dialogue is enough to keep teenagers happy, as an adult the film felt like three kids bashing their toys together in a sandpit somewhere. Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback play unlikely human heroes alongside the all-CG Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, who sounds just about worn out by this point), Mirage (Pete Davidson), fan-fave Arcee (Liza Koshy), and Michelle Yeoh’s Airazor, as they fight to keep the film’s central MacGuffin – a time-altering Transwarp Key, whatever that is – from falling into the hands of Unicron’s chief henchman, Scourge (an unrecognisable Peter Dinklage). Scourge wants to use the Key to herald the arrival of Unicron to destroy Earth, something the Maximal force – led by Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) – has vowed to prevent.
Rise of The Beasts is nothing more than a very, very expensive two hour live-action Saturday morning cartoon. It’s an absolute nonsense, from both the plot (as idiotic as it sounds, it’s actually worse) to the inane characters (Anthony Ramos tries his best but… whew, talk about shitting the bed, while Dominique Fishback isn’t a leading lady in any sense of the word) and the physically impossible globetrotting engaged in by our heroes, and taking any of it seriously even for a second is to find your brain switching to the level of a goldfish. An orgy of flashy action sequences, concussive explosions and state-of-the-art visual effects, there’s a soullessness at work here that belies the amount of money spent on this rubbish. Not once did I feel a human emotion watching this – the stakes for the Autobots and Maximals is non-existent, the human beings all behave like imbeciles, and aside from the arrival of Unicron (which is an impressive bit of filmmaking that I wager Michael Bay himself would have ejaculated over had he been in charge) lacks the awe and wonder of Bay’s 2007 original. Optimus Prime gets the shit kicked out of him again – seriously, he’s not that great a leader, and makes some real dunderheaded decisions in this film – and Ramos’ character, Noah Diaz, is given a half-baked lip-serviced sickly brother back in Brooklyn as his motivation to go through some of the crap he has to here, while Fishback’s Indiana Jones puzzle-solving Mrs Exposition role is laughably stupid.
I get it, this is a film franchise based off a cartoon series based on a line of kids toys designed to make Hasbro a tidy profit. Asking for intelligence is hoping for too much, given how thin the Transformers have always been as a well-developed property. Yet, with the billions of dollars Bay’s films raked in I’d say Paramount’s decision to keep making these movies is a solid business move. However you cannot possibly mistake this kind of cartoonish drivel as any attempt at serious filmmaking. Protracted CG pixels bashing together, as Prime and his Autobot cohort do battle with Scourge and his armada of confusing Decepticon bad guys, is fine in small doses but this film seems intent on just colliding visual effects together in an orgy of incoherent noise and movement. And with a script as patently silly as this, little wonder I spent much of the film checking my watch. It wasn’t boring, per se, mainly because Ramos does a good job with a nothing part to give it that Everyman feel that makes these films so evocative, but it was inordinately silly. Unfortunately, the film suffers the same problems as Bay’s entries, in that plot armour, inexplicable leaps in logic and nonsensical story elements keep these things from being… well, you know, good. Travis Knight hit the formula spot on with his opening sequence in Bumblebee, but this film feels like a cheap-ass Bay knockoff.
Props to director Steven Capale Jr, however, for keeping things as fun and entertaining as they are. He lands most of the jokes well, keeps the plot ticking along and even manages to keep some of the more asinine aspects of the Bay films in the shadows despite a dearth of quality material to mine. The dialogue, from a screenplay credited to no fewer than five people meaning it’s actually a script bukkake, is rancid and risible, from Prime’s sonorous proclamations to the middling human beings populating the scenery, almost everything sounds like it was written by AI and re-drafted by a committee of children. Again, it’s very hard to take a film like this particularly seriously when one of your characters is a giant robotic ape from a distant planet voiced by Ron Perlman, and I give kudos to everyone in front of and behind the camera – in particular the legion of CG artists who brought this preposterousness to life – for their hard work in taking this so seriously. This is a film that employed a lot of people for a while so let’s not think Rise Of The Beasts wasn’t without some merit.
One of the great things about Bumblebee as a film was that it tapped back into that Transformer sense of wonder about giant robots turning into cars and things. It had heart, manly thanks to Hailee Steinfeld’s terrific chemistry with her on-screen robotic friend Bumblebee. Here, however, Bumblebee is an adjacent character to Mirage, the latter of whom is reluctantly allied by Noah despite Prime’s misgivings, and the film never picks up that sense of inspiration or joy at discovering that Autobots live among us. Lacking this sense of awe means Rise of The Beasts is closer in tone to Bay’s last few franchise entries (although nowhere near as awful as The Last Knight), which isn’t a good thing. It feels too thin, too lacking in depth to offer much intellectual though to the franchise, instead content to merely blow up as much stuff as possible in getting to the incredibly cliched sky-laser conclusion. A conclusion that reminded me a lot of Dark Of The Moon and the arrival of Cybertron into Earth’s atmosphere, so even the nuance is lifted wholesale from elsewhere in the franchise. Rise Of The Beasts is simplistic, non-complex ridiculousness aimed at those lacking development in the frontal lobe, and the comatose. Redeeming factors include the CG and sound mix (which are both stellar), and hearing Peter Cullen as Prime once again. Otherwise, this is a garbled and absurdly over-hyped mess, where it feels like nothing matters because none of it is real.
Oh, and watch for the moment Hasbro try to set up a “Hasbroverse” with a hint of GI Joe at the end. I laughed like hell at that, only not in the way Paramount and Hasbro likely intended.