For better or worse, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is Michael Bay-free — both literally and for its lack of a distinct authorial voice.
A sequel — more or less — to Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, it’s sorely absent of anything like that film’s nostalgia haze and the star power of Hailee Steinfeld. Steven Caple Jr. previously directed Creed II, and his philosophy here seems to be the same as it was for that lackluster sequel: do what the previous directors have done, but less. Less good, less bad, less interesting. Remixing plots from previous Transformers installments, including the 1986 animated film, it tones down Bay’s excesses without adding much of a new vision in its place.
What it gets most right is a fresh perspective. Previously, Transformers has centered on well-off suburban white teens getting their first car. Rise of the Beasts moves to New York City, where Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) takes the subway, and lives with his single mom taking care of a little brother with sickle-cell anemia. Plenty of Transformers fans in the ’80s grew up like this rather than in a big SoCal house, and their take is overdue.
This film’s set in 1994, with a soundtrack jam-packed with classic hip-hop. When Noah finds his first transforming car, it’s because he’s trying to steal it for money when every regular job he applies for falls through.
Somewhere in Time
Instead of shy Bumblebee, the car Noah finds is street-smart, hip-talking (for 1994) Mirage — voiced by Pete Davidson. Mirage proves to be more of a fan of humans than is his cranky superior, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who hasn’t yet come around to Earth’s population. With the lure of some much-need cash, Mirage persuades Noah to help out with a mission that calls for a bit more stealth than even robots in “disguise” can manage.
When evil Terrorcons crash the proceedings, a museum intern named Elena (Dominique Fishback) gets roped in. From there, the action relocates to Machu Picchu, where most of the movie takes place: away from the general population. This also somewhat explains how none of the robots made the news prior to 2007.
About that: Rise of the Beasts is still considered a prequel to the Bay movies. While a continuity mess in and of themselves, this film introduces a whole spate of new discrepancies. Never mind the constant ret-conning of how long Transformers have been on Earth; The Last Knight’s notion that planet-sized robot Unicron (Colman Domingo) IS Earth is impossible to reconcile when he’s the central threat here. There’s some cursory talk of his dimension existing in the future, so he could be an alternate timeline Earth… but that would mean he wants to eat himself from the past? Seems convoluted.
Rise of the Beasts introduces characters from Beast Wars, though it doesn’t even try to make their supposedly disguised forms look like real animals. Perhaps the notion of realistic zoo critters twisting inside out to reveal mechanical guts would have been just too Cronenberg for family audiences. Instead, we meet them as large cyborg animals (realistic fur, robot faces) on another world first, which they escape from in order to hide out in the Peruvian jungles on Earth. Their robo-beast forms don’t seem any less conspicuous than their “maximized” humanoid robot forms, but it sure is lucky they evolved resembling earth animals on their planet (which isn’t Cybertron, in this case).
The Terrorcons, who originally combined to form the monster Abominus in the cartoon, become conspicuously evil vehicles here. Leader Scourge (Peter Dinklage) becomes a big black truck covered in chains, like a Sith twist on Optimus’ truck form in the Bay films. In at least one nod to existing continuity, these prequels still observe the concept of Megatron held on ice over the decades, which keeps the iconic antagonist out of action.
Old Bay Seasoning
The script, from a whole host of writers polishing a story by Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), takes a couple of gentle digs at Michael Bay, with jokes about “Marky Mark” and whether or not a robot’s accent can be racist. But the jokes feel hollow when the film lacks Bay’s colorful bombast and zippy pacing. While Caple also tries to add heart and feeling to the robots a la Bumblebee, he lacks Travis Knight’s sense of wonder and point of view. As a director, he feels like a ringmaster doing not much more than assembling all the mandatory elements.
This he does, and he gets better vocal performances from the robots than Bay — Cullen aside. Davidson offers the right amount of humor without getting obnoxious, while Michelle Yeoh conveys authority and wisdom as Airazor, and Liza Koshy adds urgency as Arcee. As for gorilla-bot Optimus Primal, Ron Perlman does his best to out-Peter Cullen the real Peter Cullen, and comes close.
When Michael Bay came to Transformers, he brought his experience with large-scale explosion and a horny, sleazy sensibility. Travis Knight brought his experience as a stop-motion animator, bringing objects to life and infusing them with personality. Caple doesn’t bring much aside from the ability to copy a little from both. As fans have requested, he makes the robots more of the stars than the people, and he saps the movie of virtually any libido or casual cruelty. It’s a trade-off that does make the movie more appropriate for kids than usual, but less cool for date nights.
If you like any iteration of Transformers, it’s still a respectable mech fight spectacle. But even as the mechanical stars gain more personality, the eye behind the cameras appears to lack some confidence in his own.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens June 9th.