The Transformers movies have a lot of explaining to do about their timeline. It was previously understood, in the 2007 original, that what we were seeing was Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) & friends’ introduction to planet earth. But oh, could that not be further from the truth, as later sequels would reveal the Autobots were here for the moon landing. They were here for Medieval Times. For Dinosaurs. Possibly for Moses and Joan of Arc. If the Bayformers had kept going, maybe we would have seen Optimus warning against eating the forbidden fruit.
The Autobots’ latest adventure brings them to the 90s, mostly because these movies haven’t touched that decade yet, and likely because it’s a nostalgic period for director Steven Caple Jr. You know it’s the 90s right away, as over the course of a roughly 60 second span, we’re inudiated with The Notorious BIG, Tupac, The Wu Tang Clan, Power Rangers, & Michael Jordan. Humanizing this tale are Elena (Dominique Fishback) & Noah (Anthony Ramos), the latter of which is a tech wiz whose career ascent is hampered by limiting opportunities, as well as the stress associated with his younger brother’s, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), sickle cell affliction. Elena is an archeologist expert whose path eventually crosses with Noah as they get entangled in the Autobots’ mission to return to their home of Cybertron.
If it sounds like this plot could have been written on a napkin, that’s not far off from the actual experience. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a film, to its credit, that retreats from the sophomoric crudeness of the Bay films, but settles in to something that resembles a Saturday morning cartoon. There are good Saturday morning cartoons. I wouldn’t say this was one of them. The movie is best visualized as a coin where the pros and cons occupy opposing sides. Let’s be nice, to start, and focus on the positives. Beasts, along with Bumblebee (2018), fixes the franchise’s inability to showcase these CGI slugfests in a visually coherent manner. I was stunned, for example, to see two robots fighting, and actually tell the two of them apart. I could even decipher which robot was winning, imagine that! Caple Jr just seems more dedicated than his Mountain-Dew-fueled-predecessor towards crafting empathetic shots for the Autobots, in which we can capture actual emotions on their faces in the heat of battle. A memorable such moment occurs when Arcee (Liza Koshy) sees both her life and a missile flash before her eyes.
Optimus Primal (Ron Pearlman) carries a subplot involving the survival of the Maximals species, jumpstarted by an interesting opening that showcases what honor and dignity looks like on a Transformer in the face of death. The movie’s improved framing helps to personify the Transformers, bringing them closer to flesh & blood characters than soulless excuses for an action scene. Optimus Prime is often a grouch in this movie, accompanied with some rough dialogue, it was not easy for my man Peter Cullen (“The Transwarp exists and it’s right here in front of us!!”). But there’s a moment where the poor tired bastard sits down for a moment to take a break from the whole saving his entire race thing, which is precisely the moment Elena tells Noah that he and Optimus are exactly alike (LOL!), and you actually feel sorry for the guy. We understand why Optimus is so stern, wouldn’t you if everything was on the line? His gruff demeanor is balanced out by the always delightful Bumblebee, and Mirage (Pete Davidson) – who teeters on the scale of “annoying” and “scene-stealer” at seemingly all moments.
Often, Rise of the Beasts succeeds in reminding the audience why these giant robots are such lovable characters. Where the movie falters is its story – or rather, its human characters. Fishback (Swarm, Judas and the Black Messiah) has some of her charm and persistence shine through here, but there just isn’t much material or depth to her character. Noah is similarly underwritten, but I also assert that Anthony Ramos just doesn’t have the charisma to carry a film of this size, especially when so much of the job involves having a believable conversation with a green screen. Meanwhile, the subplot involving Kris’ sickle cell illness feels very manipulative. To be fair, seeing the disease depicted on screen, in all its messy truth, makes you wonder… er, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t give a damn about this damn kid. Does anyone really think (in a movie this silly and buffoonish) that they’re going to MURDER the little boy? It would help if I felt like I knew Kris, but the nothing burger of a script doesn’t develop the child behind the sickness, so he comes off as a generic Tiny Tim.
That’s much of the issue across the board – the story is so preoccupied with putting social hurdles in front of our protagonists, that the movie forgets to bring us the joy of these individuals in their brief moments of bliss. What writers get wrong about the infamous disease trope (often used as an Oscar-bait tactic) is that it’s NOT the illness that ingratiates us to the character, it’s that the individual still embodies and showcases so much of what makes them enjoyable and unique in the face of those struggles.
But Rise of the Beasts doesn’t afford any time for Noah and Kris to just be brothers, rewarding them with a few moments to forget about the sickle cell or the mounting bills. The movie doesn’t tell us much of anything about Elena, other than she likes archeology, and I would have loved to get to know that character. The only time the characters are having anything resembling a good time is when their with the Autobots, like in a great scene when Noah has his first impromptu joyride with Mirage. That’s likely a deliberate choice, showing the contrast with how the characters’ everyday lives feel like a losing battle. But I would counter and say if you’re trying to add some grit, struggle, and toughness to these characters, that we should also see them persevere in ways that make them heroes even the Autobots would admire. Instead, you’re just meant to feel sorry for the human characters for most of the runtime, as the movie repeatedly kicks everyone in the nuts. I half expected a ninja to crash through the window, hit Tiny Timmy in the knee with a nunchaku, and spit in his eye.
Tonally, the film borrows from Guardians of the Galaxy and James Gunn’s thematic device of using well-known songs to dictate the mood of the scene as well as the characters. What the filmmakers seemingly missed in Guardians, is there’s a dedicated reason for why the characters drown themselves in the airwaves of sonic tunes. Here, there is no character development – it’s just song references for the sake of it. To the film’s credit, Bumblebee is the centerpiece of one of the most spectacular action showcases of the year, set to some LL Cool J. But by the time we get to Elena singing TLC’s Waterfalls, unprompted and without explanation, I wanted to say: We get it! It’s the 90s! Are you ever going to show why these characters have a connection to these songs?
I will say that this film, along with Bumblebee, continues to be an improvement on Michael Bay’s sequels. But that’s such a low bar and should really be in the rear view mirror. Interestingly enough, the ending of this movie does tease a potential remedy for the franchise’s checkered history with their human characters (or aforementioned tease could end in an unmitigated disaster). In the meantime, these movies need to aspire for more than just shallow characters and overused cliches. Trust us, no one’s going to overshadow Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, it’s not going to happen. So don’t be afraid to let your humans shine sometimes without mandatory CGI assistance.