It seems hard to believe that everything that could be coaxed out of a world-spanning story of giant alien robots battling for supremacy has been even across seven films, but here we are. The newest attempt to revive the Transformers franchise remixes and regurgitates a lot of the pieces from the previous films, attempting to remake them into something new and shiny, but it’s impossible to mistake the provenance.
Once again something shiny and alien falls from the sky with potentially world-destroying consequences. This time it is the transwarp key, a mythical artifact capable of allowing anyone holding it to traverse the universe in an instant.
The one who wants to hold it is Unicorn (Colman Domingo), a sentient, sinister planet that devours other worlds for sustenance and is apparently capable of any feat imaginable except moving across space under its own power.
It can, however, send other smaller robots across as large a distance as can be imagined – the Terrorcons, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage), will stop at nothing to find the key and bring Unicron to Earth.
Also, once again the space artifact crashes into the lives of a pair of strangers, awakening them to the unknown menace and the strange transforming robots that live on their planet as they are pulled into the conflict.
It seems strange, seven films into a series, to repeat so much of what has gone before or take so long to bring the titular characters into their own story in a method guaranteed to short-change them on time for any sort growth in favor of the new human characters, who need to be introduced and detailed. That may just be down to the practicality of how difficult it is to put these mostly computerized characters on screen and the need to prioritize the big action set pieces over slower character beats.
But it’s no coincidence that the further it goes, the more Transformers take center stage and the humans are pushed to the background. Despite a clear desire in every Transformers film to show the story from a human lens, when the chips are down everyone gives up on that and just focuses on the robots bashing each other, so why the pretense otherwise? Particularly when the attempts so far to jam the human characters into the final conflicts have all come off as silly or worse.
This could have been the time to take a genuinely new tack the way Bumblebee attempted to reduce scale and reframe the primary point of view. But Rise of the Beasts is not interested in trying something different beyond the surface level, no matter how indifferent audiences have become the saga of Autobots and Decepticons.
None of that puts it at the level of the Bay films, but that’s not a high bar to clear either. Almost everything from that version of the series has been dumped except for the only two characters to ever click, stalwart Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and brave warrior Bumblebee.
The replacements aren’t a notable improvement, mostly still existing as expensive scenery until set pieces or tie-ins are needed, particularly Pete Davidson‘s Mirage who is meant to be the charming and affable new Bumblebee but is none of those things.
New director Steven Caple, Jr. (Creed II) does not offer near the bombast of Bay (and who could?) and has a clear idea of some sort of character arc for his Optimus, but he is still left repeating much of the past despite 16 years of data on what people are and are not interested in from the series.
It suggests at least some of the problems of the Bay years stem from higher up the food chain and a vision of the series that hasn’t fully worked yet but maybe one day it will.
The desperation is definitely showing around the seams, particularly as the film begins pulling out Easter eggs and sacrificing characters (beloved and otherwise) in order to squeeze some sort of emotion out of the audience. The Bay versions of these films mostly settled for fear or awe at these engines of destruction leveling whole cities; now that’s not on the table anymore the filmmakers are at last trying to get something more developed out of it, but it may be too little, too late.
That may well end up being the epithet of the whole series. Rise of the Beasts is not a bad movie, it’s just a painfully ordinary one which is a very weird thing to say about the story of giant space robots. If the series is to Rise again, it’s going to need a wholesale re-thinking that so far no one has been brave enough to take on.
TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS REVIEW SCORE: 6 OUT OF 10
Paramount Pictures will release Transformers: Rise of the Beasts in theaters on June 9, 2023. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language.