In Review: Transformers – Rise of the Beasts

Review by Tim Robins


I never expected to spend my old age sitting in a cinema and watching a film called, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. I mean, I was too old even to get into the toys. But if it’s good enough for Mark Kermode, then I suppose it’s good enough for me, although I share Kermode’s queasiness at Transformers producer Michael Bay’s past fetishistic juxtaposition of women and cars; a case of Autobots meets “autobuff”.

Fortunately, the new movie is directed by Steven Caple Jr., with Bay taking a backseat as producer. This has made just enough difference to turn Transformers: Rise of the Beasts into a watchable and mostly engaging adventure that has no discussion of “Romeo and Juliet” laws to embarrass you in front of your kids, as Transformers: Age of Extinction did.

Let’s not forget that Hasbro has a hand in the Transformers and Beast Wars franchises, developed to sell toys to children watching Saturday morning cartoons – and the films continue this task by plugging not only the Autobots and Decepticons but the Dinobots and, here, the Maximals. Their money making potentials live on through the commodified memories of fandom.

At heart, the plot is a conflict between good and evil that is as simplistic as that of a Saturday morning cartoon. Good Autobots have been in hiding, awaiting a way back to their homeworld. Also hiding out on Earth are the Maximals – animalistic robots who are charged with hiding the Transwarp Key from the Evil-planet-sized Unicron and his minions.

In the middle of this conflict in waiting are Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), an undervalued intern at a museum, and Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), an ex-military geek whose attempts to fund treatment for his sickly younger brother reluctantly leads him to criminality, including ill-advisedly boosting a rather nice looking car. Could the car be…? It could! And, no, there aren’t any shots of Diaz bending over in hot pants to wash the car’s hood.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

The cast of human characters is more engaging than their predecessors, although I am aware there are Transformers fans who find the films’ human cast a side-show, and even an irritant. Fishback brings a feisty intelligence to her role that makes most of her actions (decoding things and interpreting artifacts) plausible, even if a CGI climax that sees her hanging above a pit of plasma stretches credibility. Ramos carries off the absurd aspects of his character arc that see him become part human, part Autobot, and all hero – yes, really. It’s not just that the characters are well acted, they are actually well conceived. Wallace’s archeological knowledge instigates the finding of the Transwarp Key, Diaz’s background in electronics and the military leads to him resolving his desire to pay for his son’s treatment – and offers him a para-military career in a future movie.

But we are here for the robots, I guess. The Autobots are okay, although attempts to give them distinct personalities sometimes just result in grand-standing and arm waving. Yes, I’m talking about “Mirage”, who reflects and plays off Diaz’s personality and never won me over as anything more than an irritant.

Autobot Acree (voiced by Liza Koshy) is a more interesting screen presence. She looks cool and gets to have an exciting car chase around the Andes. The entire sequence in Peru is redolent of a 1980s James Bond movie.

In contrast, Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage), his fellow Terrorcons, and Unicron’s Predacon drones make for routine villains. However, editing and fast movement sometimes make their actions hard to read and their generic villainy doesn’t engage much interest. The drones are particularly irritating, too fast to generate suspense or horror –an exception being an all too brief moment in which they stalk Wallace and Diaz in a museum.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts - Maximals

Fans of Beast Wars are unlikely to be satisfied by the brief appearances of beloved “Maximal” beasts, even if they do steal the scenes they are in. Optimus Primal has a number of King Kong moments and easily outshines his namesake Optimus Prime, who gets sulky about the whole team-up thing. Airazor is a tremendous on-screen presence as a gigantic cyber-eagle and swooping around the mountains gives us some wonderful Maximal eye views. The CGI rendering of fur and feathers is fantastic. I loved the pewter and brass colour tones of the beasts’ mechanical parts and the jointed movements of Optimus Primal are just fun to watch in action.

CGI still has some problems to address. Objects at a distance still look like miniatures. Regrettably, a Peruvian village seen from the air, just looks like a table top model with Transformer toys on it. I watched the film in 3D and felt like reaching into the screen and playing with them. Maybe that’s the point. Buy more stuff people!

Oh, and I watched the film in 3D by accident. The technology seems to have improved. There are artfully directed scenes, particularly with big foreground scenes seen from the interior of the cars, although there are also moments where yet again the city scenes in Brooklyn just look like dioramas.

Again, the script comes to the rescue with a plot that incorporates themes of friendship, loss, sacrifice and renewal. The film is set before Transformers (2007) and after Bumblebee (2018). There’s a clunky reference to events in that movie, but I still got caught up with the fate of “Bee”, as Optimus Prime calls him. There’s a surprising amount going on emotionally and in the film’s exploration of responsibility and duty. However, the final act really lays various motifs on with a trowel. If you can follow them all, you’ll end up emotionally exhausted. Less is more people, less is more!

There were two moments that gave me pause for further thought. One was a hamfisted conversation between Diaz and an Autobot who adopted a Spanish accent. There’s a garbled back and forth around whether the robot is a racist representation of Hispanic people (the film is decidedly ‘Meta’) that comes across as an itch to production felt needed to scratch but gave up and stuck a sticking plaster over the wound. It didn’t work, and only started a similar itch in my mind about the film’s incessant use of African-American music genres. The Autobots roll on wheels borrowed from Hip-Hop.

What’s going on here? Appropriating the work of Black artists to make your toys and the audience feel “urban”, “edgy” and “street”? Are Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (with their heroes coming straight out of Brooklyn) celebrations of diversity or just 21st Century’s answer to Blaxploitation movies? Time and critical commentary will tell.

The other pause for thought came with a jaw-dropping coda in which Diaz is offered money to pay for his brother’s medical treatment as a sweetener for joining a paramilitary organisation. Only in America would this seem like a “win”. I know this twist plays to the “just world” bias (good things happen to good people) that Hollywood and its audiences love. Never mind the Maximals, let’s rely on the philanthropy exemplified by YouTuber Mr Beast. But also, Americans, – transform your society with an NHS! And, British politicians, don’t sell off our NHS to GI Joe! Otherwise, enjoy!

Tim Robins

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is in UK cinemas now

The film will be released on Steelbook, Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital releases at a later date and some websites are already taking pre-orders including AmazonUK

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts – figures and other merchandise (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Transformers World: Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts Sequel Seemingly Green-lit?

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and director Steven Caple Jr. seemingly confirmed a greenlighted sequel for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.

Categories: Comics, Features, Film, Merchandise, Other Worlds, Reviews

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