Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is big, dumb metal mayhem
You weren’t really expecting a masterpiece, were you?
For over a decade, one film franchise stood taller (literally) than everything around it: Transformers. Under the watchful eye of Michael Bay, stories of those once fun and child-friendly robots in disguise slowly morphed into exercises in excess and tedium. When Bay handed off the reigns after Dark of the Moon, we got Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, still the series’ high point.
Unfortunately, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts heads back to the realm of Bayhem.
Even with splashy redesigns, more coherent action sequences, and characters that feature actual personalities, Rise of the Beasts is middle-of-the-road entertainment. There’s barely enough good here to call it a step up from previous entries.
Set in 1994, New Yorkers Noah (Anthony Ramos) and Elena (Dominique Fishback) are thrust into a globe-trotting adventure when Elena, a museum intern, discovers a Transwarp key hidden inside an ancient statue. The relic has the power to transport its holder to any point in space and time.
Of course, that’s the kind of thing you don’t want falling into the wrong hands, like those of world-devouring Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo), who seeks the key and threatens to reduce the universe, and everyone in it, to rubble. When Elena touches the device, it sends out a beacon of light into the sky. This draws attention to the Transformers on Earth, as well as also Unicron’s cronies, led by the powerful Scourge (Peter Dinklage).
Noah’s path is less auspicious. He lives with his struggling mother and his brother (Dean Scott Vazquez) who’s fighting sickle cell anemia. Desperate for money, Noah helps a low-level criminal boost an expensive car for resale. Surprise, that car is actually Transformer Mirage (Pete Davidson), a jokester Autobot laying low. When Mirage is called in by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to investigate the beacon, Noah finds himself an unwilling participant in the fight for the Transwarp key.
In their effort to protect the key, our heroes wind up in Peru, where they run into the Maximals, Transformers of the animal variety based on the popular Beast Wars show, led by the gorilla-ish Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman). The Maximals know all about Unicron, having used the key to flee their home planet and stand alongside the Autobots to fight the incoming threat. Tactical magician Arcee (Liza Koshy), nature-loving Wheeljack (Cristo Fernandez), and eagle Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) also make for fun additions to the cast.
As much fun as it is seeing Transformers beat up other Transformers, it comes at the expense of a well-thought-out narrative. Part of that may have to do with five credited screenwriters compelled to fill dead air with quippy jokes rather than explain why someone should care about any of this. Director Steven Caple Jr. does the best with the material, but he’s fighting a losing battle from the start.
Oddly, Rise of the Beasts does spend a lot of time with the human characters, even if they aren’t developed. Fishback’s Elena proves the more interesting figure, with her historical intellect letting her do a bunch of archeological sleuthing. Sadly, she often takes a backseat to Ramos’ Noah. As a dude with a sick brother, he’s the de facto hero, but he’s written as kind of a dick. His backstory paints him as having a history of trouble with authority, but there’s little justification for it.
Noah’s stubbornness is only matched by Optimus Prime, who presents a different leader than most may expect. This Prime isn’t the savior of worlds but a commanding officer who wants to protect his own, humans be damned. The two characters’ pigheadedness is meant to facilitate a third-act team-up, but when it finally comes, it has all the excitement of eating a soggy waffle.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts lacks a real sense of identity and, as such, suffers from reboot-itis. It’s a movie where a lot of things happen for no real reason, resulting in a cacophony of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It all looks good, sure, but it certainly isn’t “more than meets the eye,” and that’s a shame.