Long gone are the days of Michael Bay’s billion-dollar Transformers movies. As a die-hard fan of Transformers since I was a kid, those awful but strangely popular movies tortured my soul. That was corrected with 2018’s delightful soft reboot Bumblebee, which leaned hard on nostalgia and an all-ages spirit to make Transformers fun again. Unfortunately, the result was critical acclaim and only modest box office. But it was a step in the right direction. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts capitalizes on some of what its predecessor did well, while falling back into old bad habits that drive it offcourse.
The plot is basic Transformers stuff, and is kept relatively simple compared to the weirdly convoluted Bay stuff. We’re introduced to the planet-eater, Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo), a Galactus-level beingf who has his sights set on the home of the Maximals, robots that transform into jungle animals. When their leader Apelinq sacrifices himself against Unicron’s powerful minion Scourge (Peter Dinklage), the rest of the Maximals, now led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), flee to Earth where they hide out for thousands of years, keeping secret a powerful weapon that Unicron seeks.
A strength of the post-Bay era has been the human leads. Gone are the bland male figures played by Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg, replaced by characters who represent a different swath of the country. And so we are introduced to Brooklynites Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), an ex-Army dude with a sick little bro and an overworked mom (Luna Lauren Velez, having a great month after Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse); and brainy museum artifact researcher Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), who meet-cute with the Autobots just in time to help them and the Maximals battle Unicron’s forces. Both characters are easily likeable, resourceful, and bring street smarts to the table where the Autobots have none.
As an old school Transformers geek, it’s been a joy to see this franchise properly represent the characters that I love. Of course, Optimus Prime (voiced by longtime voice-god Peter Cullen) brings his booming authority as their leader, but he’s never been the cool one of the team. Bumblebee is back, with more movie quotes than ever albeit in a reduced role. Arcee (Liza Koshy), a pink female Autobot who transforms into a Ducati motorcycle, retains much of her charm from the classic animated Transformers the Movie where she became a hit with fans. The breakout character this time around is Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson and apparently written by Pete Davidson based on his pesky, erratic demeanor and borderline edgy humor. I suspect that, like Davidson himself, Mirage will be either hilarious or aggravating depending on your mileage with the actor.
Set in 1994, director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II, and underrated drama The Land) is able to cover up the pedestrian story with a bevy of killer hip-hop beats from the era, giving the film a swagger and attitude that had been missing. But there’s not much else that truly stands out about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. The fight scenes are a damn sight more watchable than the city-smashing mess of Bay’s movies, but they are just as meaningless and forgettable. Another familiar problem is that the villainous Terrorcons have little to no personality, and just sort of blend into the background. It goes without saying that the script is atrocious at times, sounding robotic even by Transformers standards. The humans aren’t supposed to sound like A.I., are they?
While Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a mediocre entry that is never “more than meets the eye”, this fan still has hope for the future. The introduction of Unicron and continued talk of returning to the Autobot homeworld of Cybertron is all table-setting for what could be an amazing sequel. Ramos and Fishback are the best leads this franchise has had, and if only they could find a way to get Bumblebee‘s Hailee Steinfeld into the mix. Finally, the film ends on one Hell of a tease that got the crowd at our screening into a fanboy frenzy. And it had me buzzing, too, even if I think it sets an impossibly high bar to reach.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on June 9th.