Transformers: The Last Knight marks the fifth entry into this cacophonic Michael Bay helmed film series. Those who embarked on the journeys of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Sam Witwicky (he of the Witwiccan lineage) in the first Transformers film hoping that executive producer Steven Spielberg might be able to curtail the hyperactive chaos that fuels the Bay oeuvre and add some of that trademark Amblin spirit, have long since disembarked. Many have asked after each entry, who exactly is this series for?
Well, for the increasing masses out there that have turned this series into a $3.8 billion worldwide success, it seems this series is for everyone. Now, it’s not kosher to bring up other reviews in your own review, but for a film series like Transformers, it’s seemingly impossible to mount the beast that it is without tackling the social derision that this cops from critics around the world. Fear not, this review isn’t going to be boiled down to ‘this isn’t for the critics, it’s for the real people of the world’. However, it’s undeniable that there is a great divide that separates the esteemed breed of people that is the film critic (the aristocratic group of snobs that those not within film twitter say ‘just don’t get it’), and the swathes of citizens of the world who simply want to see the tale of sentient robots told in all the epic IMAX level glory that they deserve.
After all, as The Last Knight details from the get go, these metallic behemoths have been part of human civilisation for thousands of years. They helped fight alongside knights within many battles – replete with a three headed dragon of course. The yellow Decepticon known as Bumblebee, naturally, fought nobly alongside allied soldiers in the battle to bring down Hitler’s army in World War II. (Spoiler alert: would you believe as well, that Hitler did not die at his own hand, but rather from a fairly nefarious looking fob watch Transformer? This is the history that Liberals want.) To try and surmise what exactly happens within The Last Knight is akin to scouring through a hyperactive male teenagers browser history and trying to make sense from the many incognito tabs he has been using.
Back to that critic VS regular human thing for a moment. The Transformers series has been one of critically diminishing returns. Sure, the first film has an almost fresh, still ok to use in a salad if you care bare it, rating of 57% on Rotten Tomatoes (the hallowed ground where those from the critics gene pool who are deemed worthy are able to sing their songs in a chorus of one sentence takedowns), but then it’s a steep drop to 19% for the second one (the one with the robot testicles, you remember, the one that was ‘compromised’ because of a writers strike), and tumbling further down from there to make an average of 29% across the board. Fractured sentences aside, the reason I bring these ratings up is not to pad out the review with tedious sentences (I’m not paid by the word, in fact – I’m not paid at all!), but to show that with an audience reaction average of 64%, maybe – just maybe – this film series is for the audiences out there.
I will gladly mention the fact that I’m a fan of these Transformers films. Yeah, I grew up watching the animated series, but I don’t have any kind of rose tinted nostalgia for the show. What draws me to Michael Bay’s films is the fact that no director working today is able to deliver the kind of spectacle that he manages to deliver every single time and be rewarded for it. The second and third films were the most incoherent and incomprehensible with their attempts to deliver globe trotting CGI action, but as the series has progressed into more outlandish realms (dinosaur robots will never get old), the action itself has become more legible. Now, I’m a huge fan of those ‘serious’ ‘about something’ films that general audiences avoid in droves – (I mean, did you even go and see Loving dammit?) – you know, the ones that you really should watch, but you’ll just google the plot later on and say that yeah, of course I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, that’s the one with Brad Pitt right?
But, as someone who loves those sorts of films, I’ve found myself gravitating to the Transformers series as my blockbuster, big budget, full to the brim with absolute nonsense, film series of choice. Unlike the superhero films that scroll eternally on the cinema screens, Michael Bay’s Transformers have no aspirations of being anything other than a fever dream consciousness of a google image search algorithm. They require very little audience interaction – instead requesting that you simply just sit there, shut up, eat your popcorn and consume images and noise for three hours before stumbling outside into the dark night wondering what you’ve just experienced.
Eight hundred words down in this review, and I haven’t really touched on what the heck is going on in Transformers: The Last Knight. As per my review of Transformers: Age of Extinction, there is a heavy dose of casual racism and sexism running through this series. After the Gladiator 2.0 opening (which has Stanley Tucci return to the series as an eternally drunk, magic-less Merlin who literally begs a Transformer to give him meaning and worth), we’re presented with a group of young kids going into a derelict region of what we can only assume is Chicago. Wannabe Shepherd Fairey posters labelling Optimus Prime as an ENEMY and an ALIEN are draped over the rundown buildings. One kid – of course, the fat one – wears a shirt saying ‘BASKETBALL IS MY GIRLFRIEND’. When the group are rescued by rugged girl Izabella (Isabela Moner), it becomes immediately clear that these characters (and quite possibly given their performances, the actors too) have never interacted with a member of the opposite sex before in their life, with one kid quipping that Izabella, after saving their lives ‘has a big heart. In your (her) chest.’
Fortunately, they’re out of the picture before you know it and it’s up to Izabella and the esteemed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) to do something. It’s not entirely clear what that something is, but needless to say, they’re very quickly out of rundown Chicago and in the middle of desert Texas – we can only assume it’s Texas given the field of destroyed cars that Cade lords over and how inconsequential the title cards are. Wahlberg has been in the press saying that he will likely not return to the sixth Transformers film because they gave him a bad haircut. Odds are, it is not the haircut that will discourage the co-star of the seven season long, hit food based TV series Wahlburgers from returning, but rather the empty character he portrays. I mean, it’s not as if this is a Peter Berg film or anything.
Fast forwarding through other ‘plot strands’, we become aware that Optimus Prime is off on a journey to discover himself, and in part, what has happened to his home land of Cybertron. He meets a robot Medusa-esque (shock horror, a first for the series where this female robot is given a voice!, as provided by Gemma Chan), and is quickly put under a spell to go conquer Earth, aka Unicron. This doesn’t make any sense at all, but come the inevitable third act reappearance of Optimus Prime, you at least know it’s going to make a lot of visual noise, so that’s a plus depending on how you feel about excessive CGI. The mere fact that Optimus Prime is in this film is pretty much a non-event, as he’s (fortunately) relegated to being mostly set dressing, allowing the rest of the Transformer cast to do their bit. (Don’t worry, he still gets to deliver his trademark line ‘I’ll kill you’.)
A quick rundown of the notable actors who were happy to just be on set to cash their paycheque will give you an idea of the level of aspirations Michael Bay has as a director – John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jerrod Carmichael, Mitch Pileggi, Stanley Tucci, Tony Hale, Ken Watanabe, John Goodman, and of course, Anthony Hopkins. We’ll get to Sir Anthony and his sidekick Cogman (Jim Carter) in a moment, but before that – is it just me or is Michael Bay the biggest closet Coen Brothers fan out there? Sure, he’s not imitated any of their work in his films, but he has sure employed pretty much every Coen Brothers regular in these films. Maybe he recognises that somewhere in the audience there will be some ‘indie film’ loving parents out there who will get a buzz from seeing Steve Buscemi the Transformer interact with John Goodman the Transformer (you can almost hear Jeff Bridges emphatically saying NO to his agent at the chance of a possible Big Lebowski reunion – albeit digitally).
Anyhow, I digress (shit, this thing is 1400 words already, isn’t it time to go home?). Sir Anthony Hopkins, he who has finessed the ability to chew scenery, is the MVP within Transformers: The Last Knight. He wraps the character inappropriate dialogue around his tongue with relish and literally chews the scenery every chance he gets. It will never get old hearing Hopkins say ‘bitchin’ or call Mark Wahlberg ‘dude’. Hopkins recognises the absurdity of the film he is in, and will be damned if anyone is going to take that enjoyment away from him. His Sir Edmund Burton is an Earl, a historian, and (according to Wikipedia) an astronomer. He lives in a mansion by the sea with his noble predominantly-android sometimes-car servant by his side. Full disclosure, I will be mighty upset if in the pool of standalone Transformers films that the ‘writers room’ has conjuring up, there isn’t a film focused solely on Cogman. If there is one reason to watch this film, it is for the pure comic relief of Cogman and his truly sociopathic tendencies. He is a maniacal aged creation who has served by the side of various different Earls throughout the years, and due to this, robot dementia is setting in. I will admit that I have only watched each entry of this series once, but I am certain that it’s Cogman that will get me rewatching this entry at least once.
Oh yeah, Transformers, according to the internal logic of this film, can get dementia? How very interesting. Another element that is visually interesting, but logically empty, is the appearance of ‘offspring’ from the Dinobot leader Grimlock. This T-Rex-esque creature is a fairly dim beast, only useful for being clumsy comic relief, but visually it is an exciting piece of technical glory to witness. In fact, the key aspect of Transformers: The Last Knight’s enjoyment level is the digital wonder on display. Look, I’m 32 years old and I’ve seen a bunch of films that have used CGI impressively, but in the instance of this particular Transformers film, I was truly amazed at the wizardry on display. As mentioned earlier, the action is notably streamlined compared to previous entries, up to the point that the action taking place on screen is mostly legible.
It would be remiss of me to not mention Michael Bay’s soft spot as an animal lover with his casting of Britain’s ‘loneliest dog’. Freya, a Staffordshire terrier who was pegged by the Mirror as being the loneliest dog in Britain after living in a shelter all of her six year old life. She also has epilepsy. Needless to say, I’m easily manipulated and swayed by a good, heart warming rescue dog story, so when Freya popped up on screening, I did almost have to wipe a tear away at how happy this pup looked walking next to Sir Anthony Hopkins on a set of a massive film, free from the restraints of her kennel life.
As it to be expected from a Michael Bay film, the token female character gets a short shrift in regards to being a fully fleshed out character. Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock) feels cut and pasted from previous films and given a British accent. She is a genius professor, who is also a doctor, and possibly even a librarian, she may also be an astronomer, but none of this matters because she’s single and that sucks for her family. Because, of course, what use is a woman without a boyfriend or a husband? Admittedly, the sexism here does create a fairly amusing scene where Viviane’s mother and her gin drinking pals peruse the classifieds in search of a partner for Viviane. ‘Oh this one has a dungeon, isn’t that nice. You like dungeons don’t you?’
Here’s the rub with the Transformers series – if the casual racism and sexism frustrates you (and it should on some level), then you’ll have a hard time enjoying this series. With that said, there is not just racism and sexism to contend with – there’s illogical, incoherent plots, there’s talented actors being asked to deliver lines that would make porn actors cringe, there’s bloated running times (come on Andrew, this is 1900 words long already, get to the point). There’s the fact that everything is bitchin’ and everyone is a bitch. There is a lot to ‘look past’ when approaching a film like Transformers.
So, let’s get introspective for a second – if you’ll entertain me that is. I can recognise the blaring sexism and racial issues (on more than one occasion the Japanese and French Transformers are told that they’re incomprehensible). I can recognise that this is not the crowning achievement of cinema that the pioneers over a hundred years ago thought it would be. But, for me, this is still a great time. To use the old cringeworthy line – this is turn off your brain material. It isn’t asking you to engage on any deep level at all. In fact, it feels like this has been dragged completely from the mindset of one of those teenage boys I mentioned earlier. This is fan fiction writ large. Wouldn’t it be cool if Transformers fought in World War II? Wouldn’t it be cool if there were Transformers who were knights? Wouldn’t it be cool if Earth was really a Transformer all along? And you know what, as Anthony Hopkins Sir Edmund Burton would say, it is pretty cool dude.
One could argue that because these films aren’t actually trying to achieve or say anything at all, that it’s hard to actually be offended by anything on display here. Heck, if Michael Bay and his clown car full of writers decided to shove a scene showing that instead of Jesus making the table that everyone sat at in that painting, it was in fact a Transformer – it would be hard to be offended. In the terms of revisionist history, this isn’t mindblowing at all – even if instead of Jesus pushing the rock away from his tomb, it was our old pal Optimus Prime and his cronies pulling it aside and showing that hey, religion doesn’t exist at all. (Where are you going with this Andrew? Wrap. It. Up.)
Yeah, so, Transformers: The Last Knight is a film that you will have already decided before reading this 2200 plus word review that you will not be seeing it. And if you were to see it just to fill your ‘hate watch’ quota, then at least there are some momentarily amusing sections within the film. Some have already call this entry the nadir of the series, while others are calling it quite possibly the pinnacle of absurdist blockbuster entertainment – but, there’s one thing for sure, if you’re not converted five films into this series, then this entry will not do anything to change your mind. The mere fact that this train of artistic mediocrity rolls on through the stations of life with great success, feels as if it’s finally answering that question that I said I wouldn’t answer, the one that plagues the film critics that litter the world – am I out of touch?
Hey, look, if you’ve read to the end of this behemoth of a review, thank you. If you are the sort of cinema goer who enjoys going to see films just to hate them, may I take this time to propose an idea that’s been bouncing around my mind for a bit. Instead of going to a film just to hate, how about consider donating to a worthy cause that could utilise that $15~ instead? On twitter, I’ve been throwing around the hashtag #DontHateDonate to promote this concept. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s something to consider. Odds are you’ll get a lot more joy from donating to a cause you care about rather than shitting on a film that you knew you were going to dislike anyhow.
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Sir Anthony Hopkins, Freya the Rescue Dog, Jim Carter
Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan (fun fact, at the end of the screening I went to an audience member said, ‘he’s the guy behind Westworld. That has better robots.’)