Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023)
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Screenwriters: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Peter Cullen, Pete Davidson, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh, Dean Scott Vazquez, Liza Koshy, Colman Domingo, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Luna Lauren Vélez, Tobe Nwigwe, Sarah Styles
In 1996, toy giant Hasbro launched ‘Beast Wars’, a reimagining/sequel to their long-running ‘Transformers’ franchise and one of the first fully CG-animated television shows. Rather than cars and jets, these robots in disguise converted into mammals, birds, insects and dinosaurs as they battled over resources on prehistoric earth. Now, the live-action Transformers film franchise takes influence from this series in its follow-up to the refreshingly dialled-back soft-reboot Bumblebee, and in the process forgets just about every lesson learned on that movie.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has a disappointingly generic plot that nonetheless is difficult to explain in just a few lines. We open in Brooklyn in 1994 where Noah (Anthony Ramos), an unemployed former military technician, struggles to support his family. A chance encounter with Autobot Mirage (Pete Davidson) leads the team of robot freedom fighters under Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to enlist Noah to steal an artefact from a museum where intern archaeologist Elena (Dominique Fishback) has discovered mysterious symbols pointing to a hidden temple in Peru. Also looking for the artefact which is actually one half of the powerful Transwarp Key are the evil Terracons commanded by Scourge (Peter Dinklage), who serve planet-eating dark god Unicron (Colman Domingo) and the Maximals, disguised as beasts and led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman). Before long, all interested parties converge in the South American jungle to decide the fate of Planet Earth again.
OK, so it’s not quite as bad as the worst of the five Michael Bay films, in that at least this is vaguely coherent on a visual level, but it still makes a lot of the same mistakes. There’s the first-base characterisation that makes it hard to care about anybody, human or robot, the nonsense plotting, and the muddy scene geography just to begin with.
Then there’s all the recycled plot devices from earlier in the franchise. In theory this one was going to be different because we haven’t seen the Maximals or Unicron in live-action before, but in practice it’s much of a muchness. From Dark of the Moon you have the alien technology that bridges a distant galaxy to Earth; from Revenge of the Fallen we get a heroic sacrifice walked back a few scenes later; from every single Bayformers movie there’s a new but interchangeable sci-fi Macguffin for everyone to globe-trot after.
In Bumblebee, there were five Transformer characters on Earth in total. They were each distinct, instantly recognisable, and a lot of fun to be around. In Rise of the Beasts there’s at least three times this number of named Transformers plus an endless horde of disposable robot minions, and it’s really difficult to distinguish who is who. ‘Beast Wars’ fans in particular will be disappointed how little time we get to appreciate the designs of the Maximal characters’ robot forms, as cool as their techno-organic beast modes admittedly look and as grin-inducing as it is to hear Optimus Primal roar “Maximals, Maximise!”. Steven Caple Jr., as shown with his work on Creed II, is a solid director of both action and more intimate domestic scenes, but seems to lose his way here amongst the slick but floaty CG chaos. Perhaps you need the mind of a stop-motion animator like Bumblebee’s Travis Knight (of LAIKA) to give these characters much-needed weight and tangibility.
It’s no surprise that the human protagonists aren’t that memorable despite the best efforts of two talented young actors – Ramos and Fishback have been better, and will be better in everything else they do – but more disappointingly the robots’ personalities (those lucky enough to be given one) get lost in all the noise as well. Pete Davidson probably fares the best as hyperactive wise-cracker Mirage, and Ron Perlman and Michelle Yeoh make a valiant attempt to add gravitas as Primal and Airazor, but but most of the rest of the Transformer teams are disposable and samey. Much like Hugo Weaving’s voicing of Megatron in the first three Transformers movies, there was little point in getting Peter Dinklage in to play baddie Scourge here, such is the digital distortion added in post to make him unrecognisable. Scourge’s formidability is at the mercy of the plot requirements as well; he’s nigh-on invulnerable and able to easily overpower Optimus until he isn’t any more because the story’s wrapping up.
Nothing really means anything here and there are no lasting consequences. What should be a big moment at the end of the first act has next-to-no impact because of how transparently obvious it is that it’ll be undone before the end of the film. Noah and Elena are potentially interesting blockbuster leads with the former needing to care for his kid brother with Sickle Cell Anaemia and the latter’s work superiors exploiting her talents and knowledge, but neither are given clear arcs, nor do they meaningfully change over the course of their adventure.
Transformers may have started out as a Saturday morning cartoon designed to sell toys to children, but that doesn’t mean that the search for a good movie that does justice to fans’ ideas of these beloved characters is beyond contemporary Hollywood. There are really compelling modern Transformers stories out there, from Bumblebee to a good number of episodes from the three seasons of ‘Beast Wars’, and even a recent example using the same combination of characters in Netflix’s ‘Transformers: War for Cybertron’ miniseries trilogy. Rise of the Beasts is not that. The odd pleasing action flourish to be found in the nonstop melee of the final act, and nostalgia for a beloved childhood property aside, this just isn’t any more than meets the eye.
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