Film Review: "Transformers: The Last Knight" serves us another heap of junkyard trash
Transformers: The Last Knight is the fifth instalment in this decade long series directed by Michael Bay.
The Transformers films are notable for ugly robot aliens pounding seven shades of metal out of one another for reasons that are never adequately explained; one or two genuine thespians humiliating themselves and loving it; abrasive, tone-deaf humour; and functioning as a safe space for brands to shill their shitty products (consider in the previous one that the camera lovingly lingered over some Bud Light beer. Or that the US military, despite being utterly superfluous in these movies, get all the sexy sun-soaked scenes). Also not to be forgotten is the blatant racism and misogyny; the illiterate gold-toothed robot in the second one, and one of the good guy robots shooting a literal alien vagina monster dead for being “too disturbing to live” and calling it a “bitch” in the fourth one.
When you have that combined with Michael Bay's unparalleled technical mastery – nobody produces sugary chaos cinema better than he – you get a strange mix of the finest thrills that Hollywood has to offer and the American excrement that very system invariably produces. And so it's hard to judge these movies in a conventional way because it ultimately matters little; they know it's bad for us. We know it's bad for us. We see them anyway. And all of us, including the creators, are the poorer for it. To go further down this rabbit hole of fucked-upness, the success of this series depends upon some perverse reverse-psychology; the freakier the freak show of the projected-upon-a-big screen nightmare of the male id, the more enticing it is. It's an absurd series of escalating dares. I'm not one to play armchair psychologist, but even if you innocently enjoy these movies, you can't tell me they aren't toxic brews of rage and insecurity. And so it can be said with the utmost seriousness that the Transformers series has a distinct cinematic voice: bullying, crass, and nonsensical though that voice may be.
But in Transformers: The Last Knight, the freak show has been toned down; there's precious little human bile forced down your throat this go around. Heck, there's even some attempts at respectability. Which is boring and nullifies the series' proudly nihilistic juvenile identity. It's a frat bro readying himself for his first post-graduate interview, thinking maybe if he doesn't shit himself this time (just for at least two hours), he'll be in for great financial reward for the foreseeable future. But when the frat bro isn't embarrassing himself in depraved ways, he's just not that interesting.
For instance, you've got two new female characters added here. There's the sassy orphan street urchin Isabella (Isabela Moner) and Oxford English professor Vivian Wembley (what the fuck kind of name is that) played by Laura Haddock. And, get this, the camera doesn't even ogle them that often. How's that for progress, eh motherfuckers? However, despite them possessing personality and pizzaz, the plot and editing treats them without kindness or even mercy. Isabella is given mostly nothing to do but posture and hang with her BB-8-like pet Transformer, and then she entirely disappears for a good 50 or so minutes. And Haddock, despite one of the 103 subplots insisting on her importance in averting the coming apocalypse, is mostly treated with ridicule and scorn. They're curiosities, these two, mostly in the sense that Bay appears to be visibly struggling with his traditional views on femininity. Views which are counter-productive to money-making when Wonder Woman is dominating and Star Wars rests on the power of its leading ladies.
To continue the nakedly capitalistic endeavour, Transformers 5 blatantly copies other successful blockbusters (Star Wars, Stranger Things, Marvel movies, Suicide Squad, and even one of its own goddamn movies, Transformers 3). Also, because people like Game of Thrones, there's some new Arthurian mythology tacked on to the increasingly convoluted and nonsense mythology of the Transformers. This not only allows for some sweet medieval battle imagery in the trailers (which, after all, is what it's all about) but is also somehow connected to the main threat: the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron hurtling towards Earth like a gigantic comet.
This was exactly the main jeopardy in part 3. But since when has Michael Bay given a shit about continuity or sense? His Transformers films are plotted with the rhythms and beats of a bored person channel-surfing, even when they're not relying on events from the previous outings. At least the metallic tendrils of the monstrous dead planet slowly engulfing Earth is a marvel of brain-dead spectacle and makes for a mighty fine action-packed finale that's different enough from the series' usual destruction of a major metropolitan city. It's almost worth the price of a ticket, really, if you didn't have to wade through so much other junkyard crap.
Let's not forget to note the return of Mark Wahlberg as a Texan-inventor-turned-outlaw who's harbouring the fugitive good guy Transformers, Cade Yaeger (what the fuck kind of name is that). He and the Oxford English lady are recruited by an English Lord (Anthony Hopkins) who's playing an exposition machine with mad, childish ecstasy. Anthony Hopkins is the picture of an old man without fucks here, cussing people out for no reason, calling Mark Wahlberg "Dude". I suppose his role within the plot is that he's part of an ancient order of people who have been harbouring Transformers throughout much of human history. I don't know, it's dumb and who cares. He also has a robot butler named Cogman, a ninja Transformer who's harbouring some homicidal tendencies and insists with a gentlemanly cadence that he's a sociopath not a psychopath. He is by some considerable distance the best character in the movie.
Subplot no. 67: The 'Murican go'vmunt is hunting all the Transformers now. Another thing that we've already seen in a previous movie. There's a bit in the middle where they recruit some evil Transformers to hunt the good Transformers for reasons that don't make a centimetre of sense. I think this happens around the middle of the movie, around hour 7, whereupon The Last Knight wears its Suicide Squad influence on its sleeve like a tribal tattoo. Imagine being influenced by Suicide Squad. Well, anyway, when the good Autobot Transformers engage in a street scrap with the evil Decepticon Transformers, it has all the stakes and import of a schoolyard fight I remember being in when I was 11 years old; “Dickheads!” taunts one of Autobots when the surviving Decepticons scurry away. Ah, epic.
Subplot no. 78: Optimus Prime, the noble leader of the Autobots, has been captured by a villainous god-like alien to be used as an instrument for her nefarious plans. He's not in the movie that much, despite being the protagonist and despite the fact that the boneheaded appeal of "Woah, Optimus Prime is evil now! Whaaaaa-" has been the crux of much of the marketing. His new lease on life as a bad guy lasts for all of five minutes and is resolved in such a way that doesn't make sense and contradicts its lore. It doesn't matter. After that bit of meaninglessness that sure does look sweet in a trailer, Prime makes some speech with that slowed down-for-storybook-reading-time cadence clearly meant for kids, and the lizard part of my nerd brain is lit up with that warm feeling I get when I see an uncomplicated good guy doing good guy things. Then I get a little sad when I think what could have been if someone who gave even half a piss about the Transformers was given the creative reigns.
I don't know. Is this comprehensible? I tried. That's more than you can say for the writers and Michael Bay.