Transformers: The Last Knight
Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, and Laura Haddock
Four years ago, right around the time that Transformers: Age of Extinction was about to release into theaters, director Michael Bay himself was quoted in a USA Today interview that as saying that he would be walking away from the critic-loathed, fan-adored franchise for good. Bay has been one of those directors that you either love his work or hate every inch of action porn he regurgitates onto the big screen. Me, I’m an admirer of his work. His highlights? The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys II, The Island, Pain & Gain, 13 Hours. His smaller movies are more bombastic, more flair, just pomp and continuous flair to take advantage of his skills. His Transformers movies, now at number five since 2007, are in a class of their own, lacking substance and preferring style to connect varying action sequences together with a world-ending cataclysm that always gets resolved by the Autobots. Oh, and a Linkin Park song in the credits, that’s a must.
As he usually does, Bay wanted to do a smaller scale film to soothe his passions for filmmaking. Bay went off, lensed the spectacular but emotional 13 Hours (easily one of his most subversive personal tales that managed to factor out the politics and hone in on the personal story instead), and somehow still circled back to Transformers anyway. Like George Lucas, Michael bay just can’t seem to abandon his baby. So, with long-time screenwriter Ehren Kruger ousted following the incredibly tame Age of Extinction, Bay returned to make a fifth (and, as he says, final) tale of the Autobots rallying to halt the Decepticons.
But as I entered the theater, the seats around me filling up with a crowd of all ages, I had one sinking feeling still stuck in my mind. As I left work earlier in the afternoon, the nightmares of the movie critic elite washed over me. Over on Rotten Tomatoes (which now has the uncanny ability to sink new releases with the drop of loose change from a shaky hand) The Last Knight has a paltry 17% rating. Critics hate it. Then again, these are the same critics that I don’t align with. I never have and I never will. I know how to disconnect myself when watching a new movie, judging what is rolling on the screen without needing to be overly critical. The Transformers franchise is rife with installments that are best left to enjoy by leaving your brain in the car, loosening up and savoring the movie, then collecting your intelligence when you drive home.
So, were the critics of the likes of Rolling Stone, Screen Rant, and ReelViews right? Is the latest really that much of a stinker?
Listen up, and listen good. Transformers: The Last Knight is completely dumb, even stupefying at times. The editing is so frenetic that characters disappear but reappear, characters shifting positions from one scene to the next, but never losing focus on the mouth-dropping action pieces. The story is flimsy and thin, almost like loose leaf paper, so a titan like Sir Anthony Hopkins is entrusted to connect the dots for audiences. Hell, even the pacing, though light and brisk, is suspect at times, occasionally completely halting for a long overdrawn exposition but picking up at a moment’s notice for a runaway chase scene that is astounding to watch unfold.
Yet – by God – I loved the living hell out of this dumb, incoherent, sensational, boisterous orgy of explosion pornography.
This is no Dark Of The Moon (my most admired of the franchise) but, if you can switch off your brain circuits for 149 minutes, you’ll do just fine. Honestly. It’s not like much of this franchise is worth looking back and dissecting. The fact that, to make a Transformers movie a bit more rounded, Ehren Kruger was ousted is a testament to Paramount’s commitment to pushing the franchise forward. Kruger had been on-board since 2009, when he scripted Revenge of the Fallen (a sequel best left unmentioned in part to the horrific humor and jilted dialogue). Following the critical backlash of Age of Extinction, Paramount set up a writer’s room – and brought in Akiva Goldsman to map out the future. While Goldsman earns story credit, the script actually was written by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down), as well as the writing duo of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, Punisher: War Zone).
If there’s a story here, it beats the hell out of me. Optimus Prime whisks himself away to find Cybertron where, upon crash landing, he discovers the creator of his fallen world alive and well. Quintessa (Gemma Chan) wants to bring Cybertron back to its former glory – but to do that, she’ll need to haul the totaled Transformer homeworld across space to Earth. Meanwhile, humankind has had quite enough of both the Autobots and the Decepticons. With the world tossed into chaos, a new outfit code-named the TRF has been tasked to eliminate any Transformer remaining on Earth. Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, finally doing some work and not half asleep) has the Autobots stashed at a scrapyard in South Dakota as a fugitive from the law. Halfway across the world some British woman, err, Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock, oozing charm and competency) questions her life as a professor/archaeologist and if she’s meant to live a dull meaningless life. A rich British dude, I mean, Sir Edmund Burton (Sir Anthony Hopkins, letting loose to be boisterous) is aided by Cogman, his Transformer butler, to bring Yeager and Wembley together. Now toss in King Arthur, Merlin’s fabled staff, a feisty runaway named Izabella and her simple yet darling Autobot, and the runaway 12 Knights of Cybertron, and somewhere in there is the tie that binds.
Yeah, I know, somewhere there’s a plot inside all of that mess. Oh, I know it now. The basic gist is that Cade, Vivian, Izabella, and Sir Edmund must recover Merlin’s staff to stop the end of days. And though there are a slew of Transformers that pop up throughout the movie, there’s only one that really matters – Bumblebee. Sure, we do have a bevy of Autobots that make their return. Unlike previous installments, where Autobots are offed without investing one’s empathy and affection, we actually maintain a solid cast of good guys that aren’t just lowly chess pieces. Hound (John Goodman) and Drift (Ken Watanabe) alongside newcomers Hot Rod (Omar Sy) and Cogman (Jim Carter – who steals scenes away left and right from Wahlberg and Hopkins). Grimlock pops up, as well as Slug and various Mini-Dinobots are are just so damn adorable. I mean, a mini Grimlock trying to breath fire for the first time like a baby trying to giggle? C’mon already!
But this really is about Bumblebee and his maturation as a leader. Somehow, in this cluster bomb of a nonsensical story, Bee is still much at the forefront. Optimus Prime (the always steady Peter Cullen) is featured prominently in the marketing but his presence isn’t felt until the film’s last third, leaving Bumblebee and company to really shine as the group tries to function as a team in the absence of their wise sage. One could say that Bumblebee has always been the more prominent Autobot in all of the Transformers movies to date, but here is where we learn more about his history. And yes, he still can’t speak, five movies later and his blasted voice box still cannot function properly. Yeah, the movie quotes selected to represent Bumblebee’s exposition is excellent as always but getting a bit stale. I mean, how many times can Bee reply with a snarky comeback? But at least his development comes full circle finally, finally taking charge when the situation is nearly no-win and must call upon his more serious past to take command.
That’s right – Bumblebee actually does have a presence in Earth history, as well as other Autobots. You know, with the Transformers franchise, I try to not nitpick on the glaring plot holes, some of which have gotten black-hole sized in recent installments. But as I was musing with fellow Fan Fest writer Julia Valenti last night, those quibbles began to surface a bit more. As we learn in a way-too-short flashback, Bumblebee was actually involved in World War II as an icon to join the Allied effort. (I guess the sequence sets up the forthcoming Bumblebee prequel, so I’ll lay off that for now.) All this time, why haven’t we heard more about Quintessa before? If the Autobots have been around on Earth for centuries, then why has mankind seemingly forgotten all about their existence? Why hasn’t Megatron and his legion of Decepticons attempted to find Merlin’s staff sooner? And more importantly, if someone like Sam Witwicky was so important in the protection of the Autobots, why don’t we acknowledge his presence more?
Actually, I will give the writers one bit of credit on one of those nagging plot holes. They’ve managed to take the story of Sam Witwicky from the first trilogy and spin history in the franchise that actually makes his lineage of importance. See, Merlin’s family tree was the only bloodline that could fully control the staff, serving as a beacon in controlling the 12 Knights of Cybertron who long protected Earth from varying dark forces. That lineage derived from Merlin’s ancestry is Witwiccan – yes, Witwicky. The Witwiccan lineage is a line that has always been drawn to the Autobots to serve as their guardians and protectors. In hindsight, finally explaining the importance of someone like Sam Witwicky does make a lick of sense. (But if Vivian is the last Witwiccan alive – how exactly did Sam die off then?) We learn that some of history’s most famous names are part of that line, entrusted to guard the Autobots through history. On the flip side, there was always a destined “knight” meant to work alongside the Autobots in battle as well. (That’s right, don’t overthink the film’s title here – and, no, luckily we aren’t subjected to anyone saying one character is the “last knight” luckily.) This nugget of information does tie a lot of the previous events together, though some what sloppily, but still presents enough intrigue that I wish we would learn more of this history and how the Witwiccan line provided essential safekeeping throughout history.
Though, bringing in King Arthur is slightly silly, isn’t it? That all of this history began way back in 484 AD? I fully recognize that Michael Bay spent four years trying to develop a King Arthur movie, his work becoming the roots 2004’s King Arthur. So, the notion of magic is tossed out the window, actually ancient Transformer machinations that protected the world in times of desperation? Alright, I guess. So King Arthur was one of the knights that led the 12 Knights of Cybertron into battle and kept them as guardians? Fine. Merlin as a drunkard and whose magic came from technology but not magic? Eh. But the 12 Knights forming a three-headed dragon to rip armies asunder? I’m pretty sure Toho will scream lawsuit but damn if the mythological beast doesn’t look statuesque. There’s a bit of mythology building with the 12 Knights and why they’ve been selected to guard the film’s Macguffin, the staff, but that’s actually one nugget not worth spoiling.
Michael Bay may be nothing more than a mad architect who knows how to shoot riveting and dizzying action sequences. He may not be able to handle the slower parts of The Last Knight with caution and care, but damnit Bay knows how to weave breathtaking car chases and gripping shootouts. Not since the madness of 2003’s Bad Boys II has the director been at the top of his game, bodies tossed around like paper dolls at the boisterous explosions and an unknown amount of cars getting chucked to and fro like a child playing with Hot Wheels cars, camera angles twisting and turning to thrust audiences in the midst of the action. There’s one point where Sir Anthony Hopkins is trying to dodge MI6 and TRF forces through a spellbinding pursuit in London, Hopkins yelling out a window (which no one could ever hear) but the mayhem ensuing from the driving stunt work mesmerizing overindulgence of destruction, car bodies spinning out of control and barreling end to end down city blocks. Even the swarm of soldiers trying to shoot down various Transformers doesn’t feel like plastic army soldiers being finger-flicked aside easily. There’s one standout sequence towards the end that feels like Michael Bay pays homage to the Allies storming Normandy, friendlies pinned down in craters dodging enemy fire that emits a sense of dread and misery and throws in the midst of the action. Bay may never be a Best Director but my God, his ability to create chaos continues to wow.
Listen – these movies aren’t meant to tickle your emotions. They won’t make you cry, they won’t make you squirm, they won’t make you angry. They’re explosion-laden action romps that connect pulse-pounding carnage and pandemonium with paper-thin plots and cookie-cutter characters. They’re not going to wow the Academy, nor win any Oscars for their acting achievements, no no. This has been a franchise that, to its credit, has performed its role admirably and without fault. Yes, they make completely little sense and are just a two-hour-plus roller-coaster ride that gently allows you to depart when the ride’s over. Though the editing is a bit skittish and a cohesive story somewhat nonexistent, Transformers: The Last Knight knows what the job needed to be done. This summer dumb old summer fun, not meant to be taken seriously and meant to be enjoyed. I don’t know what critics want out of a popcorn movie anymore, nor do I want to attempt to rationalize why they can’t just enjoy a diversion from the normal. Bay’s film, while not his best, excels with the thrills, his ability to run wild with the camera, and the mass carnage he orchestrates. If this is where Bay leaves the franchise (with a sixth film set up during the credits – so don’t leave), then he has left the sandbox wide open to continue the adventures of the Autobots and their new home.
Reber’s Rating – B
Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel,
cult 80’s and 90’s television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and…holy overload. He’s still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a blue police box.