Can I go on record saying that the sequel title prefix “Rise of…” has got to go? Thank you. That said… well, here’s another Transformers movie. Sixteen years after the franchise started with Michael Bay’s big-boom destructo-fest, somehow, we’re still riveted by the notion of machines making that memorable sound while rearranging their parts into anthropomorphic shapes and getting into huge battles that cause massive ruin wherever these things go.
One hopes that after the massively excellent BumbleBee that subsequent Transformers films would follow with the same engaging, personable joie de vivre. To be honest, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts gets about halfway there – maybe even three-quarters of the way. It’s still head and shoulders above even the Michael Bay-helmed series originator and sequels, as it does exactly what it wants to do and gives the audience reasons to cheer, but doesn’t have a whole lot of anything original to say or show.
The human characters are easily identifiable, set-‘em-up-quick, by-the-numbers people who we can easily get behind. One is a post-Gulf War (oh, yeah – this movie takes place in 1994) military veteran who can’t find a job to keep his sickly brother in good health; the other is a lowly research assistant whose superior takes credit for everything she does. Easy and recognizable, there’s not a lot of brainpower needed to get along with the likes of them.
Even though Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback are fun to watch, their characters are built for the sole purpose of speeding us along into where the majority of this film’s budget lies: loud demolition scenes between the Autobots and Terrorcons. Oh, and to insert some kind of human element to keep the tether between the audience and the movie. Noah (Ramos) and Elena (Fishback) are likable people caught up in a war against extinction, with very few of the good guys remaining to stave off Armageddon.
I mean, seriously – that’s all you get for the human side of things: rapidly explained, canned characters fleshed out as best as possible by capable actors. Screenwriters Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, and Jon Hoeber don’t give us a lot of time to sit with them before thrusting them into this battle; more time is spent listening to someone talk about the history and possible future of
this movie’s MacGuffin the Transwarp Key, hidden on Earth by the Maximals, whose planet was annihilated by machine god Unicron (Colman Domingo).
The Maximals… picture, if you will, an animal race with Transformer bodies, armor, and weapons. Noble and terrific creatures, they’ve remained hidden until Elena discovers half of the Transwarp Key at the same time Noah – at the encouragement of his new pal, Mirage (Pete Davidson, who’s having the time of his life in this voice role) – tries to steal it. With Elena’s historical knowledge and Noah’s gift with electronics, the Autobots stand a chance at recovering the key and going home to Cybertron, but there’s a slight wrinkle in their plans as the Terrorcons have come to Earth to reclaim the Transwarp Key for Unicron.
Did they think we wouldn’t notice that it sounds… a little like the first movie and the search for the AllSpark? Transformers: Rise of the Beasts grants us a few new human characters to throw into the mix (personally, I’m waiting for all of these timelines to come together, Fast & Furious-style) and some relatively unique new robots to look at, but nothing else. And although rather fun and admittedly awe-inducing, the film’s twist ending kinda heaves its surprise on us, a promise of more… unoriginality.
So why even bother? Honestly, it’s the human element that rises above the film’s want for spectacle. Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback are delightful as the fish out of water hurled into events way beyond their ken and pay grade, elevating their scripted characters into enjoyable avatars who guide us through all the huge explosions and battle set pieces. Ultimately, however, they feel like objects director Steven Caple, Jr. has inserted just to keep us locked in for the ride – nothing more.
While still far more enjoyable than the five “Bayformers,” Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is still a step or two below BumbleBee on the scale. It hooks us enough to make us buy in, but we don’t get a lot of return on investment. We probably break even, considering the constant action and how much work Ramos and Fishback do to keep us in the game. Compared to the other films in the Transformers pantheon, I’d still chalk it up in the “win” column, but barely. Caple, Jr. gives us enough to believe in the film, yet doesn’t go the extra length to give us more depth and make it memorable.