Transformers: Rise of the Beasts review – heavy going and exhausting
After showing signs of evolution, the Hasbro toys franchise regresses again in its seventh offering.
When director Michael Bay’s joylessly super-sized five-film run ended with the deadening Transformers: the Last Knight in 2017, director Travis Knight offered a charming course corrective with his sweetly nostalgic Bumblebee (2018).
In a seeming attempt to remedy the relative under-performance of ’Bee at the box office, director Steven Caple Jr (Creed II) attempts a rapprochement between his predecessors’ extremes, pairing winning cast work and soundtrack choices with action excesses and apocalyptic stakes.
But even the efforts of five screenwriters can’t prevent the balance from tilting towards Bay’s maximalism as the metal-on-metal aggro mounts.
The prehistoric prologue sets the heavy going tone, zeroing in on an ape Transformer with buzz-cut hair and another who resembles a falcon. Why extra-terrestrial robots would disguise themselves as thus is an issue the film does not pause to address, mercifully so given the payloads of exhausting exposition it already has ready to drop on us.
In a nutshell, the premise establishes Unicron (voice, Colman Domingo) as a planet-devouring tyrant whose evil robot army comprises the sadistic Scourge (voice, Peter Dinklage), the monstrous Terrorcons and the savage Predacons.
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For those taking notes, the heroes are the animal-like Maximals, whose number includes metal bird Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) and goofily named gorilla-’bot Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman).
Welcome relief arrives as the action moves to New York, 1994. Here, museum researcher Elena (Dominique Fishback) and out-of-work former soldier Noah (Anthony Ramos) cross paths when a mysterious artefact sends out a glowing signal that draws the clashing interests of the Terrorcons and the Autobots, the latter fronted by the stern-faced Optimus Prime (rumbling voice by Peter Cullen).
Ramos and Fishback do their best to add human elements to Rise. Impressive in The Hate U Give and Judas and the Black Messiah, the endearing Fishback manages to look plausibly scared during a decent set-piece involving Alien-style insectoid robots in a dark museum.
After strong showings in Hamilton and In the Heights, Ramos brings an easy warmth to his scenes with his ailing kid brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) and, later, with smart-ass Autobot spy Mirage (Pete Davidson). Set to a vigorous hip-hop soundtrack, this latter bond is the film’s best attempt to bridge the line between man and metal, and Rise might have benefited from more of it.
Instead, the film’s second half relocates to Peru, where the action builds towards an almighty ruckus that draws heavily on Avengers: Infinity War and tips the emphasis away from human interest altogether. When one of our human anchors undergoes a ‘transformation’, if you will, it’s as if the filmmakers are throwing their hands up in surrender to the rise of the machines.
Meanwhile, lofty speeches about sacrifice and working together to save the world seem entirely out of kilter with the silliness of robots disguised – best not to worry about why - as chugging Second World War cargo planes.
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When one missing-in-action Autobot elicits a laugh and a cheer for his quipping return, this rare hint of levity spotlights how strenuously self-important so much of the action here is. For all the ‘rising’ these beasts are supposed to be doing, raising laughs seems to be largely beyond their abilities.
As for the climax’s tease of a new Hasbro expanded universe on the rise, it is to be hoped the studio sees sense and punctures that idea. If filmmakers can’t engineer some kind of progression in this franchise, the best place for Hasbro’s toys is not on screen but in Bumblebee’s boot, ready for packing off to a second-hand sale somewhere.
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