Most of us are familiar with Michael Bay’s filmmaking style by now: the frantic editing, the camera that won’t keep still, the golden, perma-sunset lighting. It’s all about as subtle as an air-raid siren. With Transformers: The Last Knight, however, Bay’s brand of maximalist action blockbuster seems to have curdled into self-parody. His fifth film in the transforming alien robot franchise is so loud, obnoxious and confusing that is almost defies description. Nevertheless, dear reader, we must try.
Imagine it this way: you’ve had a long, tiring day at work, and you decide to go the pub for a relaxing beer – all the better to unwind and forget about the world for a couple of hours. But once inside, the whole establishment erupts into a dervish of violence: there’s glass and beer flying everywhere. Tables are turned over. Chairs are thrown. A man behind the bar screams at an unbearable volume. A dog tied to a barstool barks ceaselessly. The lights on the fruit machine are flashing. Unaccountably, there’s a bin on fire.
This is what watching the first 10 minutes of Transformers: The Last Knight is like.
The plot takes in Arthurian legend, an alternate history where robots fought Nazis in World War II, and Anthony Hopkins yelling in a submarine. An ancient staff, once held by the wizard Merlin – played in a flashback sequence by Stanley Tucci with a rubber nose and a dead fox on his shoulder – becomes the target of an evil robot witch from the planet Cybertron, who employs the erstwhile leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, to retrieve it. Once again, Earth’s in danger, and only Cade Yeager (an uncomfortable-looking Mark Wahlberg) can save us. Well, him and his growing band of friends, among them a 14-year-old tomboy, Izabella (Isabela Moner) and her robot sidekick, an upper-crust British academic named Viviane (Laura Haddock), Anthony Hopkins as a knighted historian, and the ever-present heroic Autobot, Bumblebee.
Beyond that, the film’s events are hardly worth summing up. Generic US soldier William Lennox (Josh Duhamel) is now part of a defence force charged with hunting down robots, but then they make a deal with evil Decepticon, Megatron, to help retrieve that mystical staff everyone else is after. There are baffling shifts of allegiance on the part of the robots. Most of the film is shot with close-ups or with handheld cameras, which in 3D IMAX creates a nausea-inducing kaleidoscope of eyes, fire, white teeth and flailing robot arms.
What’s curious about The Last Knight is that it was billed for a while as something of a soft reboot for the long-running series. Izabella and her rather charmless robot sidekick, Sqweeks were, we assumed, an attempt to address the puerile male gaze of Bay’s previous Transformers films. Instead, Izabella feels like a character thrown in at the recommendation of focus group research: hey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a plucky heroine and a robot friend, so why can’t a Transformers movie? And Game Of Thrones – that’s pretty popular. Why don’t we throw in some magic and fantasy into the mix while we’re at it?
It’s difficult to think of another film in recent memory where the director and writers have displayed such naked cynicism. Yes, the VFX and stunt coordination is all spectacular, as we’d expect from a film of this scale. But the storytellers overseeing all those expensive stunts and computer graphics couldn’t give a flying carrot about whether or not the plot makes sense or whether the audience suspends its disbelief.
One robot character is even described as a “C-3PO rip-off” – a gag which may inadvertently give away the level Bay’s working at here. And Izabella, and her pet robot, and the Arthurian mythology, and Viviane, who’s essentially Lara Croft out of Tomb Raider – they’re all garnish around the edges of what is essentially the same stuff Michael Bay’s been peddling in these Transformers films for the past decade. Robots punch, stab and shoot each other while growling dramatic-sounding yet meaningless phrases (“Traitor!”, “I am Optimus Prime!”), tonnes of churning, twisted metal falls from the sky, and yet more world monuments are sacrificed on Bay’s blazing CGI altar.
The human characters, such as they are, simply exist to give a sense of scale to the huge death machines. John Turturro literally phones in his performance while on holiday in Cuba. Anthony Hopkins is on hand to deliver lots of exposition. More than one famous Transformer simply vanishes without explanation or fanfare. Oh, and longtime fans of the original G1 animated movie and TV shows should probably look away in The Last Knight’s groan-inducing second half.
The world is always on the cusp of destruction in Michael Bay’s Transformers films, but The Last Knight appears to represent a worrying new epoch: after a while, the film’s familiar images begin to flow into one another until all that’s left is a teal and orange smear which jitters and dances meaninglessly. There are noises and words, but they devolve into a nonsensical roar, like an old television with a broken aerial. Gaze into Optimus Prime’s purple eyes, and you might just glimpse something profoundly terrifying: the summer blockbuster stretched past breaking point. Beyond it lies nothing: no emotion, no meaning – just a computer-generated void. The end, perhaps, of cinema itself.
Transformers: The Last Knight is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd June.