If there’s ever a franchise that could be considered truly critic proof, Transformers, blamed for everything from the decline of cinema to the decline of western civilization, is it. Not only do negative reviews have little effect on ticket sales, these movies show little interest in addressing that criticism from one installment to the next. Transformers: The Last Knight, for better or worse, continues that trend.
I’d recap the story here, but it borders on nonsensical, even by Transformers standards. In short, we learn that Transformers have been aiding mankind since the days of King Arthur, and it’s only the secrets concealed within those robots of the distant past that can save Earth from a new interplanetary menace. In this case, that menace is the Transformers’ ruined homeworld itself, Cybertron, which is making its way toward Earth to replenish its depleted energy, and with a corrupted Optimus Prime as its herald of doom. It’ll take the combined might of the U.S. military, the world’s finest scientific minds, and a junkyard inventor (Mark Wahlberg, reprising his role from Age of Extinction), plus a handful of Autobot allies, to set things right.
Wahlberg is joined by Vivian Wembly (Laura Haddock), an Oxford professor who specializes in Arthurian lore, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, who holds the keys to secret Transformers history. If you were hoping that Sir Anthony might finally bring the franchise a human character with a hint of nuance, you’re going to be disappointed, as he spends his considerable screen time delivering absolutely bonkers exposition, alternating between deadly seriousness and a kind of genial, absent-minded mad scientist demeanor. Oh, and he has an Autobot butler named Cogman (voiced by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter no less!).
We’re also introduced to the plucky Izabella (Isabela Moner), an orphan who has “adopted” several Autobots and falls in with Cade and his team. Presumably we’ll see more of her in upcoming spinoffs. Some other flesh and blood folks are back, notably Josh Duhamel’s Colonel William Lenox, who provides the necessary military connection, and John Turturro’s Agent Simmons, who is here just to yell at people over the phone. See if you can spot Stanley Tucci, who isn’t playing who you think he is this time around.
The usual Transformers rules apply. Dialogue has two settings: exposition and banter. Action goes from loud to louder and comes with increasing frequency as the run time stretches on into infinity (to be fair, The Last Knight is about 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor, but somehow manages to feel even longer). Humans are either well meaning but dumb or reasonably competent but still pretty dumb.
What’s intensely frustrating is how you can see glimmers of what Michael Bay could do with this tremendous scope if he wasn’t so intent on following whatever blueprint these movies appear obligated to follow. There are moments, fleeting ones, where the sheer scale of things can be awe-inspiring, like when a giant alien ship is revealed underwater, or a rogue planet hurtles toward our own. The Transformers themselves have an impressive weight and realism to them that isn’t lost when they’re right up against the real world military vehicles and tech that are spotlighted at every opportunity. The problem, as usual, is that none of these moments are ever given time to breathe, and the audience is never given a moment’s peace to process them.
This isn’t the worst of the franchise (that “honor” still goes to 2009’s miserable Revenge of the Fallen), and the Wahlberg/Yeager era is less shrill than the Witwicky years. Even after five movies that try and prove me wrong at every opportunity, I still believe there’s a good Transformers movie waiting to be made. Pacific Rim was proof that you can invite giant mechs and monsters to the party, and still leave room for smarts. This year’s sadly DOA Power Rangers movie had considerable heart, and while it lacked the technical acumen of Michael Bay, it knew enough to slow down and make you care about its human cast in a way that no Transformers movie has ever managed to do.
If you must see Transformers: The Last Knight, it’s worth paying the extra few bucks to see it in IMAX. If you’re going for it, you may as well go all in and appreciate the technological showmanship. From the opening moments, which depict a suitably Michael Bay take on an Arthurian battle, The Last Knight takes full advantage of its format. For more traditional Transformers action, the Optimus Prime/Bumblebee slugfest glimpsed in the trailers is also something to behold, and would be a suitable climax in most other blockbusters. Of course, since this is a Transformers movie, it’s just an appetizer for at least two more increasingly frenetic battles, by which point, the most astounding thing is just how boring a movie with this much action can be.