Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

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I have a feeling this is a wasted column.  Let’s be honest; you’ve already made your mind up about this movie.  Most of you probably did so without even seeing it.  So, why should I bother?  Maybe there’s one person out there who actually cares what I think, regardless of their own opinion?  Probably not.  But I should go ahead and write it, just in case!

So, yes, here we are with Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth film in the franchise helmed by Michael Bay based on the Hasbro toy line from the eighties.  The films aren’t particularly well-regarded among film geeks but they have tended to play well with the masses and have made lots of money for Paramount.

(On an interesting side note, I just got back from Orlando, where I finally got the chance to check out the new Transformers ride at Universal Studios.  I love Universal Studios, but I was disappointed by this particular ride.  It used the exact same format and technology as the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at their neighboring Islands of Adventure park, with no apparent technological advances, even though the Spider-Man ride is well over a decade older than the Transformers ride.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is amazing, though, and the two accompanying rides are better – especially The Forbidden Journey.)

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The film is already massively underperforming in North America (I had a private showing, today), though it’s doing respectable business in the rest of the world.  That’s not altogether different from the last installment, Age of Extinction (the best film of the franchise), and speaks more to American sensibilities than anything else.  Americans will sit and binge-watch 120 episodes of a television show with a single bathroom break but balk at the idea of a fourth or fifth film in a franchise.  This film could be the legitimate greatest movie of all time and three-quarters of Americans would declare that it sucked and subject anyone who liked it to online bullying that would make Randy Marsh proud.  But, as I pointed out in this column, it’s not all about America, anymore.

Having said that, Transformers: The Last Knight is not the greatest movie of all-time.  The story, here, is that the Decepticons are hoping to use an ancient artifact located on (you guessed it) Earth in order to suck the life out of the planet and restore their home world of Cybertron.  Along the way, there is a much-publicized heel turn by Optimus Prime, hoping to inject a fresh little twist into the proceedings.

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It doesn’t help much.  Yes, narratively speaking, there is some new stuff going on in The Last Knight, but it unfolds at such a plodding pace and with such lifeless delivery that I actually once found myself thinking back to the Simpsons ride at Universal Studios.  The movie is, simply put, obnoxiously boring.  Exposition is necessary in all films, but it needs to be done in a way that is every bit as entertaining as the big action set pieces are.  Sometimes, the dialogue is even more interesting, such as in all three Iron Man films.  In The Last Knight, from a very large cast, only Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, and Isabela Moner exhibit any semblance of charisma.  Unfortunately, most of the information pertinent to the overarching narrative is delivered by all of the other characters, with those three simply reacting to those revelations.  And, regarding those other characters, their dialogue is uninspired and so are their performances.  It’s a deadly combination.  Even Anthony Hopkins lazily limps along throughout the movie, bringing ultimately nothing to the proceedings.  The lame, unfunny humor that permeated earlier series installments (other than Age of Extinction) makes a partial return, though it’s not as sophomoric nor as frequent as it once was, so I suppose that’s something.  I found myself just waiting for the big battle at the end, not even caring about why it was happening.

Even worse, once the big battle arrives, it’s almost as boring as the rest of the film.  With maybe one brief exception, there is nothing fresh or even remotely memorable to see.  On top of that, due to the lackluster writing and sleepy performances, there is virtually no personal connection to the battle, so there’s nothing in which to emotionally invest.  Admittedly, Optimus Prime is still great (so is Quintessa and their brief scenes on Cybertron are the highlight of the film), but he’s taken out of nearly the entire movie, scoring maybe twenty minutes of screen time out of the unnecessarily bloated 149 minutes.

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I stand by my claim that Age of Extinction is actually pretty good and jettisoned nearly everything that people had complained about regarding the series up to that point.  I had hoped that trend would continue, but – alas – it was not to be.  The Optimus Prime arc had some potential but it was largely ignored in favor of everything else that audiences don’t care about.  The series jumped from my favorite installment to now my least-favorite.  Take this information and do as you will with it.  But don’t forget that Wonder Woman is still showing, right down the hall.

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Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

#ThrowbackThursday – Transformers

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Original US release date: July 3, 2007
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $709,709,780

Perhaps the easiest, laziest armchair movie critique comes in the form of, “Michael Bay sucks!”  Never mind that most people who state this do so because that’s what they hear from others.  They can’t back it up with any real insight or intelligent criticism.  It’s just reactionary regurgitation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not necessarily standing up for Bay.  I’m just saying that people should be able to back their statements up with something other than personal preference before they make them.  I will say, however, that exaggeration is the way of the world, these days.  Like most filmmakers, there are things that Bay does well and things that he doesn’t.  And both are on full display in 2007’s Transformers.

This film was the first-ever live-action adaptation of the popular 1980s property.  Back then, the Transformers could be found in a very successful animated series as well as a hugely profitable toy line.  In the decades since, they have remained in the public consciousness well enough to live on consistently in both forms, though they have never reached that same level of adoration that existed around the time of their creation.  (I was never that into Transformers.  I was a Marvel and Masters of the Universe kid.)

Nonetheless, Paramount saw an untapped goldmine in the property and they weren’t wrong.  This initial film in the now long-standing series made a significant profit and only led to films that were even more successful than this one.  It’s hard to argue with success, folks.  But let’s take a look back at the film, anyway, shall we?

Starring Shia LeBeouf as Sam Witwicky and Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes, Transformers is essentially a boy-meets-girl-meet-giant-shapeshifting-robot story.  That old yarn.  To be straight with you, the story only gets in the way of the movie.  When the film was announced and the human cast started to be revealed, I remember wondering if a human cast was even desirable.  It seemed like an unwanted attempt to ground the picture and give the audience an anchor to latch onto.  But that effort fails because most of the characters in the film are written more like cartoons than the Transformers, themselves.

The only cast members who give down-to-earth, believable performances are Fox, Rachael Taylor, Josh Duhamel, and Jon Voight.  But Fox is given nothing interesting to say or do and Taylor, Duhamel, and Voight are used sparingly.  Really, only Taylor gives a performance that makes me actually want to listen to what she’s saying.  Outside of those four, everyone else is silly and over-the-top.  Virtually every attempt at humor falls completely flat and nothing feels genuine.  If the characters don’t feel real, neither will their peril.  And just when it seems like it’s as bad as it can get, John Turturro shows up as Agent Simmons.  His performance is the worst in the film as is his goofy, off-putting character.

That leads me to another weak point: the dialogue.  It’s muted, boring, and uninteresting.  In that sense, it’s a perfect fit for the boring and uninteresting story.  I really do think it would have been better to just set the film on the Transformers’ home world and not have a single human in the whole thing.  It takes a full hour of set-up before the Transformers arrive in full force and, even then, the ball doesn’t really get rolling for another hour.  In the meantime, it’s more drab dialogue and unfunny “humor”.

The only thing Transformers has going for it is eye candy.  And that can mean different things.  Whether that refers to the action, the effects, Fox, Duhamel, or the cinematography, the film absolutely looks great.  And every dollar it made was due to those visuals and the fondness for the property.  The film gets big and loud and exciting (I guess) towards the end, which is what people wanted from it.  I didn’t find the action to be particularly well-staged, myself.  It’s too fast and often the actual points of contact are obscured from view, making it even harder to determine what just happened.

Many of the Transformers, themselves, are hard to tell apart and in most cases, it’s downright impossible to remember which are Autobots and which are Decepticons without being a longtime fan who already knows all of that.  Robots are just shoved at the audience and their names are tossed out haphazardly with very few follow-up moments for them as individuals to help make them memorable before the big final battle.  So, the climax is just a giant mashup of robots and the casual viewer will simply sit and wait to see who’s left standing and then they’ll know that those are the good guys.

Transformers would have truly been better without the ham-handed attempt at a “story”.  There are no figures harder for audiences to identify with than the government and the military so, of course, they make up the majority of the cast.  And most of the rest of the cast are nonsensical buffoons, leaving almost no one for the audience to cling to.  I know I recently lambasted Suicide Squad for having no story but the difference is that Suicide Squad has genuinely interesting characters who need something equally interesting to do.  That’s not the case with Transformers.  So, why not drop all pretenses, cut out all human, cut the run time by an hour and just give us a 90-minute robot battle, if this is the best story that can be come up with?  Action is all audiences wanted to see, anyway.

So, while I’m not a fan of making broad generalizations about the talents of directors like Michael Bay, he lives down to that reputation with Transformers.  Outside of all of the pretty people and lights, there’s nothing to enjoy, here.  Those things were enough to get audiences to turn out in droves (though if the movie was truly good, it would have made even more money) and get many sequels made, with more to come.  Some of those were better than this one, thankfully, but the franchise got off to a rough start, for sure, and only survived due to the popularity of the franchise and people’s curiosity to see it in live-action for the first time.  With the inaugural film in the series, there isn’t anything more to it than what meets the eye.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Transformers