REVIEW – Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023)

A fun, enjoyable, and visually thrilling experience, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts really only achieves any of this by doing the bare minimum and is the perfect movie equivalent of “empty calories”.

For all the complaining people do about Marvel movies and “superhero fatigue” (which isn’t a real thing, by the way), I am actually exhausted by the Transformers movies despite there being far fewer of them over the same period of time. And I still resent Bumblebee for being as good as it was because it took so long to get here after a decade of Michael Bay’s toxic nonsense. People defend his Transformers movies as being dumb, silly, fun when in reality Rise of the Beasts is the perfect embodiment of that sentiment. As always with the food metaphors, this is the fast food, the empty calories you consume for a bit of fun or as a treat to yourself as opposed to what Bay did, which was like biting into a hamburger and discovering broken glass. Those films had both convoluted-yet-paper-thin plots with messy and incoherent action scenes, ugly robot designs, not a single likeable character to root for, and a toxic message of “don’t play with those toys, play with these toys” highlighting how the curves of a car are like the curves of a woman.

So yeah, I have some baggage when it comes to being a general fan of Transformers.

Having said that, Rise of the Beasts is actually rather enjoyable and fun in that “empty calories” manner I mentioned before. However, it’s just a little frustrating in how it’s enjoyable in that bare minimum way in that you can see what it’s trying to attempt with every idea it presents but it only just gets to the line and calls it a day. It’s just fun enough, it’s just enjoyable enough, it’s just spectacular enough, the characters are just likeable enough, and the action is coherent enough. It’s learned positive lessons from the refreshingly good Bumblebee movie as well as retained a couple of bad habits from its predecessors.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with paper-thin plots as long as you make us care and engaged with everything else. I won’t spoil anything beyond what has already been seen in the trailers but as always there’s a “McGuffin”, the Transwarp Key, that our heroes have to seek out and get a hold of before the bad guys (the Terrorcons) do or else they bring the planet-eating Unicron to Earth. In the process, the Autobots (who are still sort of hiding on Earth) discover this Key as their way back home to Cybertron and discover that another group of cybernetic refugees have also been hiding on Earth, the Maximals. They all team up to stop the Terrorcons and shut down the inevitable “portal in the sky” to save the planet.

It’s a surprisingly straightforward premise that doesn’t tax the brain too much, with a few surprises along the journey. Although there are moments and references that raises a few questions, elements that are lore-based and probably only thrown in for the fans of Beast Wars, it ultimately doesn’t require a whiteboard to follow or stretch the incredulity beyond “alien robots”.

One of the major lessons this film learned from Bumblebee is the need to create likable characters that we should care about so we can care what happens to them. Your mileage may vary in how successful it is here or how heavy-handed the attempts at such characterisations are but I can at least appreciate the effort was genuine and sincere. Our two human leads are given just enough backstory to situate them and make us empathise with them, and the new hero Transformers, whether they be Autobots or Maximals, are given just enough to flesh them out too.

Anthony Ramos anchors the film rather well as Noah Diaz, who’s former military and struggling to support his mother and sick little brother in Brooklyn. Ramos does well with the material he’s been given and it all works just enough to build up his character arc throughout this story. Similar with Dominique Fishback as the overlooked museum intern, Elena Wallace. She too is given just enough to make you empathise with her situation and she’s convincing enough to solve all the ancient archaeological puzzles they encounter.

Mirage feels like an amalgamation of other Autobots such as Blaster in regards to personality and Pete Davidson does well as the main robot focus of this movie. He balances the cheeky humour with the emotional depth, with great buddy interactions with Noah and never getting too obnoxious or outstay his welcome. And for all the calls for the original voice actor, Garry Chalk, to reprise the role Ron Perlman does an excellent job as Optimus Primal providing a gravitas that helps to shortcut a lot of development that is missing due to screen time.

There is a nice balance between the humans and the main robots and while the Autobots get just enough to establish their respective characters, the rest of the Maximals are short-changed in that regard. Even though Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) has maybe the most screen time and development out of all of them, she’s not been given anything for the audience to really latch onto. And Cheetor and Rhinox are merely superfluous extra bots to pad out the numbers in the final climax. Even worse, the Terrorcons are very two-dimensional bad guys with very little going on… other than they are the bad guys. Peter Dinklage sounds great as Scourge but other than that I don’t think the character offers much on paper. And again, it’s more of a script thing but Unicron (voiced by Coleman Domingo) doesn’t feel particularly threatening despite being a planet-devouring harbinger of doom. The performances are there but the material they are working with isn’t.

One of the bad habits this film slips back into is making Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) so blood-thirsty again. The hopeful and optimistic, and even capable, leader is reduced to being a pure fighting machine. The movie kind of knows this too because it specifically has a line that has to highlight the similarities between characters and how Prime is just looking out for his “family” too.

While not every visual effect is perfect, much of it is and looks spectacular. Unlike past films, the action is actually relatively coherent, I could tell who is what and what was going on (even if the final climactic battlefield was a little dull and grey despite that part of the world being so green!). All the robot designs actually look great, another holdover from the last film, even the Maximals are wonderful translations of their original 90’s designs. I even think Unicron looks pretty good too although had this film come out in 2007 I probably would’ve popped a little harder.

Speaking of which, if this is meant to be a reboot, a clean slate, and a brand new continuity, they why bring Unicron out to play for the SECOND movie in the series? That feels incredibly premature and where in the hell do you go from here?

For all the things this film has going for it, aside from doing the bare minimum, there are other things that hold it back. Mirage finally gets abilities that match his name (in the G1 cartoon he had cloaking abilities) but it’s also somewhat ill-defined, like he can create holograms of himself but he can also change his alt-mode on a whim? Beast Wars fans know the origins of the Maximals but the little bits of lore they sprinkle into this movie don’t define or answer anything and just handwave the vagueness away. Very few of the jokes land and one in particular is so awkward that you can’t tell if it’s a dig at the racist caricatures in the older Bay films or a defence of them.

Also, I’m a little sick of this incarnation of Bumblebee. For a film that centres on Mirage, somehow Bee is still a major focus. If that’s an edict from Hasbro in order to sell the brightly coloured Bumblebee toys to kids then it’s one that undermines film. Also, on a related not (that I won’t spoil) the mid-credit scenes are really trying too hard and are quite eye-rolling.

I think the biggest revelation for me about this movie came after the fact when I discovered that there had been two films in development after the success of Bumblebee: a sequel to that film and a separate Beast Wars movie.

And it feels like two films were inelegantly melded together too like someone took a hamburger and a pizza and put them together. Some of the elements that don’t work are a result of this melding of concepts. It’s not a messy film, again the plot it fairly straightforward, it’s just that certain aspects remain unanswered and feel more like a dangling thread rather than a deliberate tease to anything for a sequel.

And yet despite these criticisms, I had fun. Just enough fun but fun nonetheless. This is another movie that I enjoyed in the moment but don’t like overall. Like the aforementioned “empty calories” it just goes right through you and fills you up just enough for the next thing and that’s sort of what these “big, dumb, silly” movies are. And it’s probably the best example in a long time of honouring the original purpose of the original cartoons: being a big toy commercial.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is fun enough, it’s exciting enough, it points to the fence but the ball barely makes the distance while rolling across the ground. Overall, it’s an enjoyable distraction for an evening.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is already out in the rest of the world but will arrive in Australian cinemas June 22.

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