Directors: Steven Caple, Jr.
Writers: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez
Synopsis: During the ’90s, a new faction of Transformers – the Maximals – join the Autobots as allies in the battle for Earth.
Can you fault a franchise that wants to ensure its audience gets their money’s worth? Of course, you can, but you can certainly respect the effort. That’s what the previous incarnations of Transformers fell into: the Bayhem experience. Not so much saturating but immersing the viewer with an onslaught of digital special effects and a bombardment of sound that even Armageddon told the series’ films in the science fiction franchise to quiet down. This version is now one Michael Bay short, and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is the definition of “less is more,” learning from the one bearable film in the franchise, Bumblebee. However, the latest version of the Transformers franchise remains a cinematic action diversion we used to take for granted but still cannot quite recommend.
The year is 1994. There was no such thing as a smartphone. Friends was all the rage. O.J. Simpson was on television for eye-opening reasons, and social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok were flashes of genius not yet conceived. Hardly anyone had their own cell phone (look it up, kids). That’s why Noah (In the Heights’ Anthony Ramos) communicates with his little brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), via walkie-talkie. Noah is a decorated former military man and electronics expert trying to secure a job to help pay medical bills for Kris’s sickle cell anemia. After Noah was rejected for a job for not being a team player, he turns to crime by helping steal cars when the hospital refused to see his brother after being three months behind on bills.
When Noah tries to lift a historic Porsche 911 Carrera RS – I had to look that up – the car turns out to be a rebellious transformer named Mirage (Pete Davidson) who takes Noah with him because he answers the call of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) who is alerted to a signal that there may be a way home to Cybertron. That’s because Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a research intern at a local museum, finds a key hidden in an ancient artifact that sends a signal in the sky, alerting not only the Transformers but also a group of deadly Terrorcons who want to liberate Earth of all its natural resources. To defeat the deadly robotic race, the Autobots work with the Transformer faction, the Maximals, Noah, and Elena to defeat the Terrorcons and return home.
Under the new direction of Steven Caple Jr. and with so many writers that you can form a basketball team (five in total), Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a considerable improvement in the franchise. It’s a somewhat self-contained story that benefits from using a straightforward MacGuffin of finding, locating, and trying to keep the key(s) safe. However, that’s a double-edged sword since if you have ever watched the numerous other Transformer films, and this one is set in the past, Optimus Prime and his friends won’t be leaving Earth anytime soon, leaving much of the suspense at the concession stands for fans. I’ll add quickly the “Beasts” in the film, consisting of the Maximals, should be front and center but take a back seat here.
The script relies heavily on the connection between the lead character and a supporting Transformer, a staple dating back to Shia LaBeouf and HaileeSteinfeld’s association with the series’ most likable character, Bumblebee. However, here it relies too much on the audience’s enjoyment of Pete Davidson’s Mirage, who never forms a connection with Ramos’s Noah in the way the script needs to establish the emotional relationship it leads up to. Additionally, there is the subplot involving Noah and his family, with his mother strangely absent after a brief appearance. Furthermore, the sibling relationship is cute and heartwarming, but is it different from what we have seen in other action films? These are all standard tropes that remain unchanged regardless of resets or reboots.
Then there’s the script itself, which produces dialogue as if it’s being plagiarized, stealing one-liners from a Transformers doll equipped with pull-string dialogue. The lines include words about honor, fighting back, making someone pay, and an Autobot announcing who they are. It all feels clunky and grating and does not enhance any action or the excellent special effects. This includes almost every time Optimus Prime speaks. The script has developed a nasty habit of turning him into a false leader and demagogue. It’s noticeable that every time one of the Maximals comes up with a plan and shows genuine leadership, Prime jumps in and says, “And we take the fight to them!” as if he came up with the idea in the first place. There should be edited scenes showing the characters talking behind their back and complaining throughout the film.
While venting my frustrations, I must say that I do like the cast, which is primarily made up of diverse actors, including Ramos and Fishback, who has been a serious talent since breaking out on the scene in the independent film Night Comes On. While Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has a furious finish that almost saves the moviegoing experience, Bumblebee’s return after being absent for most of the runtime and the ending’s head-scratching tease is enjoyable. Caple’s update remains an empty promise with plenty of potential for future installments.