by Philip Price
Twenty minutes into the fifth Michael Bay directed ‘Transformers’ film, this one subtitled ‘The Last Knight,’ Optimus Prime comes face to face with a robot God named Quintessa (as voiced by Gemma Chan) if that gives one any indication as to how insane these movies have truly become. No? Not good enough? How about the fact Anthony Hopkins' character (or the fact Anthony Hopkins is in a ‘Transformers’ movie) has a Transformer butler that the film acknowledges is more or less a rip-off of C-3PO? Not far enough? Let's go ahead and make the robot butler a sociopath of sorts, shall we? Point being, there is no seeming cohesion between any parts of the many layers that make up ‘The Last Knight’ as well as most of its predecessors. Personally, I walk into a new ‘Transformers’ film with the expectation of being bombarded by sound, image, and story and am more or less pleased if I can walk away saying I understood the main point of the plot and was, at the very least, entertained. Of course, without such expectations one could view these things as complete messes, as mind-numbing fun, or fall somewhere in between where it's easy to recognize the idiocy of the picture, but acknowledge the merit in big, colorful, summer blockbuster filmmaking. Many will make jokes, but Bay is one of the more unique directors working today by virtue of the fact he consistently operates on such a scale that it's almost inconceivable he could craft something that wasn't inherently bloated; every aspect of his process and his product has to be big and this latest endeavor is no different. While ‘Age of Extinction’ felt like something of a breaking point in terms of the director going so far into his wheelhouse that he couldn't possibly possess any more tricks we are still here three years later and Bay, along with returning cast members Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, and Stanley Tucci, have somehow managed to at least match if not best their previous Bayhem effort. ‘The Last Knight’ is scattered, plot-heavy, overly complicated, and generally non-sensical to the point of genuine hilarity, but there is still a craft to it all and the fact Bay can somehow orchestrate these massive characters, set-pieces, and story into something resembling a movie while at the same time maintaining a visual aesthetic that is bar none one of the best you'll see on the big screen today is truly impressive and deserves at least a little bit of credit.
Why screenwriter Ken Nolan as well and his co-writing team of Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, who have apparently also been tapped for the solo Bumblebee movie as well as ‘Transformers’ seven and eight, thought it wise to incorporate so many plot elements into a movie that should be about good space robots fighting bad space robots is beyond me, but they did and in what may be one of the more fascinating elements about this insanity-driven project audiences will try and crack how what they're seeing on screen ties into the plot they know exists, but likely don't fully comprehend. Within the first half hour of the film we've been taken through the Dark Ages where we learn Merlin's (Tucci) staff was given to him by ancient Transformers and is coincidentally the only thing that can bring life back to Cybertron, into the present dystopian future where we again meet Wahlberg's Cade Yeager who is now humbly rescuing Autobots from a military division called TRF that is hunting down all Transformers, and on to Oxford University where we're introduced to professor/historian/archeologist Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) and Hopkins' Sir Edmund Burton as we begin to understand that all of these individuals must come together if they're going to stop Quintessa from brainwashing Optimus Prime into "Nemesis Prime" for her purposes of recovering Merlin's staff and destroying our world so that Cybertron can once again thrive. This is all without mentioning the fact Yeager is a fugitive from the government now and inadvertently recruits a young, orphaned girl named Izabella (Isabela Moner) who is meant to appeal to the younger crowds to his scrap yard that is now run by an inexperienced Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) who is present for comic relief. While setting up the new dynamic between Yeager and his crew the movie also jumps to Turturro's Agent Simmons who is now residing in Cuba as he feeds information to Burton, to Duhamel's Colonel Lennox who is infiltrating the TRF for military purposes, and to a random NASA engineer played by Tony Hale who spills exposition as to why there are suddenly six horns rising from different locations on the earth and why those horns might indicate we only have three days until Cybertron arrives. Needless to say, there is much, much more to ‘The Last Knight’ that you probably wouldn't guess might be a part of a ‘Transformers’ movie in a million years, but that you'll get anyway. Submarine battles, anyone?
Strangely enough, the hero of ‘The Last Knight’ in Wahlberg's Yeager is key to the subtitle of the film because he possesses the qualities of a knight which include bravery, courtesy, and honor while also maintaining a mentality of someone who believes that this world is the best of all possible worlds and that good must ultimately prevail over evil. One might say Yeager is an optimist, especially considering his and the planet's current predicament, but this is all the more telling as it implies the kind of attitude one needs to possess if they're going to walk into ‘The Last Knight’ with any kind of hope that there will be redeeming qualities to be found. Again, strangely enough, I think there are a few besides the obvious fact that Bay is a gifted visual director and the fact the movie looks breathtaking. I mean, seriously, this thing looks as epic and fantastic as anyone wanting a purely visual feast could hope for. Bay loves to shoot against lush green backgrounds and does so time and time again here-with large portions of the film taking place in the U.K. and around the White Cliffs of Dover-and it's magnificent. With that in mind, we'll move forward with other promising aspects of ‘The Last Knight’ that were able to fill that "entertain me" quota I'm looking for when it comes to a movie-going experience such as this. There is a more brazen sense to the overall tone of this installment and while it's been a while since I've seen or re-visited any of the previous films it feels this sense of unabashed glee in the face of destruction is even more prevalent this time around. Hopkins especially is having a blast as he ferociously keeps up with the otherwise sporadic pacing. As for Wahlberg, you have to give credit to the guy for selling every ounce of this with everything he can. Wahlberg's All-American bravado is a good fit for this franchise too-much better than the squeamish whimsy of LaBeouf which is fine on its own terms or in a project where it fits, but after that initial film his presence felt all too forced. One scene in particular where Wahlberg flies through the air holding onto nothing more than a drone-like object is maybe the simplest stunt in the film, but dammit if it doesn't look the coolest. There are also portions of the backstory in ‘The Last Knight’ that are kind of cheesily cool such as the round table of the King Arthur lore coming from Cybertron or the ‘Suicide Squad’-style introduction of Megatron's gang of goons that is so shameless it's almost out of place among what is mostly earnest insanity the rest of the time. I can even appreciate how the film attempts to be bold by actually cutting Optimus Prime from large portions of itself in exchange for a more eclectic cast of actual Transformers, but in the end these occasional blips of inspiration aren't enough to balance out the brutal badness of the overall experience.
So, let's talk about the detriments to the film then. It's easy enough to say the overwrought spectacle over substance of the ‘Transformers’ series makes them next to incomprehensible, but what specifically garners each film this reputation time and time again? In the case of ‘The Last Knight’ it is more apparent than ever that Bay still crafts his films as if he were a teenage boy. This perspective is infused into nearly every scene whether it be in the way every character likes to throw around cuss words as if they're the most bad ass person on the planet along with the tone and pacing resembling that of something a 13-year-old with ADHD might splice together. Whether it be a simple scene of two characters exchanging dialogue or a bananas action piece the camera feels impulsive, the editing hyperactive, and even the score sounds as if Bay was too impatient for composer Steve Jablonsky to finish writing original music and instead chunked in some derivative Hans Zimmer pieces that sound just generic enough to pass for big-budget orchestral music. Worst of all, and this is true of teenage boys as well, is the film doesn't realize how immature it actually is. Bay's script for this film might have given his female lead bigger brains than her male counterpart as well as actual things to do, plot points to actively participate in, and character details that flesh out, ya know-a character, but Bay can't help but to shoot Haddock in the most objective way possible. This may or may not have something to do with the reason Moner’s character barely registers despite the fact she was a centerpiece for one of the film’s many trailers. Being younger than any of Bay’s previous female leads it’s as if he doesn’t know how to shoot a female without attempting to be provocative and given Moner is only 16 it seems all thought it best to limit her screen time to only enough that her character is established and can take over the series under a presumed new director in the next installment. That she’s here at all though is one of the many issues with the script for if it knew how to condense itself and cut out the fat that has plagued these things to a noticeable level since ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ then we might be having a different discussion about this latest ‘Transformers’ movie. As it is though, ‘The Last Knight’ is more of the same from Bay. In all seriousness, I could have likely copied and pasted my review for any of the previous ‘Transformers’ movies here and you wouldn’t have known the difference because that is what Bay is doing and has been doing for almost a decade now. It’s the same grand spectacle, the same convoluted plotting, and the same hollow feeling that remains as Peter Cullen bids us farewell while simultaneously telling us he’ll see us in a few years for another world-destroying adventure.