Editor’s Note: Transformers: The Last Knight is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
All art is political, even Transformers art, even commercial art that’s based on a popular toy-line-turned-animated-series-turned-summer-tentpole. Of course, there’s nothing that says art, like politics, has to be coherent. It can be spectacularly incoherent, sometimes nonsensical, and often absurd. We won’t make an argument here for Michael Bay’s status as a so-called “Vulgar Auteur” (that minor movement in film criticism came and went several years ago), but for a right-leaning filmmaker with an unmistakable fetish for military tech, the military men using that tech, and crude, racially and culturally insensitive humor, Michael Bay’s Transformers series – and after five films, all directed and produced by Bay, it’s fair to call them his series – reflect our tortured national psyche in conflicting, disorientating ways, beginning, but by no means ending, with the giant, transforming alien robots at the center of the series: They’re refugees from another, dying world, hoping to find sanctuary on Earth. They’re met with hatred, distrust, and inevitably, violence.
As ludicrous as its predecessor, but thankfully an entire 15 minutes shorter, Transformers: The Last Knight lurches from one heavy exposition scene to another and another, before finally finding an excuse, the thinner the better, to into action mode.
Of course, that’s mostly their own doing, bringing a millennia-old conflict between the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), and the Decepticons (Frank Welker). They had different visions for their homeworld, Cybertron, eventually destroying Cybertron and most of their own kind in a war to end all wars. Ideologically driven or not, right or wrong, they brought the fight to Earth, with the Autobots as preset heroes, representing peaceful coexistence between species (theirs and ours) and the Decepticons representing war and conquest (imperialism and colonialism by another name). An interpretative stretch or not, it wasn’t what the Transformers represented, but what they did, city-destroying robot-on-robot mayhem orchestrated by the Master of Disaster himself, Michael Bay, that repeatedly brought moviegoers to multiplexes ($3.7B across four films, to be exact) to enjoy the best visual effects money could buy.
Bay, though, has rarely showed an interest in the usual parameters of conventional storytelling. Forget a logical, well thought out or executed story. Forget relatable, let alone human, characters that rise above stereotypes or characters. Forget dialogue that makes sense, pushes a story forward, and reveals character. To Bay, they just get in the way of doing what he does best: Choreographing CG-augmented, action-heavy, slo-mo-dependent mayhem. To be fair, even at its most chaotic, it’s often beautiful, especially when Bay’s trained the character not on the human characters, but on their robotic counterparts. Still, moviegoers have certain expectations in mind and an all-robot, big-budget blockbuster apparently isn’t what they want, at least not yet. That leaves Bay with little choice but to bring back Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg and a bad haircut), a failed Texas inventor with a Boston accent and the Autobots best and only human friend in a world that’s turned completely against the Transformers (all of that destruction across four films has definitely left a mark, physical and psychological).
When we meet up with Cade, he’s in savior mode, plucking a spunky orphan, Izabella (Isabela Moner), from the clutches of the TRF (Transformers Reactive Force), a paramilitary organization dedicated to eliminating the Transformers with extreme prejudice. Izabella loses her Autobot companion, Canopy, but gains an entire family (it’s always about a family) with a grudging Cade and the Autobots Optimus Prime left behind at the end of Transformers: Age of Extinction for his homeworld and – shades of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus – the chance to meet his Maker(s). He does, but she’s not what he expected. Calling herself the Quintessa (Gemma Chan), Prime’s creator convinces him Cybertron can be reborn, but only if another world, ours, dies (c.f., Man of Steel), leaving Prime with a major conflict: His new, adopted world that’s turned against him and the Autobots or a chance to return to the past and a resurrected Cybertron.
Forget a logical, well thought out or executed story. Forget relatable, let alone human, characters that rise above stereotypes or characters. Forget dialogue that makes sense, pushes a story forward, and reveals character. To Michael Bay, they just get in the way of doing what he does best: Choreographing CG-augmented, action-heavy, slo-mo-dependent mayhem.
The overly convoluted plot – a staple of the Transformers series – turns on a Cybertronian artifact, a scepter given by long-dead Transformers to Merlin (Stanley Tucci, gloriously overacting) to save the Britons from a Saxon invasion (c.f., Gladiator). The scepter holds the key to saving Earth and that’s where Sir Edmund Burton (Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins), the keeper of All Things Transformers-Related, including a secret history involving King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, not to mention the Transformers involvement in major world events, like the War to End All Wars and the Second World War (the Transformers fought with the Allies against Hitler’s Germany, apparently, and no one noticed or remembered). Burton pairs up Cade, the inadvertent “last knight” thanks to a talisman bequeathed to Cade by a dying Transformer, with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), an Oxford academic prone to wearing super-tight, cleavage-revealing dresses (because a 14-year-old boy handled costume designs). Along with Bumblebee and a whole host of Autobots, Cogman (Jim Carter, Downton Abby), Burton’s steampunk-influenced, cranky robo-butler, Cade and Vivian set out to find the scepter (hint: Stonehenge comes into play at some point).
As ludicrous as its predecessor, but thankfully an entire 15 minutes shorter, Transformers: The Last Knight lurches from one heavy exposition scene, usually delivered by Hopkins and his plummy British accent, to another and another, before finally finding an excuse, the thinner the better, to into action mode, a high-speed car chase through the streets of London here, a submarine-on-submarine battle (with poor Bumblebee hanging on for dear life) there. Eventually, Transformers: The Last Knight devolves into an increasingly tiresome Transformer vs. Transformer punch-fest, but it’s hard to argue with the epic scale and scope Bay and a small, tireless army of effects artists bring to Transformers: The Last Knight. There’s more visual invention and imagination in the last half hour than the first and second Avengers films combined. Sure, a coherent story, multi-dimensional characters, and non-cringe-worthy dialogue would have helped immeasurably, but when it comes to Bay and Transformers universe, what you see is what you get.
In Transformers: The Last Knight, there’s more visual invention and imagination in the last half hour than the first and second Avengers films combined. Sure, a coherent story, multi-dimensional characters, and non-cringe-worthy dialogue would have helped immeasurably, but when it comes to Bay and the Transformers universe, what you see is what you get.