Movies & TV Shows

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Draws Inspiration from Bumblebee & Michael Bay – A Review

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When discussing the Transformers franchise, it’s common to judge each film relative to the others: “Well, this one wasn’t as terrible as Revenge of the Fallen…” or “That one was slightly better than Age of Extinction…” When a franchise has at least four out of seven films that are nearly unwatchable, we naturally set our expectations low.

However, with the seventh and latest installment, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, one might think, “Well, it wasn’t as great as Bumblebee…” But in this case, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s doomed. Rise of the Beasts is easily the best film in the main storyline since the original Transformers in 2007, and it serves as both a prequel and a sequel to Bumblebee, as the series comes full circle. The lessons learned from the successful Bumblebee spinoff, which freed itself from the heavy-handed direction of Michael Bay and its associated drawbacks, have been effectively applied here. The plot is less convoluted and actually makes sense, the main human characters have agency and are somewhat developed (especially the female lead), and the action is presented on a scale that is comprehensible to the average viewer.

Of course, we’re still discussing a franchise inspired by a line of Hasbro toys that relies on scenes of vehicles transforming into robots and battling each other, so there’s a limit to how intellectually stimulating this film can be. Nevertheless, as a family-friendly summer spectacle, it largely succeeds and manages to be engaging rather than simply overwhelming our senses and numbing our brains.

Director Steven Caple Jr. (known for Creed II) handles the action adeptly, moving the story along at a brisk pace while allowing the small cast room to breathe. The plot, inspired by the Beast Wars storyline from the comics, TV shows, and video games (which may not mean much to non-fans), revolves around a sought-after artifact called the Transwarp Key. This Key has the ability to open portals between different times and universes.

The malevolent god Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo) desires this Key in order to easily move from one planet to another for his insatiable appetite. However, the Maximals, Transformers that take the form of animals, manage to escape the destruction of their planet by using the Key to flee to Earth and hide it there. Millennia later (specifically in 1994, complete with numerous nostalgic references and pop culture nods), one half of the Key is accidentally discovered and activated by Elena (played by Dominique Fishback, known for Swarm), a museum intern and artifacts researcher.

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This sets off an alert for Optimus Prime, voiced by the iconic Peter Cullen, who knows that the Key can bring his Autobots back to Cybertron. He mobilizes the Autobots, including Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson, who happens to be disguised as a Porsche that is being targeted by a robbery led by Noah, played by Anthony Ramos from In the Heights. Noah, an ex-soldier struggling to find employment and medical care for his ailing brother, is forced into a life of crime.

Noah and Elena find themselves joining forces with Optimus, Bumblebee, Arcee, and other Autobots as they fight to prevent Scourge, voiced by Peter Dinklage, and his team of Terrorcons from obtaining the Key on behalf of Unicron. As their journey takes them to Peru, the Autobots encounter additional allies, the surviving Maximals led by Optimus Primal, voiced by Ron Perlman. Together, they unite against Unicron’s quest to seize the Key.

Caple introduces the various characters, both human and robotic, with relative ease, and the designs of the Transformers make it easier to distinguish them this time. The straightforward nature of the story, where everyone pursues the same objective, allows for less burdensome exposition and more opportunities for character development.

Dominique Fishback and Anthony Ramos deliver appealing, empathetic, and charismatic performances, with the first part of the film dedicated to establishing their stories before the robot action takes over. Fishback continues the positive trend set by Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee, where female characters are more than just exploitative eye candy as seen in the earlier Bay-directed films.

Even the beloved Optimus Prime undergoes character development this time. He doesn’t always make the right choices and carries the weight of past mistakes, as Peter Cullen injects subtle hints of regret into his voice. Pete Davidson’s Mirage provides comic relief while maintaining a strong bond with the human characters. Additionally, Ron Perlman and Michelle Yeoh, portraying the Maximals’ Airazor, bring a sense of gravitas and subtle dignity to the newest additions in the live-action franchise.

Caple handles the action sequences with the necessary scale, confidence, and agility. While he avoids the chaotic and nonsensical compositions and editing associated with the previous Bay-directed films, he still struggles to overcome occasional issues with the CGI and the inherent challenge of watching constant robot transformations and collisions. The film’s climactic battle attempts to replicate the epic, all-encompassing spectacle of Avengers: Endgame but falls short due to the introduction of too many similar elements.

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Nonetheless, the payoff is undeniably satisfying. The character arcs of Noah, Elena, Optimus Prime, and Mirage, in particular, converge in a much smoother manner than in any previous Transformers ensemble film (although character development wasn’t a strong suit in those movies). Choosing Peru’s Machu Picchu as the showdown location proves to be an inspired decision, even though there is an oddly sparse presence of people. Credit is also due to Jongnic Bontemps for the score, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn for the excellent sound design, and Enrique Chediak for his skilled work behind the camera. This is a grandiose film meant to be experienced on the big screen in every aspect.

While the familiar numbness associated with Transformers films begins to creep in as the story reaches its climax, the film’s relatively concise 117-minute runtime manages to keep things mostly in check. The final scene before the credits roll is likely to leave Hasbro fans exhilarated (and yes, there is a mid-credits scene too). As someone who isn’t generally a fan of the franchise, it can be said that Rise of the Beasts held our attention almost throughout the entire duration. And that assessment isn’t even based on a lenient scale.

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