Autobots battle Terrorcons with the help of the Maximals in order to save Earth and find a way home to Cybertron in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which opens in Prague cinemas this weekend. If that sounds like a fun time at the multiplex, you might enjoy this seventh live-action Transformers movie, which is more streamlined than the first five Michael Bay outings but doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of 2018’s Bumblebee.
Like that previous film, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is part prequel, and part soft-reboot for the franchise, though Bay is still on board as producer. The screenplay (credited to Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer & Josh Peters, and Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber) is far more straightforward than earlier films and direction by Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) efficient, but the filmmakers are still saddled with genuinely unpleasant character design that renders much of the action unintelligible.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is all about the Transwarp Key, a device that would allow planet-sized baddie Unicron to travel the universe and consume galaxies at will. The Maximals, led by an ape-shaped robot named Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) have broken the key in two and stashed it on Earth for safekeeping from Unicron and his more appropriately-sized Terrorcon minions led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage).
But in 1994, half of the key is accidentally ‘activated’ by curious museum underling Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), alerting the Terrorcons to its location… as well as the Autobots and Optimus Prime (a weary-sounding Peter Cullen), who could use it to get back to their home planet. This leads to three extended robot mash-’em-up sequences that account for around half of the film’s running time.
The other half of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is dedicated to mindless exposition, establishing the unreasonably simplistic motivations for its characters and arbitrary rules that govern their existence. At one point, a giant robot tearfully extinguishes the life from a corrupted compatriot; five minutes later, he casually reveals to the audience that this mercifully executed friend just happened to have the one thing that could save the universe, and that it died with them.
The real hero of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is warm-hearted New Yorker Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), whose younger brother desperately needs expensive medical treatment. That gives him the motivation to steal a car that happens to be a disguised Mirage (Pete Davidson), and later, to join the rest of the giant robots and save the world, somehow, because his brother is part of it.
Because of dialed-down nature of Rise of the Beasts‘ narrative, Noah and Elena are the only humans in the film with more than a few lines of dialogue. But despite empathetic performances from both Fishback and Ramos, their characters are flat and underwritten, lack any kind of arc, and somehow feel less human that the piles of junk that surround them.
But the movie really digs into the Noah character, and even turns him into something of the superhero by the big monster mash climax. He ends Transformers: Rise of the Beasts with a big franchise-building reveal that rivals Universal’s Dark Universe in aspirations.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is technically well-realized, and the Maximals, at least, are creatively designed until they transform into the same metal-faced biped indistinguishable from everyone else. Fans of the series may get enough robot action to make it worthwhile, and while others will struggle to grasp onto anything meaningful, this one is nowhere near as oppressive as some of the earlier entries.
Bonus: the ’94 NYC setting gives Transformers: Rise of the Beasts an excuse to have an excellent hip hop soundtrack featuring period hits by Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, and others.