At the end of the fifth Transformers film – The Last Knight, for those unfamiliar with the cycle – the two robot armies wage a fearsome battle at Stonehenge. The series’ original director, Michael Bay, obtained permission to shoot the live-action parts of the scene on location at the Neolithic monument, and allegedly growled at his cast and crew in a pep talk beforehand: “Alright, folks, let’s put this place on the map.”
I can’t say I ever cared much about the Transformers films’ characters or plots, but I loved their spectacular, firing-on-all-synapses crassness. No Marvel or DC film ever had the dimbo jouissance to trash a world heritage site in the name of cinema – and precious few of their directors had Bay’s gift for doing it in images so adrenalisingly colourful and exciting, you could feel them fizzing in your bloodstream for days.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts represents a depressing, if inevitable, change of tack. After 2018’s Bumblebee – a sweet, light, 1980s-set spin-off directed by the Laika stop-motion animator Travis Knight – this latest chapter plays like a belated attempt to Marvelise the franchise, with life-sappingly dreary results.
Every shot is sluiced in flat grey light – the action scenes look like gravel in a food processor – while the dialogue is all botched quips and clichés (“Did somebody order backup?” one Transformer smarms while cocking a rocket launcher), and the human characters timidly written nobodies.
Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback star as former soldier Noah Diaz and museum worker Elena Wallace, the latest humans to become embroiled in the shapeshifting robots’ intergalactic feud. Both are likeable rising talents, and both spend around half of their screen time looking upwards while pulling faces that suggest they’re doing long division.
It’s the mid-1990s, and two parts of a hitherto unmentioned magical key have been hidden somewhere on Earth. When clicked together, this device allows Optimus Prime and the autobots (good) to return to their home world, but will also lure in Unicron (bad), a moon-sized gizmo who eats planets for lunch. (In the 1986 animated Transformers film, Unicron was voiced by Orson Welles, in what would be his final screen role; here the part is taken by Colman Domingo.) The adventure to retrieve the key parts takes Ramos, Fishback and their CG companions to darkest Peru, while metal colossi on both teams constantly bellow variations on “get the key,” “where’s the key,” “secure the key”, “focus on the key,” and so on.
New additions include Pete Davidson’s Mirage, a Porsche who morphs into one radical streetwise dude, and whose dialogue is so cringe-inducing I almost Transformered myself into a small pink football. Then there’s the gorilla (Ron Perlman) and eagle (Michelle Yeoh) who don’t actually transform into anything: these ones are just animal-shaped robots. In one scene, Ramos jokily wonders why some of the Transformers have accents, though one suspects if the film were to pull on that thread any harder, the whole jumper would unravel pretty quick.
You simply mustn’t see this film, but if you do, be sure to stay put at the end for one of the most risible credits stings in living memory, in which Ramos unwittingly wanders into another plastic Hasbro-branded franchise, which is presumably now due to unfold in the same timeline as this one. Quake, ye mortals, before the Toys R Us Cinematic Universe: accessories sold separately; batteries, entertainment and point not included.
12A cert, 127 mins. In cinemas now