Is it me, or does the marketing campaign for ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts‘ feels strangely underwhelming ever since Paramount released its first teaser trailer last December? While there were subsequent trailers, clips, and other promotional materials to build the hype, the wow factor has somewhat diminished.
Don’t get me wrong — the 2018 prequel ‘Bumblebee’ was an entertaining and emotionally resonant cinematic experience.
It may have been a smaller-scale ‘Transformers’ movie compared to the gargantuan Bayverse era. But its ’80s Amblin-esque, Spielbergian touch seen between the bonding of the titular yellow Autobot and Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson, coupled with the prequel’s thrilling sci-fi action vibe and seamless CGI, gave the then-flagging ‘Transformers’ franchise a new lease of life. This is especially true after Michael Bay messed up ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ back in 2017.
Perhaps it has to do with ‘Bumblebee’ director Travis Knight not returning for ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.’ And having Steven Caple Jr. onboard to helm the sequel instead, who is ironically no stranger to taking over the original director’s first movie, as evidently seen in ‘Creed II,’ makes me feel as if the studio has gone for a lesser filmmaker. Or more like enlisting a work-for-hire rather than a visionary director (think from getting Ryan Coogler’s solid character-driven boxing drama of ‘Creed’ to Caple Jr.’s step-down effort of ‘Creed II’ that may have checked all the right boxes but couldn’t escape the overall formulaic structure of the sequelitis syndrome).
It certainly feels that way upon finally watching ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.’ The same curse of sequelitis, that is.
This time, ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ has not one (unlike ‘Bumblebee’s Christina Hodson) but five screenwriters in charge of developing a story. The sequel jumps seven years ahead from the 1987-set prequel to the 1994 era in Brooklyn. As with the usual tradition of a ‘Transformers’ movie, we are introduced to two new human protagonists.
This includes Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a former military electronics expert struggling to make ends meet. He’s been working hard to foot the expensive hospital bill for his 11-year-old brother’s (Dean Scott Vazquez) medical condition. Soon, a forced circumstance resorted Noah to stealing a sports car. A silver Porsche 911, to be exact, and he doesn’t realize it was actually an Autobot in disguise named Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson).
Noah subsequently finds himself learning about the existence of other Autobots, including the leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who is skeptical about getting the human involved.
Apparently, Prime and the rest of his surviving Autobots (among them is Bumblebee) are in the middle of a war against the Terrorcons led by the vicious Scrouge (Peter Dinklage). The planet-devouring Unicron (Colman Domingo) sends the latter to obtain an ancient artifact. An artifact in the form of a key capable of opening a portal would allow Unicron to consume more planets to stay alive. The same artifact is a gateway for Prime and his fellow Autobots to get back to their home planet of Cybertron after being stranded on Earth for too long.
Then, there’s the second human protagonist, played by Dominique Fishback as Elena Wallace, a brilliant artifact researcher interning at an archaeological museum. The artifact that Autobots and Terrorcons have been looking for is coincidentally stored at the museum. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to guess where the story will be heading next.
The movie also integrates the ‘Beast Wars’ characters and its storyline inspired by the fan-favorite 1996 animated series into the live-action ‘Transformers’ franchise, which should have been a cause for celebration. While the story is blessed with Ron Perlman and Michelle Yeoh’s commanding voice performances as the gorilla Optimus Primal and the falcon Airazor, the movie pretty much relegated these animal-form Transformers, a.k.a. the Maximals into an obligatory fan service-style introduction.
The story is basically nothing more than your standard-issue save-the-world formula. The pacing can be erratic at times, particularly in the sluggish middle part of the movie. But I’m glad it only runs a little over 2 hours without overstaying its welcome. Surprisingly, the storytelling in ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ works best when it focuses on the subplots, namely Noah’s plight to land a job and care for his younger brother’s medical needs.
The new human characters played by Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback sure feel like a callback to Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, but only to a certain extent in the first ‘Transformers’ movie sixteen years ago. Except for these two being a diverse pair: one’s a Latino, and the other is a Black woman. Their performances are adequate, but Ramos’s Noah’s friendship with Pete Davidson’s Mirage easily stands out the most.
Speaking of Davidson’s Mirage, he surprisingly steals the show here in ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.’ His condescending tone and witty remarks bring a worthy comic relief that thankfully doesn’t end up as awfully juvenile as the Bayverse-era ‘Transformers.’ As for the rest of the voice performances, Peter Cullen is imposing as always as Optimus Prime, while Peter Dinklage and Colman Domingo’s respectively ominous line deliveries are pitch-perfect as Scourge and Unicron.
The action, in the meantime, is a mixed bag. Some scenes tend to look blurry with all the rapid-moving pixelated mess and more so during one of the nighttime assaults between the Autobots and Terrorcons. But the final third act is like a dream come true for ‘Transformers’ fans — an all-out battle takes place in the ruins of Machu Picchu revolving around the Autobots, Maximals, and Terrorcons. Caple Jr. does a decent job staging the elaborate action sequence, complete with a brief but exhilarating one-take moment.
‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ is pretty much a paint-by-numbers type of big-budget summer movie blockbuster. A pure, albeit forgettable popcorn fun designed for the masses to just sit back and enjoy the show. In the meantime, fans are in for a treat towards the end of the movie and stick around for a mid-credits scene.