The main purpose of Transformers: The Last Knight, Michael Bay‘s last alleged contribution in the director’s chair, appears to be to desensitise its audience. Experiencing the film reminded me of that scene in A Clockwork Orange when Malcolm McDowell is forced to watch violent movies while being given eye drops and drugs. Everything in this movie is designed to assault the senses for better or for worse. When I left the film, my eyes hurt from the tennis-match-at-lightspeed that was each shot of the movie, the usual explosions seemed louder then the last time, and the crazy plot left me numb and confused. And yet, despite all of the mayhem (or “Bayhem”), I still enjoyed the film.
Yes, it is the usual garbage fire of a movie, giving little concern about telling a story based around the Transformers or actually in general, and instead going for a blitzkrieg of edginess and cool visuals without the gravitas to make it mean something. The explosions in the film are as consistent as pigeons pooping in Trafalgar Square. Here we are ten years and five movies into this “franchise”, and it remains one of the biggest successes in cinema history. Why? Who knows. You could gather the greatest minds in the world in one room and they still wouldn’t be able to explain what makes the Transformers movies so enduring and popular. You can’t make a film franchise out of the contents of a trash compactor.
The fifth entry into the Transformers film franchise actually attempts to tell a story more-or-less with some interesting ideas. But any sense of emotional investment into this tale is lost right from the opening seconds of the film. If Bay does intend on making The Last Knight his final Transformers film, then he made sure to go out with a bang. A very loud one. Not even before the Paramount logo has ended, fireballs are launched at the screen, and we are immediately flung into an ultra-violent and very loud battle in the Dark Ages. King Arthur and his knights show up, followed by a drunk, crackpot Merlin played by Stanley Tucci (originally announced as reprising his role as Joshua Joyce), who speaks to a random Transformer hiding in a cave, gains a magic staff, and uses it to command a mechanical King Ghidorah to kick some medieval ass. And that is just in the first ten minutes and it makes no sense!
Like the other films, it feels like the whole script was made up of a bunch of ideas pulled out of a hat, chucked into a blender, ground up into scraps, fed to a hungry dog, shat out, and then smeared all over the screen. However, there is some sense of a narrative that attempts to use the traditional set-up and payoff routine – buried under all of the usual nonsense, explosions, bad jokes, fanservice, and Bay’s fetish for all things military.
The very basic plot, or rather the most interesting one, involves the wrecked planet Cybertron threatening to collide with Earth in a number of days. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), down on his luck and facing a moral crisis, is enticed and then brainwashed into the service of Quintessa (Gemma Chan), the “Creator” mentioned in Transformers: Age of Extinction, to destroy Earth to restore Cybertron. However, it turns out that Earth is in fact containing the dormant form of the evil world-eating Unicron(!), and he is slowly waking up judging by the numerous giant horns sprouting up across the globe. However, Quintessa faces opposition in the form of Merlin’s magic staff, which only his descendants can control, and could prevent her plans.
See, I explained that in one paragraph, but that is just the stuff that really matters. Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), the protagonist of the fourth film, now helps refugee Transformers take shelter in his junkyard, and is on the run from an anti-Transformers military force led reluctantly by Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel). Cade and Bumblebee rescue a little girl named Izabella (Isabela Moner) from war torn Chicago, but Cade also receives a strange magic talisman from a Cybertronian knight, which will help lead him to Merlin’s magic staff for some reason. Or will transform into a sword and make him the titular “last knight” of the round table, mainly based on his chastity level. Somehow, the military and Megatron (Frank Welker) are aware of the talisman and seek it to obtain the ancient technology and decide Earth’s fate. And despite having opposing reasons, the military decide to partner with Megatron to obtain the staff, because that makes perfect sense.
What follows is a hilarious scene where Megatron, Lennox, and group of government lawyers set up tables, laptops, and binders in the middle of a desert and negotiate to free Megatron’s minions from prison in exchange for the obtaining of Cade’s magic talisman. This comes with a Suicide Squad-style introduction for all of Megatron’s allies – though this turns out to be pointless since they all serve as canon fodder in the following battle. Seriously, would it kill the writers to flesh out some of the Decepticons? There is a brief scene where Megatron comes across Starscream’s head, reflecting on his dead subordinate’s “treachery”, despite Starscream being a complete sycophant throughout the original trilogy with no signs of his traditional backstabbing.
As per the norm, the battle scenes are poorly filmed unless slow motion is used, the camerawork looks like it was filmed in a flying washing machine, and once again, the humans are more interesting than the Transformers in their own goddamn movie. Drones resembling tie-fighters are not as interesting as Bumblebee fighting a crazy Decepticon wearing Christmas lights. While this is all going on, Anthony Hopkins is running around the world as an eccentric British aristocrat, hoping to bring various characters together to exposit a boatload of mythology to them. Cade is dragged off to England by Hopkins’ robotic butler Cogman (Jim Carter), by the far the most likeable character in the film; while an Oxford professor, Viviane Wembley (Laura Haddock) is literally kidnapped by Hot Rod (yes, that Hot Rod) to meet Anthony Hopkins.
Viviane isn’t introduced until halfway through the movie, dressed like a porn star despite being an Oxford lecturer, and Hot Rod’s lone characteristic is that he has a French accent he can’t get rid of despite being an advanced alien robot. Hot Rod has no great destiny, or hints of being future leader of the Autobots, and all we know is that he is apparently friends with Bumblebee but there is not one moment of interaction between the two Autobots.
Hopkins then drops tons of exposition, revealing that the Transformers have been aiding humanity for sixteen-hundred years; just about every famous historical figure is a part of a secret society called the Witwiccan Order (urgh!) who hid the Transformers’ presence on Earth like they are Plus Ultra from Tomorrowland; Sam Witwicky, his family, Viviane, and possibly Hopkins’ own character are all both members of the society and distantly related to Merlin; and Hitler was assassinated by an Autobot disguised as a watch. Even stranger, Bumblebee fought in World War II, and the flashback depicting his invasion of a Nazi stronghold was filmed at the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Holy Magikarp on high!
And somewhere within this avalanche of random story events, Optimus Prime is undergoing some sort of character arc about desperation and redemption, and Quintessa makes for an interesting anti-villain, willing to do something evil for the greater good. However, the big reveal that Unicron is actually Earth and the reason why Transformers are drawn there comes off as a bit of a hand wave. Optimus’ reaction to the twist is one of something like “Wow, really?”. This takes us all the way back to the second movie where Optimus admits that the history of Cybertron exclusively is limited to the Allspark and that’s it. So how the hell does he even know about Unicron, if he didn’t know that he was made by Not-the-Borg Queen, who actually bitch slaps him at one point for being so dumb.
Oh, and I haven’t even got to John Turturro‘s wacky return as Agent Simmons, now an expat hiding out in Cuba, where the late Castro has allowed Transformers to live like they are tourists. Simmons doesn’t really have much of a role beyond his usual hyperactive conspiracy theory ramblings, but it was nice to see him again, along with Josh Duhamel as Colonel Lennox. Wheelie (Tom Kenny) also makes an appearance, but he and the Dinobots disappear from the film half way through, while Steve Buscemi makes a memorable cameo as a dodgy wheeler dealer Autobot named Daytrade, though he could easily be called Wreck-Gar since he is virtually the same character.
For all of the horrendous plotting and editing, there is still some fun to be found in the movie. Hearing Anthony Hopkins narrate about a whole load Transformers mythology is just awesome. That guy could read the phone book and it would be great. Speaking of which, Hopkins and Jim Carter’s Cogman are just a riot. In the extensive, exciting chase scene through London, mostly filmed through cameras strapped to the side mirrors, Hopkins and Carter are just having a blast, shouting, swearing, making Bond-esque jokes, and cackling maniacally at the mayhem around them. Hopkins flip flops between dramatic, mythical narration, and randomly shouting at the wimpy Prime Minister to shut up in his presence, and it is just pure entertainment.
Another great performance comes from Isabel Moner. Her character is quite complex, an orphaned tomboy who is virtuous and loves her Transformers friends, she is skilled in mechanics and quite blunt, but still has a sense of vulnerability towards her, and a little clingy around others she views as family. One of her companions, Canopy, dies early, but his death drives Izabella to become quite protective of her other friend, the BB-8-like Sqweeks, a cute little robot who can only say “Chihuahua”. I would very much welcome back Isabel Moner in future films, and I hope she goes on to have a great career.
They even manage to nail the British sense of humour, though I suspect it is mostly from watching Monty Python, and in the world Michael Bay, every one of us Englishmen are either posh, drunk, snobbish, think everything involves sex, and play polo – which even Bay films to the extreme in the most frenetic, dramatic way possible. Let’s see him try to make a snooker or darts match look exciting.
Visually, the Transformers still look pretty good with simpler designs and Quintessa has a wonderful presence. Unfortunately, they are mostly kept to the background and it is impossible to find a proper eye line with them due to the camera doing huge, sweeping tracking shots every time they talk. Did Tarzan work on the film? Even when the humans are interacting, the camera will not sit still or is frenetic and wobbly. I think only towards the end with the big, bombastic final battle do things get interesting, made up of enormous wide shots of military aircraft, spaceships, and King Ghidorah flying through pieces of Cybertron like they are the floating islands from Avatar.
Transformers: The Last Knight is one hell of an experience to sit through, still as mind numbingly dumb and sensitively frustrating as the past four, but there is the cells of some interesting ideas drowning in madness. And we have fourteen planned films to go, created from a writers room in preparation for the franchise’s expansion into a cinematic universe. Next year, we will be getting a Bumblebee spin-off set in the 1980s. Personally, I’d like it to serve perhaps as a more closer tribute to the classic animated series and give Bee a voice of sorts (which this film briefly gives back in a “Martha” moment and then abandons).
But, even then, while the MonsterVerse and the possibly doomed Dark Universe are being all dramatic and proud of their intentions to join the MCU and DCEU’s success, Transformers setting up possible hints at an expanded universe felt like the equivalent of a pouty child moaning like “Do I have to?”, at actually putting some effort into the series. With the departure of Michael Bay, perhaps a sense of change and reason can be incorporated into the Transformers films; because I don’t know how long audiences will remain keen to clamour to cinemas to have their eardrums and eyeballs taken for another marathon around the roller derby rink of cinematic desensitization.
What are your thoughts on Transformers: The Last Knight? Was it better or worse than the others? Should Michael Bay be kept away from this franchise for good and be poked with 20-foot barge poles if he tries to return? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.