Review: ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ marks a franchise in free fall

Scourge in "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts."
(Paramount Pictures)

The “Transformers” film franchise, spawned in 2007 with Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was one of the first straight-faced blockbusters based on a toy (and an ‘80s cartoon series). It is now, astonishingly, seven films deep with the release of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which is both a prequel to “Transformers” and a sequel to 2018’s “Bumblebee,” set in 1987. “Rise of the Beasts,” set in 1994 Brooklyn, is also based on the “Transformers: Beast Wars” media franchise of comic books and anime that introduced the Maximal characters, alien robots that look like giant animals, not shape-shifting cars.

Got all that? It’s OK if you don’t, because the screenplay, by Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, with a story by Harold, will repeat the pertinent information ad nauseam until you never want to hear the phrase “trans-warp key” ever again. The basics are as such: A giant, planet-eating dark god known as Unicron needs a gleaming key that has been hidden by the Maximals (reminder, those are the beastie bots) in order to gobble as many planets as he’d like, Earth included. What does the key do? Honestly, who knows, it’s just the necessary thingamajig over which the primary players can fight over for two hours.

Dominique Fishback, left, and Anthony Ramos star in "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts."
(Paramount Pictures)

When aspiring archaeologist Elena (Dominique Fishback) accidentally uncovers half of the key hidden in an ancient Incan bird statue and triggers the beacon, the benevolent Autobots, stranded on Earth and led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), send their new human friend Noah (Anthony Ramos) to retrieve it. Noah, an Army vet looking for work to support his sick younger brother, got caught up with the Autobots while trying to boost a snazzy Porsche, the Autobot Mirage, voiced by a surprisingly lively Pete Davidson. Thus, the two kids from Brooklyn have to team up with the Autobots to prevent Unicron and his minions the Terrorcons — including a particularly nasty one known as Scourge (Peter Dinklage) — from feasting on Earth and destroying the planet. Crashy-crashy action ensues.

The Michael Bay “Transformers” movies brought an almost fetishistic approach to auto bodies; he is a filmmaker who understands machines better than human beings. In the first couple of films (his five-film run suffered from wildly diminishing returns), there was a certain sensory satisfaction in all that was shiny and chrome, the clicks and whirs of metallic pieces sliding into place with an almost ASMR-like tingle. Though his camera’s gaze at star Megan Fox was icky and leering at best, his approach to the mechanic spectacle of the Autobots was undeniably sensual.

In “Bumblebee,” director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson went for cutesy and kiddish, riffing on ‘80s teen movies and turning the yellow Transformer into a cuddly golden retriever type, infusing the series with a sense of heart. Now, “Rise” director Steven Caple Jr., who has the gritty indie film “The Land,” and the boxing sequel “Creed II” under his belt, has to establish himself as an artist within this sprawling blockbuster franchise. He doesn’t go all in on tugging heartstrings or mechanophilia, as his strengths lie in establishing a sense of place and time. The best parts of “Rise of the Beasts” are Caple Jr.’s evocation of 1990s New York City, the soundtrack pumping with classic East Coast hip-hop including the Wu-Tang Clan, the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J and Black Sheep.

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Too bad the movie takes place predominantly in Peru, where Ramos and Fishback run around tracking down artifacts and codes in some half-baked Indiana Jones subplot and attempting to express real emotions about their new Transformers pals. Stoic Indigenous Peruvians look on while the Autobots, Terrorcons and Maximals face off on a dusty, gray volcano (thankfully, there’s only minimal damage done to Machu Picchu), in some of the most visually uninspired and shallow action sequences of the franchise.

Optimus Prime in "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts."
(Paramount Pictures)

All the while, Optimus Prime repeatedly intones some form of “protect the key,” “get the key,” “we need the key.” It took five screenwriters to come up with this utter nonsense that has all the dramatic intrigue and emotional depth of a “Transformers” Saturday morning cartoon. “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” feels like a film that is at war with itself as Caple Jr. tries to balance character work with the profoundly silly Autobot lore, which talents such as Michelle Yeoh dutifully recite (she voices the eagle bot Airazor).


Unable to rise above this internal conflict, it’s a film that’s both dull and disposable. Though it sets up the opportunity for more interconnected franchise filmmaking, this is a beast that needs to be put down.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Transformers: Rise of the Beasts'

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Playing: Starts June 9 in general release