Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Proves the Franchise is Running on Empty

The newest Transformers sequel shows there’s not much left in the tank.

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Courtesy of Universal
Inverse Reviews

For 15 years and counting, Transformers has been Hollywood’s most inorganic IP. Each movie is an exercise in the cynical profiting from adult male nostalgia and stunted maturity. In this imaginary universe where the U.S. military are by default The Good Guys, even the ostensibly relatable humans are as indistinguishable and artificial as the namesake alien machines. Never forget when a prominent character kept a laminated card spelling out loopholes in Texas state age of consent laws.

While 2018’s Bumblebee was the exception to franchise rule, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts upholds awful tradition as yet another droning sequel where humans and Transformer alike come off as products of the AI generation, and where intergalactic warfare is little more than dull white noise. Without either Michael Bay’s maximalist flair or Bumblebee’s tenderness, Rise of the Beasts manages to be one of the lesser entries of a saga with an already low bar to clear.

More or less an adaptation of the cult ‘90s spinoff cartoon Beast Wars — memorable back in the day for its all-CG production — Rise of the Beasts brings the action to 1994 Brooklyn, a few years after the late ‘80s setting of Bumblebee. Here in city blocks populated by pastel jackets and Air Jordans, ex-Army private Noah (In the Heights’ Anthony Ramos) struggles to land a job to care for his family. A carjacking puts Noah in the path of the Autobots, still led by the towering Optimus Prime (and still with the golden voice of franchise icon Peter Cullen), who are woken to the activation of a relic. The relic, discovered by museum researcher, Elena (Dominique Fishback), holds the power to bring them home.

With the coming threat of Unicron, a world eater of Lovecraftian proportions, the Transformers join with the Maximals, a faction who take on the form of animals, led by Prime’s equal Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman). (DM your nerdier friends to ask why there’s an Optimus Prime and an Optimus Primal in this mythology, I don’t have the room in my word count.)

Before he was subsumed by Hollywood studio behemoths, Rise director Steven Caple Jr. helmed the low-budget 2016 drama The Land, about inner city kids who run afoul of a criminal queenpin. It might be reading too much but there are pronounced, if unexpected, parallels across his work that speak to some semblance of a storyteller’s signature. Like The Land, the heroes of Rise of the Beasts are up against a foe far bigger than themselves. Rise of the Beasts ping-pongs between the vast monstrosity of Unicron to the crowded bedroom of a child, creating a contrast in scale that is rarely felt even in most blockbusters. By the film’s climax, it’s hard to not be swept up a little by the movie’s underdog heroism.

Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback provide a human-level perspective on the incoming threat of Unicron, but Transformers: Rise of the Beasts still feels artificial.

Paramount Pictures

Sadly, that’s all that’s admirable to say about Caple Jr.’s direction, which otherwise fail to excite the senses. While Caple Jr. has a stronger grasp of his camera than Bay, Bay is infinitely more of an exhibitionist — an artist who had a gift for, ahem, transforming his camera into extensions of his own hands, which would grab us by the ears and shake us until our skulls rattle. Though its visual frames are cleaner and more composed than the previous era, Rise of the Beasts lacks the zing of Bay’s craftsmanship.

But the movie fails to make up for its stylistic shortcomings thanks to its surface-level depiction of New York’s Afro-Latino communities. While the mere concept of period New York City is a refreshing change from the series’ previous forays in sunny white suburbia, Rise doesn’t warrant its cursory visit. There’s no sense of community, nor even the colors these neighborhoods are famously home to, no matter how many Biggie needledrops the movie forces.

Rise of the Beasts makes laborious efforts to cement the sheer “Nineties-ness” of it all, but more often feels like gawking at a museum display version of pre-gentrified Brooklyn than stepping into it. There’s just so many overcast skies and lackluster energy that it’s hard to fathom the production filmed in New York and not in Atlanta, next door to where Marvel shoots its own washed-out mega blockbusters. Why did they even bother? It’s as if they shot on days when In the Heights took time off, without the pep to match.

Inert and incapable of taking advantage of all of its best features, including a charismatic Anthony Ramos and an unbelievably star-studded voice cast (like Michelle Yeoh and Pete Davidson), Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is far from the kickoff to another summer back in theaters. The movie’s ambitions amount to to the same heights as your little brother bashing his toys together.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts open in theaters on June 9.

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