Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
In Steven Caple Jr’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, the Autobots team up with new allies to save Earth from an apocalyptic threat.
It would be fair to say that Michael Bay’s five Transformers movies are divisive. All of them attracted criticisms around favouring spectacle over substance, racial insensitivity, general incoherence both narratively and visually and many others. An attempt to change direction came in Bumblebee, an 80s-inspired movie about friendship and coming of age with a Transformers skin but its commercial failure meant that the change in direction was short-lived. For better or for worse, Rise of the Beasts returns to something resembling the Michael Bay era of the live-action franchise, possibly born out of an assumption that this is what audiences want from the franchise.
Those fatigued with the Michael Bay era may not feel comfortable with this entry though Rise of the Beasts manages to be less overblown than the rapidly ramped-up Bayhem that defined those films. This is very much an action piece with a McGuffin hunt plot loosely strings together a collection of set pieces. We all know how these things play out; two factions of Transformers are looking to get their hands on a powerful artefact required for their goals. For the good guys, it’s a device that will allow them to return home and for the bad guys it will allow them to bring about the apocalypse by way of a planet-devouring robot named Unicron (Colman Dimingo). It’s simple, easy to follow and lends itself to an easy structure.
There are two central humans mixed up in the endless robot war this time around. One is Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a down-on-his-luck former soldier unwaveringly devoted to his ill younger brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazques). The other is Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), an artefact researcher unappreciated in her field despite being far more capable than anyone around her. Their setup is clearly presented and their goals are unambiguous so they feed nicely into the simple plot without ever challenging the viewer too heavily. The focus is weighted in Noah’s direction with Elena being frustratingly underserved, particularly in the third act where she all but disappears entirely. Noah is a likeable enough presence thanks to Anthony Ramos’ effortlessly affable performance. Dominique Fishback gives Elena a degree of wide-eyed curiosity and drive that makes her engaging when on-screen. Those expecting nuanced character arcs should look elsewhere but both feed into the plot as well as a plainly established theme of teamwork and stand out enough to be more than people at risk of being trampled.
As with most of these films, the robots suffer the most in terms of characterisation. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is the only one with something resembling a character arc while the mothers mostly exist to make up the numbers. Mirage (Pete Davis) has plenty of personality but doesn’t meaningfully change over the course of the film. His friendship with Noah is well done and their scenes together pop but the film defines him by his over-the-top personality and misses the opportunity to do anything beyond that. Arcee (Liza Koshy) could have been any Transformer for all she gets to do and fan favourite Bumblebee is nothing more than a delivery mechanism for pop culture references,
The animal-themed Maximals led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) as grossly underserved by Rise of the Beasts, a film that is supposedly about them. They are less characters and more the personification of lore/mythos that can explain the plot at key points as well as being extra muscle for the action sequences. Ron Perlman brings appropriate gravitas to Optimus Primal and Michelle Yeoh stands out as Airazor but the script has no interest in the Maximals beyond the part they plan in plot delivery.
Rise of the Beasts also fails in its antagonists. Peter Dinklage’s Scourge is undeniably menacing and the utilisation of the character backs up the intensity of his threats but there’s absolutely nothing beneath the surface. Scourge and the rest of his faction are unambiguously evil and exist for no other purpose than to fill out the opposing side in action sequences. Unicron fares no better and doesn’t live up to the gravity of the threat he’s supposed to represent.
Despite how basic and formulaic the plot and characters are, the film is a lot of fun. It moves at a decent pace and some of the set pieces are impressive though they do fall into the trap of being incoherent with a limited grasp on which side has the upper hand at any given time. Lots of effort goes into creating trailer-worthy shots with less care taken into the connecting moments that lead to them. Earlier set pieces are better in that they take place in urban surroundings where the transformation gimmick can be deployed and there’s a tangibility to the world. The third act climax takes place in a barren locale devoid of anything to distinguish it as a setting.
The visuals are impressive and the designs of the robots on all sides are distinct so that they can easily be identified in the visual chaos, something this does better than the Bay era of these films but it also lacks the signature style brought by Michael Bay. Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have the same eye for composition so the visuals amount to being functional yet flat.
Ultimately, as a distillation of a Saturday morning cartoon into a blockbuster, this works fairly well. The characters are likeable, the central theme is explored competently and the simplicity of the plot means that the film rarely gets bogged down in overlong exposition. It’s certainly one of the better examples of a Transformers film that contains more than meets the eye.
An entertaining blockbuster with likeable characters and an uncomplicated plot that contains some impressive set pieces making good use of its premise.
- likeable characters
- impressive action
- distinct design work for the robots
- well-executed set pieces
- a plainly established and well explored theme
- weak characterisation of the robots
- underwhelming antagonists
- some clumsiness in the delivery of the action
- the visuals being functional yet flat
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