‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ Review: Make It Stop
Transformers: The Last Knight is a Transformers film. There have been five of these now, so you know what that means. Director Michael Bay has helmed all of them, so you know what you’re getting. The Last Knight holds no surprises. It is product, designed to sell toys, keep an IP chugging along, and allow Bay to play with a big budget. Consideration for the audience is secondary. It’s rare to see such active disdain for character and storytelling, but that’s what you get with a Transformers movie, and The Last Knight is no different. The question the film raises in so many ways is “Why?” And it’s not just a “Why?” pertaining to the numerous plotholes, shortcuts, character decisions, and everything else that takes place in The Last Knight. The question “Why?” emerges as to what purpose a Transformers movie serves in a blockbuster landscape that offers better stories, better direction, and better set pieces. Why should we endure Michael Bay’s Transformers movies when we can do so much better?
The Last Knight surprisingly begins on a promising note as Bay gets to change it up a bit, relishing the opportunity to do a medieval battle scene before following Merlin (Stanley Tucci having a ball and making the most of his role, as always), a charlatan who discovers that Transformers have been around on Earth, and makes a deal with them to help King Arthur and his knights. Cut forward 1600 years and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is searching for his maker. When he arrives on his home planet Cybertron, he’s put under the spell of the evil Quintessa (Gemma Chan), and told that he must destroy Earth in order for Cybertron to live. Then he drops out of the movie for a large chunk of the runtime as we follow Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg), who comes into contact with an ancient talisman that puts him on the radar of the eccentric Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins). Bunton also needs Oxford professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) in order to find Merlin’s staff that will stop the incoming Cybertron from destroying Earth. Oh, and there’s also a military force called the “TRF” whose job is to stop Transformers, and they keep popping up when the story calls for them to show up.
That’s a lot of plot and a lot of movie for what’s ostensibly a story about giant alien robots fighting other giant alien robots. While most filmmakers go for economy of storytelling, Bay’s ethos is to always add more. When Bunton tells Cade that Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl) fought in World War II, it’s not enough to just show an era-appropriate poster or a picture of Bumblebee to convey that the Transformer was fighting Nazis. No, we need an entire scene of Bumblebee killing Nazis. The Last Knight is the rare film that gives you more information than you need, and still ends up a confusing mess. Bay never misses an opportunity to load up his film with unnecessary junk as if simply padding the already excessive runtime somehow gives the movie an “epic” scope.
What’s frustrating is that Transformers movies don’t have to be bad. Yes, giant alien robots coming to Earth and fighting other giant alien robots is a silly concept, but that doesn’t mean the movie has to be insultingly dumb or painfully tedious. In the hands of a director who cared more about storytelling than fetishistic shots of jets taking off from aircraft carriers, the Transformers franchise could make you care about Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and the humans they encounter. There’s nothing that says because a film has bombastic action it must therefore drown in exposition and dull characters. You can have both, but time and again, Bay opts for neither.
Some may argue that criticizing a Transformers movie is like shouting at a brick wall. We all know what the movies are, and Transformers: The Last Knight will likely make a billion dollars worldwide. But that assumes that a critic’s job is to be Consumer Reports with no concern greater than steering an audience towards a product. Personally, I don’t care who does and doesn’t see Transformers, although I will continually be bewildered as to why people choose to see The Last Knight when there are better options readily available.
Instead, to find any redeeming aspect in The Last Knight, you have to look beyond what the film is and instead at what it could have been in the hands of a filmmaker who was more invested in storytelling than explosions. Transformers is surprisingly an immigrant story at a time when immigration is a hot-button issue. There are good Transformers and bad Transformers, but the government’s approach is to treat all Transformers as a threat (not unfairly considering that even the good ones seem to leave a trail of destruction in their wake). With a more nuanced approach, that could have been a rewarding subtext, but Bay would rather have Hopkins drone on for 15 minutes about how Vivian is the last of the line descended from Merlin.
I’m a bit baffled as to why Bay would even bother coming back for a fifth go-round. He clearly has never really cared about much beyond the technical opportunities these films provide him, but now Transformers is firmly his legacy. No matter what he does for the rest of his career, while fans may point to the success of The Rock or the batshit lunacy of Bad Boys II, most people will know him as “The Transformers Guy,” and it won’t be a compliment. He’s been making these movies for ten years, and hasn’t devised a single memorable character or moment. It’s multiplex filler, designed to make a boatload of money for Hasbro, Paramount, and Bay, but rewarding to no one else. And maybe Bay will gladly say that he did it for the money, but there are better ways to earn an income. Hell, there are better ways to sell toys.
I left Transformers: The Last Knight feeling exhausted and confused. While I’m sure other critics will pick apart the incoherent mess, it feels pointless to do so. The tragic inevitability of these movies is what’s most crushing, which is why I feel like it’s time to move past them. The best thing that can happen to the Transformers franchise at this point is to ditch everything Bay built (even though The Last Knight has a dumb stinger that indicates where Bay would like the series to go). It’s time to abandon the nihilistic characters, the bad jokes, the oppressive set pieces, and start anew. The best thing you can do with Transformers: The Last Knight is leave it behind as quickly as possible.