Why, exactly, do moviegoers need a fifth Transformers film? None other than Anthony Hopkins is here to explain. “Two species at war, one flesh, one metal,” he intones over the trailer for Transformers: The Last Knight. “Optimus Prime has left us. One hundred billion trillion planets in the cosmos. You want to know, don't you? Why they keep coming here?” That does indeed seem to be the question at hand, especially after a year during which Hollywood lobbed CGI-laden, toy-centric sequels at the screen to little effect. Why do these terrible movies keep coming?
Transformers: The Last Knight represents, it seems, the pinnacle of audience fatigue, a product of all of Hollywood’s worst impulses in an era when studios are struggling to find new paths to profit. The last Transformers film, Age of Extinction, was a relative disappointment domestically, making $245 million (which may sound like a colossal sum, but it cost far more to make and market). Aside from Hopkins’s booming voice and a brief glimpse of Mark Wahlberg, the trailer barely features any flesh-and-blood humans, as if the studio believes audience attachment to day-glo mega-bots like Bumblebee will be enough to sell tickets. Forget about reaching “peak sequel”; Hollywood may be going post-human.
Why else would Transformers: The Last Knight tell the story of Earth being under threat from a gigantic robo-planet? That’s about all I could successfully glean from the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, which also features a slowed-down version of The Flaming Lips song “Do You Realize??” and some muddy footage of medieval knights. Further investigation reveals that the film plans to delve into the mythology behind the creation of this race of robots that can turn into trucks and various military vehicles—and that will somehow involve the legend of King Arthur.
Hopkins will no doubt play a professor or mad scientist of some sort, included both to legitimize the film with some Oscar-winning gravitas and provide necessary dumps of exposition. Hopkins is a master at both; when discussing Hopkins’s appearance as Odin in Marvel’s first Thor film in 2011, his co-star Chris Hemsworth remembered their first day on set together in costume. “We were both dressed up in full gear and we looked at each other and shook our heads, and he said, ‘There’s no acting required here is there? We’ll let these do the work!’” No acting required, indeed—it’s that lack of effort, outside of the visual spectacle, that 2016’s worst Hollywood projects have in common, and viewer weariness is definitely settling in.
This year’s box office is rife with franchise flops. X-Men: Apocalypse was one of the lowest-grossing efforts in the long-running series. Independence Day: Resurgence made less than half of the original for more than twice the price. Inexplicable sequels to films like Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Now You See Me came and went, loved by nobody. In a market dominated by consistent hits like the Marvel movies, studios drew the conclusion that everything could be turned into a franchise, an experiment that has backfired again and again.
The Transformers film series, a revival of the ’80s toy market and its affiliated cartoon series, has been running since 2007, always directed by the master of mayhem Michael Bay. The franchise’s second installment took $400 million at the U.S. box office; the third made $352 million, and the fourth, only $245 million. It’s easy to read the tea leaves: The market for these movies is aging out. But outside of the United States, Transformers still does fine, with its last two editions making a staggering $1.1 billion each worldwide, which helps make up for any disinterest in the American market.
Still, for all my bullishness that Hollywood’s sequel machine would finally slow down after a terrible 2016, the trailer for Transformers: The Last Knight is a good reminder that movie studios are ocean liners. It’ll take them years to get out of their own way, and there’s no better evidence than this tidbit: Though The Last Knight will reportedly be Bay’s last directorial effort for the franchise, a Transformers 6 is already in the works for 2019, and before that, viewers will get a Bumblebee spinoff. Still no acting required.