Transformers: The Last Knight Is More of the Same
This installment marks director Michael Bay's final outing, but the loud, unpleasant franchise isn't planning to go away.
About Last Knight…
Forgive me. I was thinking of a more innocent time, 30 years ago, when the most frightening image that mainstream cinema could conjure up was Demi Moore and Rob Lowe getting it on in the shower. Since those days, Hollywood has come up with so many more novel ways in which to disappoint and/or irritate us. And few have pushed the envelope as aggressively as Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise.
The first installment was silly, of course—it was a movie about extraterrestrial robots that turn into 18-wheelers and muscle cars—but it had a low-key amiability to it. The initial sequel, Revenge of the Fallen was an overblown, incoherent mess; the next, Dark of the Moon, a sour and sexist outpouring of robo-bile; and the last, Age of Extinction, featured an extended joke about one of the heroes threatening to charge another with statutory rape for sleeping with his underage daughter. I genuinely wish I were making that up.
Transformers: The Last Knight begins, as onscreen text helpfully explains, in the “Dark Ages”—although honestly, anyone sitting through a Transformers movie might reasonably assume that the term refers to the present moment. Lancelot, King Arthur, and Merlin are fighting a barbarian horde—and losing—until a flying, three-headed dragon comes to their rescue. (I confess that for a moment I thought that I’d entered the wrong theater and Legendary Entertainment’s “MonsterVerse” had already reached its Ghidorah chapter.) It turns out that the 12 human knights of the Round Table were supplemented by 12 Transformer knights, and one of the latters’ cooler tricks was to combine into giant dragon form. It’s worth noting here that if you’d told me a month ago that Guy Ritchie’s awful King Arthur: Legend of the Sword would be only the second-worst retelling of Arthurian legend this year, I would not have believed you. Yet here we are.
In the fullness of time—The Last Knight is two-and-a-half hours long—it will be revealed that the Transformers also played a central role in killing Hitler and are intimately connected to Stonehenge. Think of them as a larger, vastly more violent variation on Zelig or Forrest Gump.
Soon enough, we are back in the present day and reacquainted with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who took over as the principal human protagonist in the last film, after Hollywood belatedly realized that Shia LaBeouf is not an actual movie star. Cade has been hiding out in South Dakota with a handful of renegade Autobots. But soon they’re flushed out by the U.S. military, and Cade makes his way to England where he meets Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock), an Oxford professor with a penchant for ultratight dresses (yes: Michael Bay movie); Sir Edmund Burton, the last in a long line of custodians of ancient secrets about the Transformers (Anthony Hopkins plays the role, fattening his wallet but depleting his soul); and Burton’s robotic butler, Cogman (Jim Carter), who suffers from very un-butler-like fits of psychotic rage.
I could try to explain what happens afterward, but the chore would be difficult at best, impossible at worst, and pointless in either case. Suffice it to say that under the influence of Quintessa, a robot sorceress from the Transformer planet of Cybertron—I hate that I had to type those words—Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) turns evil and changes his name to Nemesis Prime. There is, as usual, an artifact-MacGuffin that needs to be acquired, the
shard Seed Staff of Merlin. A clever, gutsy 14-year-old orphan (Isabela Moner) shows up to help and then is promptly forgotten for the better part of two hours. And it all culminates, of course, in a cacophonous and interminable final battle involving far too many participants to possibly keep straight.
In an effort to sort it out, I consulted the movie’s Wikipedia page, which lists more than 30 different Transformers making appearances, helpfully broken down into the categories of Autobots, Dinobots, Decepticons, Knights of Cybertron, and assorted others. There are even a couple of “Mini-Dinobots,” whom I have no idea what to make of. Have the Dinobots been getting frisky with each other? In any case, fear not Baby Groot: Your reign as the year’s best mini-critter is in no way threatened.
As with the last couple of installments, the animating premise of the franchise—that giant robots would convert themselves into backhoes and Hummers—is largely abandoned in favor of more aggressive metamorphoses: good Transformers that, as noted, combine to make a dragon; bad Transformers that combine to make a Balrog-like demon. (It’s as if Bay has developed a severe case of Peter Jackson envy.) The tone, too, is inexplicably belligerent, with “bitch” once again the go-to insult for targets male and female alike. There are jokes about whether an Autobot voiced by John Goodman is fat (of course he is), some more quasi-minstrelsy from the voice actor Reno Wilson, and a scene of mini-bots cruising online vehicular porn that inescapably arrives at the line “look at the junk in her trunk.” The movie somehow succeeds even in making a character played by Tony Hale obnoxious and unlikable.
Michael Bay has promised that this is the last Transformers movie he will direct, which is no small relief. It will not, alas, be the last Transformers movie. There are, inevitably, plans in the works for a “Transformers Universe” featuring sequels, prequels, and possibly crossovers with other Hasbro-toy franchises such as G.I. Joe. (Say it ain’t so!) At the end of The Last Knight, Optimus warns ominously, “A dangerous secret is buried deep inside the Earth. There is more to this planet than meets the eye.” Or perhaps, judging from the success of this franchise, less.