I’m not going to lie – I didn’t walk into “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” with the highest of expectations.
I’ve never been a “Transformers” person, to be fair. I, like most people my age, saw the majority of the early films in theaters, but I have no real lingering positive thoughts about most of them. Some of that might be because I, like many of you I’m sure, am a little tired of watching big robots fight other big robots. I tend to find myself gravitating towards films with a bit more humanity in them – and given this franchise’s track record, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to this new one.
But, as much as I’m not invested in this particular set of films, I’m also not particularly interested in criticism that uses the phrase “not for me” to make a case about liking or not liking a movie. I think on some level, any movie – the good ones, at least – can have the power to pull some basic, intrinsic emotion out of you. And while it has its faults, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” managed to touch a human note – as much as a film about cosmic robot wars can, that is.
We find ourselves in Brooklyn in the year 1994 – and believe me, the music choices and set decoration will remind you time and time again that you are, in fact, in the 1990s. An ex-military electronics expert named Noah (Anthony Ramos) is in desperate need of a job to help pay his little brother’s medical bills, which are piling up by the day. Pushed to the brink, Noah agrees to steal a fancy car – or what he thinks is a car.
Simultaneously, a museum intern named Elena (Dominique Fishback) discovers strange markings on a mysterious artifact and decides to investigate. When Elena accidentally triggers the artifact – the Transwarp key, which allows the holder to travel through space and time – Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the rest of the Autobots (including the car Noah just stole) leap into action. They’ve been stuck on earth and the key is the only thing that can get them to their home planet. But someone else wants the key too. A planetary-sized villain named Unicron (Colman Domingo), flanked by his number one lackey Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and a drone army, wants the key so he can continue on with his number one pastime; devouring planets for fuel. With the help of a race of beast/robot hybrids called Maximals, Elena, Noah, and the Autobots must take them down.
If your eyes glazed over reading all that, I really don’t blame you. Everything about what I just wrote characterizes the sort of impossibly high stakes that plague most franchise storytelling. Multiple universes running amok, impossibly powerful villains, all ending in a planetary blowout that favors explosions over all else. Don’t get me wrong – “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” has plenty of those issues. But this new installment lends far more time to the tangible aspects of its world building, and the moments it spends focused on planetary destruction from the human perspective are where it shines.
That tangible quality jumps out in the film’s design, particularly with the Maximals. These half beast, half robot creatures have a tactile quality to them – coarse hair growing from their metal bodies, rust spreading across their frames when they find themselves injured. As massive and out of place as they might seem, the Maximals have a sort of cohesion with their surroundings, which primarily encompasses the wilderness of Peru. The earth moves when they move, the CGI fairly seamless in the way it allows them to interact with their landscape. That sort of realism extends in part to some of the Autobots, particularly with Bumblebee, who has one of the most expressive character faces I’ve seen, robot or not. As Mirage – the “car” Noah tries to steal at the beginning of the film – Pete Davidson manages to reign some of his worst impulses in, delivering comic relief, emotional stakes, and effectively building a connection with Noah using only his voice.
While the movie does give us something resembling humanity to hold onto when it comes to the Transformers themselves, it’s better when it stays on the human level than when it ranges up into cosmic planetary battle territory. Unfortunately, the latter is where we find ourselves in the third act, but the film’s beginnings keep things a little more grounded.
The first major action sequence occurs just after Noah steals Mirage as the two speed away from the police to find the rest of the Autobots. During this sequence, we mostly find ourselves inside Mirage (the car) with Noah. We live in Noah’s perspective, a choice that comes to great fruition when Mirage takes himself apart like building blocks to transition from backward-facing to forward-facing, a visual we experience from inside the car itself. Ramos – funny and charming throughout, but especially in these beginning moments – gives great face during this sequence as he reckons with his inadvertent fugitive status. Later, in his first shared sequence with Fishback, the pair shows off a slapstick-style shared energy, both actors delivering on the promise of that physicality.
Unfortunately, as the film grows larger in scale, that wacky quality between the two begins to wane, and that growth in scale is where “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” starts to lose me a bit. And yet, even as the stakes grow so large as to become minuscule, every so often that human spark that lured you in the first place will pop up again – robot battles be damned.