The Transformers series has been one of the most justifiably shat-on franchises in modern blockbuster history. They’re a garish spectacle at its absolute emptiest, chock-full of bad jokes and horrible characters, all underlined by a fascist subtext, with all of the racism and sexism implicit in that word strewn throughout.
It’s a miserable waste of Michael Bay’s time (and if you don’t think he’s talented or one of the best action stylists of the modern era you can fuck right off and watch Pain and Gain again before watching The Rock again too), and makes tons of horrible money from rubes like me who go and see each sequel the minute it comes out. It is with astonishment that I must tell you that Transformers: The Last Knight is Not Bad. It’s easily the best of these stupid movies, and is ridiculous enough to make for recommended summer viewing.
God help us all.
So, as it turns out over now five films, it kind of sucks to be a Transformer. Sure, you can transform into a bitchin’ car if you’re a robot, but everybody seems to hate you on Earth. If you’re a Decepticon, you’re forced to follow an asshole voiced by Hugo Weaving who hasn’t been powerful or intimidating since the first movie, and you’re also probably decided from birth that you’re a villain yourself. If you’re an Autobot, you’re probably getting murdered by the people that you tried to save or you’re stranded in a Monument Valley junkyard with some dumbass named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) waiting for your leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to come back from outer space, where he’s gone to kill your god. But, oops, looks like he’s a bad guy! And looks like your home planet is coming to riggety-wreck the Earth, son! Thank god that a bunch of super old robots helped King Arthur save shit back in the day, so you can potentially stop this modern-day threat from killing everybody. You’ll just need somebody descended from Merlin and a willing idiot to wield Excalibur to make things work, and you’ve got one of the two already in your junkyard! And a dude from a secret society in England (Anthony Hopkins) might just have a lead on the other one, too…
So as you can tell, this movie is just fucking crazy, and it’s admirable how committed it is to its lunacy. This is a movie in which Merlin (Stanley Tucci) is revealed to be a con-man and a drunk who makes a deal with old-ass Transformers to save Camelot by summoning a dragon to kill all the enemies of the crown in a big ol’ CGI extravaganza. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes!
Bay’s able to up the ante all throughout the runtime, and it moves at a decently fast clip. The plot makes zero sense, and it’s hard to follow from scene to scene, but over the course of five films, Bay’s learned well how to distract from all of that with well-timed humor or a crazy bit involving the robots themselves. There’s a fun chase through London that has a few interesting and quirky moments (say, when Bumblebee partially transforms with people still inside of him), and there’s a lot of wacky time-travel stuff, such as when the Autobots help with a raid… on a Nazi base back in 1944. These robots punch Nazis, y’all, and it’s hard not to be a little endeared by that. It’s bloated as hell (and there’s probably a 90 minute version of this that’s just a shitload of fun), but it’s good enough, which is something that you couldn’t say about any of the previous movies, though, as always, your mileage may vary. It’s still the same old dumb shit that these movies have always been, just better.
Marky Mark continues to be significantly less annoying in the protagonist role of the these movies than Shia Labeouf was in the first three, though he’s still Mark Wahlberg so we get some groan-worthy one-liners and some unintentional silliness (his hair here might be one of the movie’s best sight gags). But, as all things go, he’s effective enough, especially when he’s not shitting on a local tragedy. He’s free of the burdensome side-characters that made the previous installment so unpleasant to watch, even though they’re written thinly and poorly. They’re replaced by some moderately interesting sidekicks, including a girl genius and her scooter-transforming robot amongst others, and I genuinely give props to Bay for trying to expand and diversify his human cast. The descendant of Merlin is a woman so much more qualified and brave than Wahlberg, and it’s kind of refreshing to see Bay find a female protagonist that he doesn’t want to camera-fuck.
His single greatest addition is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who gives an unhinged and go-for-broke comedic performance in this film that the franchise has always needed but outsourced to incapable talent (not to suggest that John Turturro is bad at what he does, but he’s never been compelling or as funny as Hopkins is here). Hopkins is dynamite every time he’s on screen, and aside from one stuffy monologue at the start of the film that you’ve heard in most of the trailers, he’s just allowed to be as eccentric as he wants to be. Seriously, this is a movie in which Anthony Hopkins calls Wahlberg “dude” and it prompts a laugh instead of a groan.
His butler, Cogman, is perhaps the most amusing robot we’ve ever had featured in one of these movies. He’s a self-proclaimed “sociopath” who has little regard for the humans that he’s supposed to be protecting, voiced by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, and he’s already gained a semi-ironic internet following, which is more than you can say for any of the other characters in each of the prior films. There’s an interesting layer of self-criticism going on in this movie, especially about the overall past of the franchise. None of the icky stereotypes are really present (those expecting a return for Revenge of the Fallen’s Twins will be disappointed), the comic relief characters are limited, the sexism is slowly getting phased out, and the tone is significantly breezier than it’s ever been.
Optimus Prime’s turn towards the dark side feels wholly cribbed from his portrayal in each of the previous films, where he screamed “I’m going to kill you” at villains and ripped their faces apart with hooks or shot them in the head when they were prone and ready to surrender. The once-beloved military (remember, every single other branch of government was out to compromise the Transformers-Army alliance) is now a totalitarian organization full of malice, and our protagonists spent much of the movie running and fighting the Black Ops group, now led by our former bro Josh Duhamel. It’s almost as if Bay’s trying to disown the previous movies in the series now that he’s seized control from Spielberg and company (a pic of Shia pops up at one point, and we’re led to believe that he’s been killed off camera), and absent the militarist circlejerk and asinine focus on the “boy and his car” plot mechanics, he’s able to make the wacky King Robo-Arthur movie that he’s always wanted to. And thank god for that.
If Bay is going to continue wasting his considerable talents on a franchise as bloated and stupid as this one, may they always be this memorably ludicrous and fun. And let’s pray that this isn’t Stockholm syndrome, too.
‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ is out now; follow Nick Johnston on twitter @onlysaysficus.