At some point, watching a new “Transformers” movie becomes an exercise in managing expectations. Since launching with a bang in 2007, the franchise first led by Michael Bay has spent 16 years slipping into a muddy pit of CGI malaise that many consider the epitome of Hollywood’s worst impulses. The well-received “Bumblebee” may be the exception that proves the rule. But in 2023 – when you have no one but yourself to blame for paying real, human money to a robot gorilla named Optimus Primal – it’s not unfair to wonder if the series has hopelessly hit rock bottom.
However, the temptation to let movies like “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” off the hook through state-of-the-art victim blaming should be avoided. Hasbro’s franchise has long benefited from low expectations, but the latest entry doesn’t come close to a positive vote on the massive curve we’ve already agreed to score on. Steven Caple Jr.’s ’90s-set prequel fails to deliver either merit or escapism, seemingly begging you to shut down your brain while bombarding you with stimuli that keep you painfully awake and aware for an unusually long two hours and 16 minutes.
Our story begins centuries before the dawn of man, when a planet-eating evil force known as Unicron tries to devour a planet in a very evil way. A group of robotic animals, known as the Maximals, who inhabit the planet are forced to flee, which is a fairly simple process because they have a decoration called a Transwarp key that allows them to open wormholes and travel through time and space. The ragtag gang led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) soon ends up on a small rock called Terra.
Fast forward to 1994, where Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is looking for a break. The unemployed Brooklyn boy is in desperate need of a job to help pay for his adorable little brother’s medical bills, but his reputation as an uncooperative soldier from his Army days is making it hard for him to find work. He reluctantly agrees to help his anti-capitalist friend steal luxury cars to get some much-needed cash, but the first Porsche he breaks into ends up being a Transformer who kidnaps him. When it rains, it pours.
The Porsche takes him on a harrowing police chase through New York City, but none of the near-death experiences are as terrifying as the blue car’s personality. Mirage (Pete Davidson) is a stoner and easy-going robot whose language skills appear to be limited to “fine That success” jokes in style. On a normal day, his insufferable running commentary would easily be the biggest problem facing our new “Transformers” hero. But there isn’t much time for comedic analysis when the world is about to end.
Mirage and his fellow Transformers, led by the infallible Optimus Prime, reveal that Unicron has sent a lackey named Scourge (Peter Dinklage) to Earth to retrieve the Transwarp Key. If he gets it, our planet could easily be devoured. They convince Noah to break into a museum to steal an ancient vase that he has been hidden in, before revealing that the vase only contained half of the key. The other half is hidden with the Maximals in Peru, so Noah, Mirage, and a brave museum intern named Elena (Dominique Fishback) head to the Southern Hemisphere to save the world before Scourge can get there.
Despite the misleading title, the first half of “Rise of the Beasts” is devoted to watching ordinary non-beast Transformers hang out in Brooklyn. The Maximals don’t really make an impact until we get to Peru, and even then they spend most of their time lamenting that the world is about to end. Scourge looks perilously close to destroying the planet on multiple occasions, only for Optimus Prime to reveal that he can’t end the world until he finds another McGuffin. (First he needs the key, then we learn there was a second half of the key, so he needs a code to operate the key which – you guessed it – is also split into two parts). When the Maximals team up with Optimus Prime for a mid-final battle (which by any chance leads to the destruction of Machu Picchu?), the audience’s emotions have been transparently manipulated so many times that it’s impossible to raise any kind of investment.
The most tragic part of the whole debacle is the realization that Hasbro has seen This films as an opportunity to introduce grander narrative ambitions. A final scene teases an “Avengers”-style team-up between the Transformers and another iconic toy franchise, presumably against a cosmic villain whose evil impulses are so generic that completely unrelated IPs can unite against them. It’s as if some executive saw Mattel and Greta Gerwig turn “Barbie” into real art, so they made a George Costanza-esque decision to veer in the opposite direction out of sheer spite.
“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” will be released in theaters on Friday, June 9.