Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Michael Bay
Running Time: 149 mins (yes 149 god damn minutes)
Synopsis: Optimus Prime is lost in space leaving Earth under the constant threat of Transformers attacks. Still hiding out after the events of the last film Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is sucked into a massive battle for the planet after being chosen to carry a mysterious amulet by an ancient Transformer. Somewhere along the line King Arthur, the Nazis, an Oxford professor, a robot butler and Anthony Hopkins get involved. And that’s just the first hour!!
If we’re all being honest with ourselves Transformers should not really have been turned into a live action film! Ostensibly a series starring 50ft robots that can transform themselves into other vehicles or even inanimate objects, it begs the question how do you convincingly give these machines enough emotional inner workings to facilitate audience affection when so much of said emotion is conveyed through cold mechanical eyes. You must of course achieve this via the use of human counterparts, but there is a greater risk then in trying to accept the fact that tiny human beings can have any sort of relationship with robots that could squish them just by stepping at the wrong time. Director Michael Bay somehow found a way around this in his first Transformers film to gift a spark of life thanks to the simplicity of its boy and his car story. No doubt encouraged by producer Steven Spielberg, the original film had a tightness, a charming low key likeability and a restraint rarely seen in Bay’s work. Of course his childish tendencies came through at times, the casual sexism, the tonal inconsistencies and the use of bathed sunlight in every damn shot. But it worked!
Unfortunately the rampant success of the film, the retreat of Spielberg and the rush to construct a deep mythology triggered three overblown sequels. Some, including me, hoped that the fourth film (Age of Extinction) would see a bit of a retcon. New cast, new look and Bay claiming that this was a reboot of sorts. But this all turned out to be a cruel long con. Sickeningly long, intensely noisy and incomprehensible in its story, Extinction could very well have been taken all too literally. Disappointingly takings of $1 billion have left us with another go around for Bay’s singular Bayhem!
Things do not start off well. A flashback to the time of King Arthur as him and his knights fight a brutal bloody battle against a well numbered enemy. It is a bracing opening, full of catapulting fire bombs (of course Bay would find a way to blow things up even in The Dark Ages) and clanging armour. Then we jump to a drunken Merlin (Stanley Tucci at least having some fun) as he mutters about a mysterious weapon, then we cut to Arthur making a rousing speech, then we cut to Merlin wandering the hills as a portentous Anthony Hopkins voiceover booms out, then we cut to more battle, then we…you get the picture. It is editing as schizophrenia. Bay continuing this style throughout the film. He has always been one to cut quick, particularly during his, usually, well choreographed action scenes, but here there is a slapdash ADD feel to the whole thing. Content to cut away mid-scene to something completely unrelated, which is especially egregious when he interrupts big action sequences with a random immature joke or a sideways look at what another character is up to.
This ties into how tonally misfitted the entire piece is. Previous Transformers films have struggled with this, but it feels most noticeable in The Last Knight. Clunky humour which lands with the weight of a falling Transformer is one thing but pairing that with the casual racism or sexism is just distasteful. Emotional, well attempted emotional, moments are sledgehammered down with what Bay clearly thinks are hilarious bouts of interplay. Anthony Hopkins just about charms as an eccentric keeper of secrets, providing most of the better lines, although even he fails to sell such clunkers as “bitchin car isn’t she!” He also is charged with delivering possibly the most exposition I’ve ever seen in a film. Of the generous 149 min runtime (but mercifully shorter than the nigh on 3hrs of the last one) it feels like at least half of it is some form of story explanation.
There is no use of natural story progression, using character and action to propel the story forward, instead the film just sort of stops to describe some unknown plot point before picking back up again. And what a story! 3 screenwriters were involved and it appears they each had a different tale to tell but rather than picking one they just decided to put them all together. We get Nazis, robot butlers, an ancient history, a Cybertron history, a young orphan girl (Isabela Moner) and her struggle, an Oxford professor and her relationship with her dad, there is just so much damn plot. I haven’t even touched on the competing military forces driven to either kill or protect the Transformers, and seemingly only so Bay can ejaculate over military hardware as he is want to do. The messiness of the plot combined with the jaggedness of the editing leaves you reeling, and not in a good way.
Nothing makes any sense!! Laura Haddock arrives as the most gorgeous Oxford professor you’ve ever seen (of course) with an endearing clumsiness that is abandoned after one scene. Bay then outfits her in ever more breast revealing clothes, as she discovers she is more important to the Transformers mythology than logic would allow. Haddock is passable but with material as haphazard and thin as this no blame could be placed at her feet. Same with Wahlberg, he gets some sardonic comebacks and has an expression of confusion throughout that may in actual fact be some sort of fourth wall breaking display of clever irony. Sadly I think the more likely option is he just feels lost at the madness around him.
The Transformers themselves are the usual band of painfully misinformed stereotypes, loud mouthed (seriously everyone shouts) chatterboxes and in Optimus Prime a terrific voice artist (Peter Cullen) forced to spout “I am Optimus Prime” no less than 10 times, sometimes twice in the same scene. Bumblebee is still the only one with any real personality, which bodes well for the proposed prequel just featuring him.
No matter how nonsensical these films usually get you can always rely on Bay to at least deliver on the action and while the visual effects are once more a triumph of ILM design, there is a conspicuous lack of energy to his work this time out. He almost seems bored, content to let noise and chaos replace decent choreography and structured action. Good action always relies on escalation, steadily building tension before the eventual release when it is all over, The Last Knight’s action opens big, and ends big. Much has also been ballyhooed about how Bay has filmed it all with IMAX cameras, the first to do so, but this is clearly not true as there are still flips from the larger aspect ratio to the normal black barred screen. Flips that happen a ridiculous amount of times, and usually during a scene. Films have done this before, notably Nolan’s second and third Batman films, but whereas Nolan smoothed his transitions with delicacy, usually after an action scene into a dialogue scene or a sweeping landscape shot, Bay does it whenever he pleases.
This is systematic of the entire film, Bay seems to be equal parts excited and bored. Keen to feature enough plot beats capable of sustaining about 5 films, but also growing tired of his film frequently, hence the incomprehensible cutting. It is evident this franchise, and it will continue as plans are afoot for numerous spin-offs, needs some fresh blood. Someone who can return it to its smaller roots, who understands that it takes a confident consistent touch in order to make such a fantastical idea land. If this is to be Bay’s swansong, and bearing in mind he has said this before and still returned, he leaves in a sea of childish bantering, editing chaos and inept plotting.
Verdict: A woefully low entry in a franchise that barely hit the heights the first time out. This is cinema used as an instrument of torture!