Either someone’s prayers went unanswered or someone’s sacrifice was REALLY great because we’re getting a new Transformers movie. Transformers: The Last Knight had its first trailer released this week and, well, in the immortal words of The Crystal Method, There Is Hope.
Just in case you’ve successfully avoided the previous movies and any previous iteration of these characters, here’s what you need to know:
Cybertron is home to a race of huge, basically immortal transforming sentient robots. One group, the Decepticons, want to control the universe. The other, the Autobots, just want everyone to get along.
They, of course, fight.
That fight, of course, comes to Earth.
Shia LaBeouf happens, probably rather too much, as Sam Witwicky who becomes the default partner of an autobot called Bumblebee. Along with a pair of really surprisingly fun Special Forces Operators played by Terese Gibson and Josh Duhamel, Sam defeats the Decepticons and blows up a good chunk of Mission City in doing so.
Then the first sequel happens. We don’t speak of that one.
Then the second sequel happens. That has Leonard Nimoy in it, Buzz Aldrin meets Optimus Prime and Chicago gets massively destroyed. It is, very shrill LaBeouf aside, surprisingly fun.
Then Age of Extinction happens. Mark Wahlberg shows up. Jack Reynor, who is magnificent in the wonderful Sing Street, plays his daughter’s boyfriend. There is a subplot wherein we find out Reynor carries a laminated copy of the law that proves his relationship with Wahlberg’s daughter doesn’t qualify as rape.
I cannot articulate how much I wish I was joking.
There are Dinobots. They don’t do anything but they’re in the movie. There are size-changing broadswords. Optimus Prime straight up murders a guy and flies off on chemical rockets he is somehow going to use to travel interstellar distances to go punch his creators in the face.
It is not the worst film I’ve ever seen. Just.
As is often the case with terrible movies, it took a lot of money. Refreshingly though, Hasbro seem to have realized that producing Transformers movies that are the cinematic equivalent of 15,000 cups of espresso and every Babymetal album played at once isn’t the only thing they could do with the franchise.
They hired writers. Writers who, unlike the writer of Age of Extinction, seem quite fond of narrative logic. A universe was blocked out, a foundation created and The Last Knight is both the first product of that and the second soft reboot for the series in as many movies.
This one, though, might take.
The trailer goes straight for the classy by having Sir Antony Hopkins, presumably fresh from tormenting Hosts in Westworld, narrate it. He specifically evokes the Witwicky family motto but we’d be very surprised to see Sam or, God help us all, his parents return. Rather, given the shot of Hopkins and a family crest that says VICTORY down one side, we suspect he’s a long lost relative.
Then things get interesting. And, perhaps, coherent. Hopkins’ voiceover plays over footage of medieval and modern warfare, as well as what can only be Megatron as a three headed dragon. He asks why the Transformers always come here and, as the footage shifts to the present day, implies we’re about to get our answers.
The film unfolds across two time periods and one plot seems to be pretty solidly King Arthur versus the Decepticons. That is so ludicrous it actually sounds brilliant and I’m laying bets now that the Knights of Cybertron, a concept played with in the previous movie, were inspired by Arthur. Plus, if we must have bloody Megatron back as a bad guy, having him appear in the past does make a certain amount of sense. Also, that flashback plot clearly takes in World War 2 as well and behind the scenes footage shows Hopkins’ character at his family estate accompanied by an old World War I era tank. Clearly, to quote The X-Files, “they’ve” not only been here for a long time but a few of them have settled down and live with venerable character actors.
The modern day plot line lacks the “…WHAT?!” Factor of Cybertronians vs Knights. That’s a problem. The fact that Wahlberg’s charmless Cade Yeager is back is another, but there are actually signs of interesting, and self-aware, scriptwriting there.
It looks, for almost the first time in this entire misbegotten series of cinematic bloats, like there are actual onscreen consequences. That sequence with the kids in the wrecked stadium looks like the aftermath of the Chicago attack (Or…whatever the hell Lockdown was doing in Age of Extinction.) That, coupled with the return of Lennox and Epps, the two most fun characters in the series, suggests the movie has at least picked a lane, unlike its predecessor.
Then there’s the small matter of Optimus Prime, serial killer.
Prime has always been a difficult character. He’s honest and decent and true and…well, kind of boring as a result. That’s led the Transformers comics to portray him as someone closer to Jack Ryan than the robotic Jesus he’s got dangerously close to at times elsewhere. By showing his past as a police officer under a totalitarian regime, his growing moral quandaries and eventual ascent to leadership the comics have made him nuanced, flawed, and interesting.
The movies have had him brush off the death of one of his oldest friends, cannibalize another to win a fight, systematically butcher Decepticons and execute a human in cold blood.
It has, it’s fair to say, not gone well. And culminated, as mentioned earlier, in Prime flying off, very slowly, to go and punch his creators in the face at the end of the last movie.
Given that when we see him here for the first time, he’s apparently both very badly beaten and in orbit around Jupiter, that doesn’t seem to have gone the way he was expecting.
That’s a really good thing. Firstly because if anyone in these films deserves an attitude adjustment it’s Optimus Prime, Murderbot. Secondly, and more importantly, because this plays like a tacit admission of just how badly the previous movies have got him wrong. Prime should be the heart of the Autobots, not their trigger finger.
Finally, this leads to the rest of the trailer where Prime has clearly gone full dark side. That’s again necessary given his previous behavior and hints strongly at a massive course correction. Either the character will be killed outright (happens a lot, he usually gets better) or will come out the other side of The Last Knight with a new outlook. After all, his motto was always “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” not “Nuke them till they glow and shoot them in the dark.”
Look, I know these movies have a dirt level reputation and I know that reputation is almost always deserved. But I also know there are complex, fun, GOOD stories to tell with these characters. More Than Meets The Eye, one of the comics, is flat out one of the best books being published today and is about to relaunch as Lost Light. Even the first live action Transformers movie was pretty good in spots but, for some reason, the series has never got close to that level of fun. Here’s hoping The Last Knight is a turn in the right direction. And even if it isn’t, we’ll at least have knights versus robots.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.