Let’s cut to the chase up front—Transformers: The Last Knight isn’t very good. At all.
It manages to sidestep the stultifying narrative incoherence of Age of Extinction and a good dose of the weird cruelty of Dark of the Moon, but runs headlong into the massive racial stereotypes of Revenge of the Fallen and the bloated running length of the entire franchise to date.
There’s a three headed robotic dragon in the movie. Somehow it’s still dull.
But, in a weird way, it’s also a really interesting movie. Because this looks, and feels, like the end of an era. A mere four films late, Michael Bay is (probably, hopefully) finally stepping away from the franchise he’s been exploding in slow motion for a decade now. And while he leaves vast, and vastly photogenic, damage in his wake there’s some hope for the future.
But we’ll get to that.
Because there are elements of The Last Knight that don’t just work, they’re actually REALLY fun. Especially an opening sequence depicting King Arthur and his knights at a pivotal battle and Merlin getting sozzled and yelling at a spaceship.
Played with Captain Jack Sparrow when he was still fun levels of glee by Stanley Tucci, this Merlin is a liar and a fraud. But he’s a liar and a fraud who’s found an alien spaceship and talked to the beings inside…He pleads for their aid and just as all seems lost, Merlin and the OTHER knights of the roundtable, the Autobot ones, ride to the rescue.
This idea is so gloriously over the top, and Tucci is clearly having so much fun that you’re genuinely sad when this sequence stops. Had Bay done an entire robotic knights versus Saxons movie then this would have been way better than it is. Odds are we may get that movie later though, so go Team Drunk Tucci Merlin!
We jump forward in time from there and discover that the events of the previous movies have, for once, had consequences. Optimus Prime, Murderbot is lost in space after forgetting interstellar distances are a thing. Earth is so thunderously sick of the transformers that a rapid response force has been set up to kill them on sight and areas of Chicago destroyed in the last movie are still roped off and patrolled.
It’s an interesting, untidy set up which gives these movies a weight they’ve never had before. Instead of hand waving away the consequences of events this feels like a world buckling under the weight of a decade of trauma.
Front and centre in that world is Izzy. Played by Isabela Moner, Izzy is an actual female lead with actual agency and intelligence who’s actually fun. In these movies that’s like going ten minutes without an explosion. A survivor of the Chicago attack, she’s angry and homeless, living in the locked off zones and repairing any Autobots she can find. This includes Canopy, who lives just about long enough for us to get his name, and Sqweeks, the obligatory comic relief Autobot.
Izzy’s GREAT. She’s fun and tough and has a great back story and the entire movie could be hung off her.
So of course, Mark Wahlberg rocks up ten minutes later to do the exact same thing he did last time just grumpier and without the repellent sub plot about his daughter. Cade Yeager was dull in Age of Extinction and he’s duller this time although Wahlberg at least doesn’t shout as much. He’s an odd leading man, occasionally brilliant, often serviceable and just as often actively bad. Age of Extinction was the worst performance he’s ever turned in. This just about makes it into the serviceable range.
Aided by Jerrod Carmichael as Jimmy, his assistant, Cade runs a junkyard/sanctuary for the Autobots. His ‘tenants’ include Grimlock and the dinobots from last time as well as Bumblebee (Still Bee), Drift (Still every samurai cliché rolled into one), Hound (still dull) and Crosshairs (Still actively mean spirited for no good reason). But there’s a problem, without Optimus Prime, Murderbot the Autobots are fighting amongst themselves.
Worse still, colossal structures are appearing all over the planet and a planetary mass is heading into the solar system. Something on Earth is waking up and Cybertron is riding to meet it. In the meantime Megatron makes a deal with the humans, Prime meets his goddess and in England, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock patiently wait for the plot to catch up to them.
This all happens in the first 90 minutes or so of the movie. Bay and scriptwriters Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan appear to have responded to the non-existent plot of the previous movie by throwing three scripts’ worth of events in a blender and hitting MAELSTROM. As well as Izzy, Jimmy, the Autobots, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Prime meeting God and the TRF there’s some back-filling continuity about every previous movie, a little (but not enough) more about the Knights of Cybertron from last time and an entirely superfluous NASA sub plot as well as a high speed chase through London and a profoundly weird sequence with a submarine.
Some of this works surprisingly well. The massive amounts of exposition Sir Anthony Hopkins is required to spout as the last member of the society who have recorded Transformer presence on Earth in particular. Plus it sets up a lot of potentially interesting spinoffs. Because apparently the Transformers helped win World War II. And helped Harriet Tubman. And caused a volcanic eruption or two. And fought in World War I.
Consistent with previous movies? Not even a little! Way more interesting than previous movies? You bet!
Likewise Haddock’s Viviane Wembly, a no-nonsense British academic whose best moments involve telling Cade to shut up or being the most competent person in the room. Of course she ends up falling in love with Cade, because movie, but Haddock is, along with Moner, the first woman who’s ever been given something substantial to do with the series and clearly relishes it.
And that brings us to the problems. Because fun as Haddock and Moner are, they’re endlessly pushed off screen by too much of other things. For reasons that defy rationality John Turturro literally phones in his info dump cameo from Cuba. Santiago Cabrera is utterly wasted as the head of the TRF, the anti-Transformers force. He’s required to do nothing more than look grumpy and be yelled at by Cade and a returning Josh Duhamel as Lennox who somehow has even less to do than he does. Then there’s the fact that Izzy and Jimmy, who get chunky introductions, are written out of the movie for an hour so Bay and co can de-camp to England. Or at least the version of England they think exists, where Sir Anthony Hopkins runs a de facto retirement home for dementia-riddled old Autobots and you can walk up to the door of Number 10 Downing Street, call a policeman a ‘dickhead’ and not get shot.
If this sounds bad, it is. It’s made even worse once you take a look at the Cybertronian cast. Drift, Crosshairs and Hound are catchphrase machines. Bumblebee is quite fun, as ever, but given this movie establishes he’s basically unkillable and that he’s still messing around with his voicebox there’s nowhere to really go with him. Unless it’s into the past with Hailee Steinfeld of course.
Then there’s Optimus Prime, Murderbot. The greatest leader of the Autobots is off screen for at least half the movie and it’s so much better for his absence. Bay’s Prime is a murderous, arrogant sociopath and while this movie tries to make that a feature not a bug, he’s still startlingly unlikeable. Prime’s narrative line here is:
- Fail to make it out of the solar system on a quest to murder God.
- Impact on Cybertron.
- Get brainwashed, return to Earth.
- Murder some autobots.
- Get talked down by Bee.
- Be late to the final fight.
- Save Viviane and Cade.
If there’s a character Bay has destroyed in this series, it’s Prime—and while it’s great to see his awful choices have consequences for once, the character is still a very long way from likable. Hopefully he’ll be rested for a few movies. Hopefully he’ll take Drift and Crosshairs with them. Hopefully he’ll forget to bring them back.
Then there’s Megatron’s collection of tropeticons. Mohawk is a bike who, you guessed it, has a Mohawk. Barricade’s sum totality of character is in his PUNISH and ENSLAVE knuckledusters and Nitro Zeus is almost implausibly terrible. Idiotic name aside, he talks like someone who failed an audition for Oz and wears an actual, hand to God, gold chain.
He’s a 30 foot transformer.
Wearing a gold chain.
And the first time we see him he’s getting out of prison.
The last time these movies were this overtly racist and stereotypical was Revenge of the Fallen, which is less a film and more a series of blows to the temple. It’s somehow got even less charming since then.
In fact, the movie makes a very definite return to the mean-spiritedness of Revenge of the Fallen. There’s a fat joke about once a half hour and an entire running gag about how funny it is when British people say ‘bitch’ Throw in the moment where Cade calls Izzy ‘Lil J-Lo’ and you’ve got a veritable tapas spread of terrible script choices. Possibly the most surreal of which is the excellent Omar Sy being cast as Hot Rod, only to spend the movie complaining about his accent.
So, yeah, this is a bad movie. But there is good news. This really does feel like the last time around for this iteration. Next up is Travis Clark’s Hailee Steinfeld fronted Bumblebee movie set in the 1980s. Written by Christina Hodson it’s already being talked up as a smaller focus, more character driven movie. Every single member of the creative team do good work and I’m hopeful that it will be a much needed course correction for the series. Likewise Transformers 6 which, so far, is not being directed by Bay, won’t star Wahlberg and will be largely set on Cybertron sounds promising. But we’ve been here before, more than once.
If The Last Knight is the last bow, then these movies may finally be en route to being as fun as they should have been from the start. There’s vast intelligence and potential in the Transformers and the comics—More Than Meets The Eye and Lost Light have demonstrated that for years. Maybe with the help of Clark, Hodson, Steinfeld and the 1980s, we’ll finally see that on screen. Because, fun elements aside, we definitely don’t see it here.
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.