There’s a finer polish on this Transformers movie. It buffs out much of the chaos that makes these films such a headache to get through. Gone are the confusingly-shot action sequences, the messy design of characters who look like walking-talking garbage, and the stumblingly awful attempts at humor. In its place, however, is a rather generic and by-the-numbers sci-fi action film.
The plot is the same as every Transformers movie before, albeit with less clutter. Taking place in 1994, the heroic Autobots once again discover an artifact of Cybertron that’s once again buried on Earth for years and once again have to prevent evil robots from using it to destroy the world. The bad guy this time is Unicron (Colman Domingo), a faceless giant orb that devours planets. Serving Unicron is generic henchmen leader, Scourge (Peter Dinklage), a villain whose only notable personality is wearing the insignias of his kills.
Here’s where the film gets frustrating. There is a decent drive for the characters to consider more than just how to stop another robotic antagonist. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) wants to find the central MacGuffin as it’ll allow him and his Autobot comrades to finally return home to Cybertron. The Maximals (a version of the Autobots that transform into animals instead of vehicles) want to protect the relic and ensure that Unicron will never have it. And the humans want to destroy the vestige so someone like Unicron doesn’t come to terra firma for dinner.
Usually, the humans are the characters I root for the least, but that changes in this entry. The down-on-his-luck Noah (Anthony Ramos) is smart and noble for his expertise in robotics, devotion to his sick brother, and courage to press on and find a good job. The hapless Elena (Dominique Fishback) is a museum intern that struggles to keep a stiff upper lip when a stuffy museum owner looks down on her. Both of them unite and form a solid friendship amid saving the world, showing more concern and brains for roles that typically find these characters running and screaming. They still do all that but won’t have to endure an awkward romance or a manic burst of energy to keep up with a Michael Bay level of pacing.
Some shreds of personality come through the one Autobot Mirage (Pete Davidson), a mildly cocky robot who befriends Noah best. Mirage not only has the coolest features of all the Autobots (being able to compose multiple holograms of himself), but he’s the most expressive and acts as a much-needed comic relief for the stern Autobots. Bumblebee is also present as comic relief, but there are only so many pop culture soundbites you can have him repeat before the bit gets old. At least Optimus gets in one brilliant jab of dry wit for Bumblebee’s constant citations (“I don’t want you hanging out at that drive-in movie theater anymore”).
The film needs more of that charm Mirage offers, as that’s sadly where the charisma ends for the robots. Autobot editions of Arcee and Wheeljack certainly have more distinct designs and expertise but spend nearly all of their screen time engaged in routine exposition. The addition of the Maximals are meant to bring an added dose of concern and tragedy to the mix for their fallen world, but the bitterness of the conflicted leader Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) comes off with little distinction from Optimus Prime. This is in sharp contrast to the Beast Wars cartoon, where there was plenty of room for developing the many Maximals. Within this narrative, characters like Cheetor and Rhinox are so far shoved into the background that there’s little point in them being present, aside from more mechanical bodies to fill the battlefields.
This is one of those films where it’s comparatively easy to praise the film for not matching the atrocious assembly of the Bay-former movies. There are no annoying human moments, no exaggerated camera stagings, and no dialogue that stumbles around racism and sexism (safe for one scene in which Noah questions the race of an Autobot based on the Latino accent). But the film can also be negatively reviewed for what it doesn’t do as well. It doesn’t put in the extra effort to make its obligatory battle to save Earth anything more than a CGI battle going through the laser-blasting and metal-crunching motions. The many chases and fight scenes are understandable, sure, but they’re also not that engaging beyond their artificial assembly line of blockbuster expectations.
Rise of the Beasts lifts the Transformers movies from the rubble of mediocre messes and plants it much more firmly in a paint-by-numbers action blockbuster. To some extent, it is refreshing not to have a Transformers movie that generates headaches and feels more worthy of being a passive dose of summer mindlessness. At the same time, there’s a clearer path present that suggests Transformers movies don’t have to be this mundane, especially since the Beast Wars Maximals were known for having more depth than just being the animal variants. Rather than roll out onto that new highway for the franchise, this picture merely keeps on trucking down the same road but with a few potholes filled in.