Transformers Rise of the Beasts review: Marvel in disguise
Rather than maintaining the simplicity and heart of Bumblebee, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts feels like a lazy attempt at establishing the Hasbro Cinematic Universe, fast-forwarding to Infinity War without any of the legwork and giving no time for the Maximals to shine.
As much as it tries to shake its robotic coils, Transformers movies are always going to be compared to Bayformers. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Travis Knight bucked the trend with Bumblebee, a film that did away with icky male gaze-athons and nonsensical narratives, and gave a heart to the robots in disguise. It was the justice Transformers fans were looking for.
That’s not to say there aren’t notable upsides to Michael Bay’s big screen portrayal of the Hasbro toy franchise. The filmmaker knows how to throw a cinematic spectacle. Though some of the action sequences were enough to induce motion sickness in the hardest of stomachs, impressive VFX work resulted in plenty of high-energy mayhem and destruction, with shiny chrome and intricate contraptions updating the 2D animation of our childhoods.
(Early) Bayformers brought style, Bumblebee brought substance. Unfortunately, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts – a prequel to the former and sequel to the latter – is middling at best. It’s an unfortunate outcome given it has so much going for it: a voice cast featuring Michelle Yeoh and Peter Dinklage; Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as our flesh-formed protagonists; Creed II director Steven Caple Jr at the helm; and the live-action debut of Beast Wars’ Maximals.
But this may just have contributed to the problem; where Bumblebee kept it simple, Rise of the Beasts tries to fit an MCU Infinity War into a two-hour timeframe – without any of the legwork that went before it. We were excited to see the Maximals in action, with the bird-like Airazor (Yeoh), fan fave Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), battle unit Rhinox (David Sobolov), and their leader, Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) assembling for battle. And let’s not forget their dreaded foes, the Decepticon-allied Terrorcons, led by the fearsome yet forgettable Scourge (Dinklage).
Rushed storytelling leaves no bot to root for
While the Cybertronians certainly look the part thanks to CGI trickery balancing fur and feathers with sleek robotics, their lifeless expressions match their character development, a factor that is seriously lacking throughout. There are so many subplots thrown in that none of them have time to stew, leaving little room for the Maximals to shine, especially against their Autobot counterparts led by Optimus Prime.
Bumblebee truly gave us characters to root for, focusing on the heartfelt relationship between Charlie and the eponymous Transformer. Though Bumblebee does appear in Rise of the Beasts, the classic robot-human team-up is replaced by Noah (Ramos), a down-and-out ex-army techspert looking to raise money for his sick younger brother, and Mirage (Pete Davidson), a wise-cracking Autobot whose form is flipped from Ferrari to Porsche.
The pair somehow become ride-or-die besties after one car chase and a fist-bump, one of many scenarios that feels rushed through. The five-man writing team attempt to replicate the depth of its predecessor by introducing a sympathetic motive for Noah, a stark contrast to Shia LaBeouf’s ultra-privileged Sam. But much of the dialogue explains to the audience how they’re meant to feel before swiftly moving on, shoehorning quick reminders when they’re needed for the narrative to make any sense at all.
The Transwarp Key is our leading McGuffin
All of this is tied together by the movie’s biggest McGuffin: the Transwarp Key, a contraption that leads to Rise of the Beasts’ climatic battle. The Autobots want it as it’s the only way for them to get back to Cybertron, but the Terrorcons want it to empower Unicron, a planet-munching giant who is hellbent on snacking on the entire universe – including earth. The race to nab it kicks off when artefact researcher Elena (Dominique Fishback) accidentally activates it, triggering a signal to both the Terrorcons and the Autobots.
The good news is, the time-jumping Maximals split the key into two parts. The bad news is, they can’t remember where they hid the other half. This is where Elena comes in, as she uses her expertize to track it down in Peru. And so begins a globe-trotting adventure, with humans, Autobots, and Maximals duking it out against the Terrorcons to stop Unicron from destroying the universe.
Despite the simple premise – get the key, stop Unicron – Rise of the Beasts is filled with half-baked ideas. There are so many moments that should evoke tension, from Noah’s moral dilemma to Primal’s conflict with a corrupted Airazor, but the stakes are never high enough to land. The Maximals, arguably the movie’s biggest pull, get brushed to the side by perfunctory storytelling, as do side characters such as Arcee, Wheeljack, Stratosphere, and Nightbird, leaving the action sequences feeling dull.
That’s not to say Rise of the Beasts is without its merits. Fishback gives a fantastic performance as Elena, a character who could easily carry her own movie. The locations serve the movie well, flipping from the dark cityscapes of New York to the luscious greens of Machu Picchu, while the VFX work in Unicron’s scenes are spectacular (especially when viewed on IMAX). And an honorable mention to the soundtrack, featuring ‘90s hip-hop beats from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie to match its 1994 setting. But, ultimately, these are overshadowed by what feels like a lazy attempt to create a Hasbro Cinematic Universe.
Transformers: Rise of the Bests review score – 2/5
Rise of the Beasts certainly isn’t the worst live-action Transformers movie there is, but it should have taken a leaf out of Bumblebee’s book and kept it simple. The film will probably sell a lot of toys and, whether we like it or not, the franchise looks set to continue, with an ending that indicates a ticket-selling crossover in the near future. But if the Transformers wants to generate a live-action legacy akin to the nostalgia-inducing cartoons, it’s going to need to try harder than a Marvel rip-off in disguise.