When last we left the Transformers franchise (i.e. 2014’s Age of Extinction), director Michael Bay was drooling over men in uniform and blowing up everything in sight, star Mark Wahlberg was looking at his sexy teenage daughter with a discomforting mix of parental protectiveness and deviant desire, and giant shape-shifting robots were riding around on mecha-dinosaurs in a battle against other robots constructed with millions of visually distracting moving parts. This was pure inanity: an unbridled indulgence of every modern action-fantasy convention in the playbook its helmer helped author, all of it writ large and sexy and skeezy and stupid. Visually incoherent, narratively disordered, and lacking any basic good taste, it was the epitome of 21st century Hollywood summer extravaganzas. And it was what the people wanted, hungrily devoured by audiences to the tune of $1.1 billion at the global box office.
Those fans will be thrilled to hear that the latest entry in the canon du Bay-hem, Transformers: The Last Knight, more or less picks up right where its predecessor left off—by which I mean, in an orgiastic stew of detonations, jingoism, and sequences in which CGI vehicles make that weird wrink-wronk-wrank-wank noise as they turn into CGI titans. The only thing missing is Wahlberg unsubtly lusting after his offspring. Luckily, though, he’s still playing a character named Cade Yeager—a moniker that would make Keanu Reeves’ Point Break hero Johnny Utah stand up and slow-clap in appreciation—and this time around, he at least has an amusingly floppy new haircut. Oh, and there’s a three-headed Transformers dragon who’s amassed from ancient Autobots who used to hang out with a drunken Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. If you were worried that Bay had lost his touch for sublimely absurd, wantonly steroidal toy cinema, you can lay your fears to rest.
In describing the sheer excess of Transformers: The Last Knight, I fear I might make it sound thrilling (which it is not), or intentionally funny (nope), or somehow intelligible (no, no, no). As written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan, this fifth entry in the series is a debacle by any traditional standard, amalgamating all of its ancestors’ worst habits. It fetishizes war machine technology and soldiers. It employs crude stereotypes via “ethnic” robots (one is “Asian,” another is “French,” and yet another speaks in hip-hop-y slang). It lustfully objectifies “tough” women (in this case, Laura Haddock’s Oxford professor Viviane Wembley—as in Wembley Stadium, because she’s British!). It wastes time on a comedic techno-nerd (Tony Hale, given nothing witty to say). And it jumps around the globe in order to stage cacophonous digital skirmishes in which you can’t identify any individual Transformer combatant, can’t figure out what they’re actually doing (is that one punching the other one, or tickling him?), and can’t stop laughing at the incessant sight of Wahlberg slip-and-sliding along the ground amidst this alien insanity.
There’s a story in Transformers: The Last Knight. So. Much. Story. It’d take multiple paragraphs to recount all of the ludicrous plot points whirling around this mishmash, which involves Yeager teaming up with Wembley (introduced, naturally, while dressed like a porn star “teacher”) to stop Earth from being destroyed/replaced by the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron. To do this, Yeager must use an Arthurian talisman that makes him some sort of “last knight,” and Wembley must wield the staff of Merlin—which was given to the wizard (here played by Stanley Tucci, in a role unrelated to his Age of Extinction part) by a Transformer, and which she alone can use because she’s Merlin’s descendant. Optimus Prime, meanwhile, has been turned evil by a wicked Cybertron goddess; John Turturro’s conspiracy theorist intervenes from his hideaway in Cuba; Yeager becomes the surrogate daddy to a 14-year-old Hispanic orphan (Isabela Moner); and Sir Anthony Hopkins—playing Sir Edmund Burton, who’s related to Shia LaBeouf’s original-trilogy protagonist Sam Witwicky, and who knows about the Transformers’ secret participation in humanity’s history—delivers mouthfuls of mythic exposition and then repeatedly yells at random strangers.
In every respect, The Last Knight is bigger than almost anything that’s ever appeared on a movie screen (especially if you see it in IMAX!), and there’s a certain awe-inspiring quality to its overabundance. To watch its final stretch, full of colliding planets, crashing submarines, plummeting aircrafts, Normandy Beach-ish military campaigns (led by Josh Duhamel’s Colonel Lennox), zero-gravity free-falls, and constant clashes between indecipherable robots, is to feel as if one’s retinas are being firehosed with sugar—it’s just so sparkly and sizzly and overwhelmingly stimulating. To be fair, it’s difficult not to be somewhat spellbound by it all. That Bay is capable of staging computerized pandemonium with this much rapid-fire scale, sound, and car-commercial sleekness is no small feat; good luck finding someone else who can take the reigns of this Hasbro-based franchise if, as the director claims, The Last Knight is truly his Transformers swan song. In terms of orchestrating bedlam that’s illogical, incomprehensible, and overpowering in equal measure (not to mention has this many stylish canted angles), the filmmaker has no equal.
And yet, once again: to what end? The pinnacle of blockbuster gigantism, Bay’s latest is a chore except when its madness becomes so sensorially all-consuming—blinding the eyes, deafening the ears, befuddling the mind—that it achieves a sort of terrible abstract grandeur. It has no flair for the dramatic, no sense of humor, no regard for (human or alien) life, and no respect for anything other than gung-ho badassery. It’s a hulking behemoth only interested in expanding its own movie-universe hegemony by consuming everything around it—past, present and future—such that at outset, it appears to have eaten Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and by the end, it seems to have ingested Alien: Covenant’s bio-organic imagery as well. Along the way, it’s got a WWII sequence in which Bumblebee fights Nazis, a Three’s Company-style gag in which twittering old ladies mistake Yeager and Wembley’s noisiness for sex, and a “sociopathic” C-3PO-esque robot butler who serves Hopkins’ Sir Burton. All in all, The Last Knight is a cinematic cannibal, concerned only with conquest.Unless audiences have suddenly grown weary of the decades-old property upon which it’s based, The Last Knight seems destined to continue the series’ multiplex supremacy, considering it serves up even more of the very nonsense that made its prior outings such gargantuan hits. So sure of its everything-in-your-face-now ethos that it doesn’t even wait until mid-credits (à la Marvel) to provide its sequel-teasing stinger, Transformers: The Last Knight tramples cinematic technique and etiquette with reckless abandon, a monument to Hollywood “awesomeness” in all its unholy forms. Look upon it, and despair.