2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Mark Wahlberg, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhmal, Stanley Tucci, Tony Hale | directed by Michael Bay | 2hrs 34mins |
Studio Pitch: This time we see how the Transformers created Merlin’s magic and the knights of the round table. Seriously.
It’s not as much that I’m a Michael Bay defender. I just get that he’s a filmmaker with a particular, music video, car ad, style and that style can be wielded blindly for good or for ill by a script that calls the shots. Despite what the internet might think with one voice, Michael Bay isn’t killing cinema. He’s not even the worst part of most of his movies. He has a style that is easily identified as his own signature and that is something. For the most part I’ve enjoyed the guilty pleasure, live action, fireworks explosion of Bay’s Transformers movies. They scratch a primal summer movie itch, if only because he’s afforded a budget big enough to bring to life spectacles so epic in global scale, and wacky in ways studio films usually aren’t, that they draw me in.
With each movie the Transformers series has only gotten crazier. When we last left Bay, his hero-named-by-action-movie-automat Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and Autobot leader Optimus Prime, an alien anti-gravity machine was dragging robot dinosaurs up the side of skyscrapers in Hong Kong. So even by Transformers standards, The Last Knight is an absolutely baffling clusterf**k.
It starts out fine, Bay settles us in for another mind-emptying bonanza of slow motion explosions, bad jokes, cast diversity cliches, screaming overacting from John Turturro, Bud Light commercials, car porn money shots, obtuse government plots and his usual coke-fueled over-editing. The most fun thing in these movies is the revisionist history angles. First the Transformers were responsible for all of our post-50s technological advancements, then the space race to the moon and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Now Bay turns to full blown fantasy. 1600 years ago, a group of 12 autobots gifted Merlin (a bearded Stanley Tucci) a robot staff that’s alien abilities were seen as magic in the dark ages, helps King Arthur win the war and brings together the knights of the roundtable.
Then we meet Yeager living in a junkyard with Autobots and adorable baby Dinobots (how do they breed?), an orphan girl who knows her Autobot mechanics, Izabella (Isabela Moner), and an expert in ancient English lore Vivian (Laura Haddock). I could probably pull apart the strands of the rest of the film and line them out in a plot that makes sense, but it would feel like about 7 movies in one. The Last Knight is so full of villains and plot devices that it makes Spider-Man 3 look like a silent German chamber film.
Instead of storylines, let’s play Count the Threats: First we’ve got the usual government tactical ops team (again led by Josh Duhamel) hunting Transformers because once again the world has declared them a threat and sent them into hiding. Next we’ve got these giant mechanical horn structures that have popped up all over the Earth and are part of an apocalyptic prophecy. Then we’ve got Decepticons who are crashing to Earth like meteors on a regular basis now, starting fights in search of Merlin’s magic robot staff. Then we’ve got Quentessa (voiced by Gemma Tran, Humans), a floating Transformer goddess who Optimus finds on Cybertron. Quentessa tortures our hero and plans on driving Cybertron itself straight into Earth to siphon our molten core’s energy (did this movie’s umpteen writers see Independence Day: Resurgence?). Then we’ve got Optimus Prime himself turning into Nemesis Prime and fighting the Autobots. And somewhere in the middle of all of this Megatron returns with horns and his own Suicide Squad of Decepticons.
Last Knight just starts falling apart as it goes. Haphazardly picking up new story threads and just smashing them together without any sense of structure or pace or any plan for how any of this will fit together. It’s like a first draft of a script where every crazy idea was thrown in but then never edited out – giving total legitimacy to the rumor that Bay starts shooting before scripts are finished. The movie labors to set up storylines it never returns to and becomes suddenly very concerned about things it never set up. Trying to connect together plot devices that take a robot submarine from the bottom of the ocean to a space ship over Stonehenge. Izabella plays prominently in the film’s opening and then disappears for at least an hour and a half while the film shifts to putting Wahlberg and Haddock together because even with the world ending Vivian’s grandma and coffee clatch friends want her to get some. Transformers fight in zero gravity in the film – twice! – at the bottom of the ocean and in a falling spaceship. For Optimus Prime’s part, he shows up a few times and just tells us his name over and over. He is Optimus Prime.
Let’s not forget Sir Anthony Hopkins, who runs all over this movie in a flashy, cursing, exposition role delivering pages upon pages of mythology that wraps Cyberton’s return to King Arthur’s court. There is a mad scene here where Hopkins hops in a sports car with his jive-talking, bipolar British butler robot Cogman (voiced by Downton Abby’s Jim Carter, cursing a blue streak), speeds through the streets of London smashing police cars along the way, then runs through a library while on the phone with John Turuturro (in a cameo) who himself is standing at a pay phone in Cuba to tell Hopkins more exposition (where did he find this stuff?), picks up a book, runs out of the library and races back through the streets with Cogman dodging and destroying cop cars along the way. The whole movie is like that. A slapdash of stuff that is either pointless or makes no sense happening very fast and frantically to make it seem exciting.
Bay is famous for his over-edits but in Last Knight that only applies to individual scenes. No story thread here was deemed too extraneous and too useless to leave on the cutting room floor. What characters and story points get big moments and which ones get shafted also seems totally random. Izabele’s woobly blue Pixar robot friend gets a hero moment against a laser cannon but this movie also contains a 3-headed fire-breathing robot dragon that completely falls by the way side. That’s how busy this movie is. A 3-headed fire-breathing robot dragon is in this movie and it’s only seen in wide-shots, without a big hero or villain moment. It’s just there. If there is a single clue that any childhood enthusiasm Bay may have had for this series is long gone, it is that missed opportunity.
All of this is so wacky and crazy that it could have been fun, but Bay works tirelessly to beat the fun out of it. It’s hard for a movie with stakes this high to not gin up a tinge of excitement for the fate of mankind, but Bay manages to do it. I guess we can be grateful that he keeps things to a Transformers-slim 2 and a half hours instead of his usual 3.