The Last Knight, Michael Bay’s fifth installment in the Transformers movies, represents a baffling step backward. Age of Extinction was an exhausting, punishing affair, but was grounded in a single group of people thrust into insane circumstances. The Spielbergian conceit punched up by Bay’s vulgar expulsions, humanity represented through the lens of possessive father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), drafted into a conflict between the Autobots and (primarily) an unholy alliance between corporate America, CIA assassins, and a cosmic bounty hunter. The Transformers themselves were no longer background fixtures but active participants: psychotically broken zealots in an eternal war, defending and/or being disgusted by the sweaty, seething meat vessels that populate the front line. Bay communicated a fundamentally nihilistic world, where Yeager’s family and Optimus Prime’s Autobots were, at least, able to find a sense of belonging with one another. It, along with Pain & Gain, formed a diptych which could be considered the closest Bay has gotten to self-reflection in his films.
For the follow-up, Bay and his writers concoct a scenario where Prime confronts/communes/gets corrupt by his creator, an alien robot broadly resembling a gorgon crossed with Maleficent. Prime is redirected towards destroying the Earth he had fought for so hard, so long. The idea’s a good one. As Chris Ready pointed out in his Age of Extinction review, Prime is confronted with the military-industrial complex and plutocrats (literally) profiting off the bodies of his comrades. His disgust palpable, he vowed to kill the humans responsible. Here, his swayed allegiance is a visual representation of those feelings taking hold, casting off any held ideals.
Unfortunately, The Last Knight shreds any sense of perspective, roping in bit players from the previous trilogy, while piling on more new ones than audiences can keep track of, let alone care about. Mostly, the film seems to operate as a vehicle for Michael Bay to have Anthony Hopkins deliver grandiose exposition and spit venom at anyone who mildly annoys him (the scenes between Hopkins and a self-described “sociopath” robot butler, including a car chase where the pair deliberately endanger human lives to escape pursuit, are among the film’s best). Prime’s heel turn–which ate up a significant chunk of the marketing–is given only a setup, which isn’t discovered until moments before its resolution: the middle is papered over by another global chase for another calamitous MacGuffin between warring groups of dysfunctional oddballs.
In some ways, the gaping lack of Optimus is intended to be the point. Their leader having blasted off into space on a suicide mission, the Autobots are stuck being bored in a Montana junkyard between scavenging excursions. They pass time bickering and smashing cars, menacing the humans who have taken them in. Yeager is able to keep them from going too far, but without Optimus there isn’t any discipline. This excessive nastiness can be (and is, mostly) fun, yet the lack of confrontation can’t help but underwhelm. The similarly-themed Fate of the Furious was able to mine a similar ‘franchise patriarch vs. extended family’ premise for the kind of delirious pileups one typically associates with Bay (i.e. hacked cars self-driving themselves off a rooftop). Given his own opportunity, it’s odd the director passed up the opportunity to stage his own version.