Transformers: The Last Knight


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.


I Survived Extinction, And Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt


I’m fairly certain a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction is beyond any judgment calls of “good” or “bad.” It is, after all, just Michael Bay going back to doing what he enjoys doing (after proving he could make smart, yet still trashy, movies when he directed Pain & Gain): explosions, CGI metal-on-metal violence, and complete disregard for human life. A lot of it doesn’t make sense if you think about it (Kelsey Grammar as a xenophobic CIA agent who works with intergalactic bounty hunter, and robot Predator, Lockdown?), but maybe that’s the point? Pure garbage cinema.

And at nearly 3 hours, there’s a lot of it to savor: the namesake toy characters (now including dinosaur robots), black ops psychopaths colluding with amoral corporate types, sports cars, Dark Knight drum beats, fashion model women in skinny jeans and short shorts, product placement for beer, cavernous alien ships housing a jarred collection of horrors (like something straight out of an H.R. Giger sketchbook), and Marky Mark. Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a small-time inventor living out of his farm workshop and having serious control freak issues (refusing to allow his daughter to date, verging on homicidal rage when he discovers her boyfriend, and exploiting his sole employee for cash) when he gets embroiled in the latest Transformers plot. He’s a gentler version of Pain & Gain‘s sociopath Danny Lugo, ruthlessness tempered by fatherhood into a nobler American Dream. Bay throws all this into an unending stream of action scenes which flip between brutalist horizontal stretches (chases along Texas and Illinois freeways with plenty of auto carnage) and dizzying verticality, culminating in a Hong Kong finale juggling no less than four factions, vying for control of the latest world-ending MacGuffin amidst skyscrapers and tower blocks. Machines and people hop around, perform judo flip cover fire, then get sucked up into the sky by an alien magnet. This is a movie unapologetic about being overcrowded and exhausting, likely because Bay isn’t making art to be praised or entertainment to be enjoyed: he’s making an ordeal to be survived.