Tuesday, June 27, 2017

'Transformers: The Last Knight' review

Whether I'm proud of this fact or not, the Transformers saga was an essential part of my growth as a movie fan. Along with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Michael Bay's Transformers movies were a factor in my movie-going life at a time when spectacle was valued above all else, and for several years I counted the original 2007 flick as my favorite film of all time. No joke. And to be honest, that is still a pretty good movie- it has a decent story, some explosively fun action, and an impressive directorial stamp from Bay. But in the years since that breakout hit, the Transformers series has been on a roller-coaster ride of Bayhem. 2009's Revenge of the Fallen was almost astonishingly idiotic, saddled with a script thrown together during the writer's strike, while 2011's Dark of the Moon got by thanks to the awe-inspiring Chicago setpiece that still entertains me to this day.

That was supposed to be the finale of the whole thing, but money talks, and the third chapter walked away with over $1.1 billion worldwide. Three years later, Bay returned with an all-new cast for Age of Extinction, a 165 minute long epic that destroyed more cities and left little to no cultural footprint. The Transformers series had pretty much run its course at that point, but the fourth installment managed to nearly match the third with a box office take of just over $1.1 billion. And so three years later, Bay is back with The Last Knight, which is being billed as the final chapter (yeah, right). Mark Wahlberg is back and there are more robots and Optimus Prime is a bad guy and there's explosions and......you know what, who even cares any more? The Last Knight is staggeringly incoherent- I would call it a feature-length trailer, but unlike something like King Arthur, it doesn't even work as a good trailer. This movie makes no sense, and the fact that it's by far the most boring chapter in the franchise only makes matters worse. Even as a somewhat passionate defender of this series, I can't justify it any longer. The Last Knight is the final nail in the coffin- time for the Autobots to pack up and go home.

Trying to explain the plot of The Last Knight feels like an exercise in futility, but in the hopes of entertaining whoever may read this, I'm going to do my best. This movie opens in the English dark ages, where King Arthur is fighting a war against......I don't know, somebody. They need a weapon to win this battle, and they're relying on Merlin (Stanley Tucci, who also appeared in Age of Extinction in an entirely different role) to save the day. Unfortunately, Merlin isn't a magician- he's just a drunkard who happened to find a crashed alien ship. So yeah, there were Transformers fighting back in the days of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And there's this thing that they had, and it's important for the plot later. Jump to the present day, and America is some kind of weird post-apocalypse. Transformers are being hunted, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is on the run, and there's a government agency (the TRF) tasked with capturing and/or killing any additional robots, an agency that features former Autobot ally Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel).

Yeager just happens to be running around the ruins of Chicago when a bunch of kids are threatened by both a Decepticon and the TRF. Yeager, Bumblebee, and Izabella (Isabella Moner), a young girl rendered homeless by the Battle of Chicago, end up escaping to his hideout in South Dakota, where the remaining Autobots are hiding out. Yeager will be called back into action by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), a member of a secret society who claims to know the hidden history of Transformers on Earth. Along with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), the last of the direct descendants of Merlin himself, Yeager will have to fulfill his destiny in the fight for humanity's survival. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (who, if you'll recall, left Earth at the end of Age of Extinction to find his creator) is floating in space, only to be discovered by his creator, Quintessa. She has an evil plan to destroy Earth and begin the rebirth of Cybertron, a plan that requires turning Optimus Prime into Nemesis Prime. Things happen, the explosions are loud, the battles are massive, nothing makes sense, the whole thing slowly fades into oblivion. Welcome to The Last Knight.

Look, even though I've always considered myself to be a Transformers fan, I'm not gonna pretend that these movies haven't always been trash. I think the original does resemble an actual film, one with characters, a plot, and a clear narrative arc, but none of the sequels have followed up on that example. But for all of their convoluted stories, juvenile humor, and outrageous action scenes, the sequels have always been varying degrees of fun. Stupid, but also enjoyable. They tap into this childlike thirst for mayhem, and nobody films cinematic chaos quite like Michael Bay. People trash him a lot, but he's unquestionably a filmmaker with a vision, even if that vision is to metaphorically throw a grenade on the screen and watch what happens. The last three Transformers movies haven't made much sense, but my threshold for quality with these movies is pretty low- if you deliver the Bayhem, I'm happy.

But what happens when the insanity stops feeling inspired? What happens when even Bay seems bored by the spectacle he's putting together? Well, The Last Knight happens. There was a point for every filmgoer where the Transformers franchise jumped the shark. For some, it was with Revenge of the Fallen, when John Turturro's Agent Simmons climbed a pyramid only to find an alien's scrotum waiting for him. For others, it was Age of Extinction, a nearly 3 hour experiment in excess that had really no good reason to exist. But I stuck with it- my expectations were in the toilet, and I still felt that Bay was delivering exactly what I wanted from this franchise. But even with the astronomically low bar I have mentally set for the Transformers movies, The Last Knight doesn't even come close to hitting it. The fifth chapter in the saga of the Autobots and the Decepticons barely resembles an actual film, as narrative coherence has been thrown out the window in favor of lightning fast pacing and nonsensical action sequences. The Last Knight is certainly an experience, one that beats you and punishes you into submission (and/or exhaustion), but its fatal flaw is that it's almost hopelessly boring.

The human characters have always been secondary to the giant robots in the Transformers universe, but the level to which they are inconsequential to the plot in The Last Knight is almost shocking. Mark Wahlberg's Cade Yeager at least had something to do in the fourth installment, but here, he's laughably inserted into the film as part of a lackadaisical "Chosen One" narrative where he's positioned as the only man on Earth with the bravery and valor of King Arthur. I'm serious, guys. This movie feels like a joke. His love interest, played by Guardians of the Galaxy's Laura Haddock, is even less compelling, and their cinematic romance is absolutely ridiculous. Josh Duhamel is back as Lennox for literally no good reason, Isabella Moner's character drifts in and out of the story with no real consequence, and good lord, what the hell is Anthony Hopkins doing in this movie? Believe it or not, his performance might be the only redeeming quality of this film- it's absolutely insane. There's a scene where Hopkins and Cogman (his robot butler) drive through traffic, with Cogman singing "Move, Bitch, Get Out the Way" over and over. That's this movie in a nutshell. At that point, my brain packed its bags and left the theater.

All of the Transformers movies are centered around some kind of MacGuffin- the Allspark, the Matrix, the Pillars, whatever the hell they were fighting over in Age of Extinction. The Last Knight is no different, but it's frankly astonishing to see how little Bay cares about the basic plot of the movie. Everything in this film feels like it's being played on fast forward, as a never-ending array of exposition is dumped on the audience in between the headache-inducing robot fights. There is no attempt to create a convincing villain, or an engaging plot, or even any kind of storytelling momentum. Bay's movies have always appealed to a base-level cinematic instinct for destruction and chaos, but in The Last Knight, he finds a way to go even lower. He assumes that the audience is coming for the explosions and action scenes, so why the hell would they even need anything else? If you understand what happened in The Last Knight or if you were emotionally invested in any way, more power to you. But I was stunned by the level of incoherence displayed by this fiasco.

And the worst part is that the action isn't even good. Bay reached his action pinnacle with the citywide destruction of Chicago in Dark of the Moon, an hour-long setpiece that stands as one of the most impressive battle scenes I've ever witnessed. That third film was supposed to be Bay's last with the Transformers franchise, but in the two movies since, he's been foolishly attempting to top himself. He blew up Chicago again as well as Hong Kong with the help of some Dinobots in Age of Extinction, and in The Last Knight, he has Earth and Cybertron practically crash into each other. And it is, without a doubt, one of the most boring things that has happened in this franchise. There's no urgency, no energy. It's entirely predictable and visually dull, and the fact that there's never even a semblance of flow to it makes it that much more unbearable. And just like every other Transformers movie, it ends with a big speech from Optimus Prime about never forsaking the human race. Michael Bay, have mercy on us all.

Maybe The Last Knight isn't worse than any of the other Transformers movies. Maybe I've just grown more cynical. But after making excuses for Michael Bay's disasterpieces for over a decade based on my childlike love for explosions and robots, I can firmly say that I am done with this franchise. I will no longer hold any hope that these films will entertain me in even a surface level way. They have charted a slow evolution into absolute nonsense, and The Last Knight is the pinnacle of the narrative incoherence of the series. And I think it's time to call it quits. No reboot, no spin-offs, nothing- just let this series die.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                              (3.8/10)

Images: Paramount/IMDB

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