Transformers: The Last Knight
Why do I watch these things? Because I’m an idiot, most probably. This is such an almost surreally odd movie series, attempting to overlay character arcs and motivation, mysticism and religiosity, on a range of Hasbro toys, that part of me would almost like it to succeed.
Unfortunately – except perhaps during its first outing – it’s only ever bungling in its application of these ideas and entirely indifferent to its characters, an eye on other franchises (not least Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings) for “mythic” import married to an ultra-juvenile grasp of humour laced with unseemly sexism. Step forward Michael Bay, the Hollywood director out to prove the ’80s never died. Transformers: The Last Knight may well be the end of the line for his decade-long association with the series, though, even if it isn’t the end of the series itself.
Because spin-off Bumblebee’s out next year, and somehow, a seventh Transformers is still on the schedule for 2019, despite the autobottom having fallen out of the market between 2014’s Age of Extinction and this ($500m less box office worldwide is fairly substantial, even for a series whose last two entries both made $1bn+). Paramount, desperate for some – any – self-perpetuating movie series, may have to shape up and face facts. After all, Universal has shuttered its Dark Universe due to the negative cost-reward on The Mummy, and if the stats Deadline Hollywood estimated for Age of Extinction are anything to go by, The Last Knight will be lucky to break even.
I’m only surprised the well hadn’t run dry before this (a similar thing happened with Fox running Ice Age into the ground last year, albeit that series wasn’t nearly as expensive). Bay and his team of writers (the hack’s hack Akiva Goldsman, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan and Art Marcum) come up with an at least arrestingly screw-loose conceit – a group of Transformers hid out on Earth way back when, offering their services to Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table – but then do nothing much with it.
Once the prologue is dispensed with and we flash forward 1600 years, we lose the main vaguely entertaining element of the picture, Stanley Tucci’s Merlin (even if his dialogue stinks: “God, I’m sozzled”). Tucci, in a different role, was the only genuinely worthwhile part of Age of Extinction, but he’s in this one for a fraction of the time and delivers only a fraction of the yuks (John Turturro also returns, but again, he’s barely there).
The plot is a virtually incomprehensible mishmash of Arthurian tropes, apocalyptic angst and English heritage, vying for attention with the usual Bay onset combustion and puerility (Mark Wahlberg returns as the absurdly named Cade Yeager, discovering he is the Last Knight of Iacon; Laura Haddock’s equally dafflily monickered Viviene Wembly, Professor of English Literature at Oxford but looking for all the world like the latest passenger boarding Bay’s Victoria’s Secret Express, is Merlin’s last descendant; Unicron – Cybertron’s ancient enemy, actually the Earth, no less – can be accessed via Stonehenge).
There’s a subplot in which Optimus Prime is brainwashed by Transformers “creator” Quintessa (who resembles something out of Species), and then gets tiresomely self-flagellating about being a bastard under the influence. But really, it’s a fool’s errand to try to make anything coherent out of any of this. The robots are mostly either dull or stupid and the humans mostly likewise. But, while I’d in no measure suggest persevering with the movie, there are a couple of exceptions.
Sqweek, a cross between the droids in The Black Hole and Earth to Echo, at least has a wacky/cute personality. Jim Carter’s Cogman is a polite but belligerent humanoid robot, one who hams it up on the organ to “make the moment more epic” and serves Sir Ant’s Sir Edmund Burton. Yes, Ant is in this, quite why only his bank manager knows. Mark Wahlberg gets insulted quite a lot, by both Cogman and Vivian, which has some limited potential, but not enough. And that’s about it.
On the more disturbing side, anyone keeping a track of Bay’s dubious record for lusting after minors (Age of Extinction’s Romeo and Juliet law) will be yet more concerned by his overt sexualisation of fifteen-year-old Isabela Moner.
Transformers: The Last Knight, in trying to ape any franchise teasing a future instalment, sets up Transformers 7 with Quintessa on Earth and in human form. I guess I vaguely wonder what this series will look like without Bay calling the shots (like Pacific Rim Uprising, probably, which is not good). He may be thunderingly inveterate in his mullet-headed machismo, but he’s also a master when it comes to photo-real effects work. It’s just a shame it’s put to such instantly disposable use, when any number of big studio movies are churning out substandard SFX week in, week out.
Who knows, Travis Knight may bring something of the sensibility of Laika studios to Bumblebee (who we now know was actively involved in defeating the Nazi menace in WWII). It might be a great movie that unlocks the secret potential of a cinematic Transformers…. Nah.