Continuing from the toned-down sexualism that 2018’s Bumblebee adopted – the first Transformers sequel that was directed by someone other than series staple Michael Bay – which, coincidentally, earned the franchise its highest praise from collective critics, Steven Caple Jr.‘s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a similarly wholesome, Saturday morning popcorn flick that is incredibly digestible, but ultimately forgettable as it glides through an easy 127 minutes with heart, cheese and a sense of inoffensive fun.
Much like Bumblebee worked as its own feature away from the remaining Transformers sequels, Rise of the Beasts is its own entity, with the story moving away from the 1980’s California setting of the first prequel to 1990’s Brooklyn – specifically 1994. Here, our hero-in-waiting is Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a veteran looking for work in the big city. Employment opportunities aren’t coming in thick and fast, unfortunately, and his younger brother’s piling medical bills are only adding to his stress – something that leads him to agree to a criminal act of sorts.
Believing his snatch-and-grab job is a relatively safe affair – he’s ordered to steal a Porsche, under the assumption the car will be unguarded – Noah is taken aback when said Porsche is actually an Autobot in disguise; Pete Davidson enthusiastically voicing the Autobot Mirage, who’s able to project holograms and transform into a Porsche 964 Carrera. An auto-driven chase around New York City ensues, leading him eventually to Ellis Island, where Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a museum researcher, has uncovered an ancient artefact – one that has unknowingly awoken Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobot resistance against the Terrorcons, who has summoned the Autobots in the aftermath.
The artefact Elena uncovers is actually one half of something called the Transwarp Key, an ancient MacGuffin that can open portals through space and time, and, naturally, whoever owns such a device wields power and dominion over all; the aforementioned Terrorcons hoping to use it to unleash their planet-destroying master, Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo). Then we have the animal-themed Maximal warriors – led by Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) – who seek to keep the key safe from the Terrorcons, and the Autobots see it as a way of travelling back to their planet, Cybertron. For the lone humans in the middle – Noah and Elena – it’s a case of questioning if the key should be activated at all, with Earth’s very existence in the balance.
If all those words confused you then Rise of the Beasts is assuredly not for you, but given how many Transformers films we’ve had on offer, it makes sense that if you haven’t partaken in one by now, this won’t be the film to change your stance; though I certainly can’t recommend Bumblebee enough! Whilst Rise of the Beasts leans into the bombastic nature of the Bay films, Caple Jr. (Creed II) is all too aware of how to balance the cartoonish mentality these films adhere to. And though the human characters in loud blockbusters such as these rarely need to be fleshed out, the Joby Harold-led script – the Army of the Dead scribe leading a script collaboration with four other writers – manages to balance the nonsensical action with enough quiet human moments for this to not feel entirely hollow; it also helps that Ramos and Fishback exude enough charm to overcome any character archetypes.
Though it still ultimately boils down to a spectacle-heavy finale – it must be noted, however, that the special effects on hand here are considerably stronger than certain superhero offerings of late – Rise of the Beasts sits comfortably in its genre wheelhouse of distracting set-pieces, kid-friendly quips (though Davidson manages to slip in a suggestive joke that the crowd responded resoundingly to) and just enough on-screen carnage to feel mildly threatening; though, with this being a prequel we know mostly everyone is coming out of this unscathed.
With a late-in-the-game reveal that teases a potential crossover with another considerably popular toy line, it’s evident that the decade-plus between this film’s end and the 2007 setting of Bay’s original Transformers holds an apparent wealth of stories. This reveal is admittedly not all that organic, but it certainly drums up continued interest in two sets of film franchises that have waded in mostly mediocrity to this point. The renewed faith in the Transformers brand off the back of Bumblebee should hopefully continue with Rise of the Beasts – this film managing to not succumb to the overblown Bay-ism of it all – and said I-won’t-reveal-certain-property may finally earn the filmic adaptation it deserves after a trio of divisive, underwhelming outings.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is now screening in Australian theatres.