'Transformers: The Last Knight' film review: Time to put this franchise in the scrap heap
The latest "Transformers" sequel is - even by Michael Bay standards - bad. "Transformers: The Last Knight" (opening in theaters June 21) fails on almost every front: it frustrates in almost every way and it is somehow astonishingly confusing.
In short: While humans continue to hunt down and destroy the Transformers, inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) hides out with the remnants of the Autobots. With Optimus Prime gone, a new threat rises to threaten Earth. Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock also star.
Now comes the obligatory disclaimer: "Transformers" was a formative part of my childhood. I have an unhealthy relationship with this troubled franchise - the films keep getting progressively worse, but I can't help myself from getting a little excited when the first teaser trailer drops. This review comes from a "Transformers" fan who: A) is not a purist, B) appreciates the silly fun of the 2007 film and C) holds out hope the next one will finally be the good sequel. Alas, this is not that sequel.
The fact that it's two and a half hours isn't, in itself, a problem - the fact that "The Last Knight" is paradoxically shockingly simply and absolutely confusing is the problem. The plot can be distilled down to "everybody wants an all-powerful item" - but director Michael Bay even overcomplicates that straightforward premise. The evil Decepticons desperately want the magical item, the "heroic" Autobots are utterly clueless (but go along for the ride), meanwhile Cade and cynical professor Vivian (Laura Haddock) are randomly tapped to be an important characters. It's never clear what the character motivations are - or even what is at stake, which brings this review to the next major problem.
Who are the antagonists and what do they want? The previous "Transformers" film ended with Optimus Prime abruptly leaving Earth and searching for whoever created the Transformers. Well, prepare to be underwhelmed as Optimus anticlimactically bumps into the creator within the first few minutes he pops on screen - and the creator just announces her goal: obtain the ultra-powerful toy ... for generally evil reasons. Meanwhile, for the vaguest and flimsiest reasons ever, Megatron (the leader of the Decepticons) unceremoniously announces his wish to find the uber-powerful thingy too. The creator and Megatron give totally superficial reasons for wanting to find the really powerful doohickey.
Oh, and the movie's "Two worlds collide. One survives" tagline is in no way metaphorical - the threat is the Transformers home planet of Cybertron colliding with Earth ... but even that is confusing. Nerds (or anyone who halfway paid attention through the third Transformers movie) will recall that Cyberton was destroyed at the end of the film. So how and why is it back in this fifth film? And the whole planet is sentient? It travels through space at sub-light speed - so the initial threat is "oh, well Cybertron" is going to smash into Earth - that's stupid, but fair enough." But nope - at some point Cybertron knows to slow down -- and the Transformers planet isn't going to smash into Earth - it's going to do ... something else? So even the stakes of the film are ill-defined -- basically, the Earth might be destroyed somehow by something.
Bay has created one of the most frustrating film franchises of all time - one that gets lost in its own mythology. Each individual movie tries to establish some small entry into a larger overall mythology. So it's hard to track what's going on in any sequel without watching the entire series - but each individual movie is a slog. Bay has attempted to create a series with its own rich history - but is made up of films that flat-out contradict each other. Cybertron was destroyed years ago - but now it's back? The Dinobots were set free in the previous movie - but they still hang around the Autobots for some dumb reason? Megatron was killed and resurrected as Galvatron (who would 'transformer' at the molecular level) -- but he's Megatron again and can only transform like every other robot? Wasn't the villainous police car Decepticon blinded, shot in the head and killed in the third film - so why is he back now? And, are we to assume that Shia LaBeouf's character from the first three "Transformers" movies - Sam Witwicky - is dead ... as well as his entire family? (It's never explicitly stated in "Last Knight," but it's the logical conclusion given a character reveal.)
OK, so the antagonists are weak - so what, at least the protagonists are great, right? Well, none of the Autobots are characters - they are just walking set pieces. Sure they say silly things and drop some lame one-liner here or there, but none of the Autobots - or any Transformer for that matter - is a character of any depth or dimension. It cannot be stressed enough that a movie called "Transformers" doesn't spend any of its time developing any of the characters who are Transformers. Optimus Prime is featured front and center on all the one sheet posters and he's a key part of the commercials - but Optimus is barely in the movie. He's basically just in the beginning and he suddenly shows up possessed and ready to fight anyone standing between him and the magical staff thingamajig. He appears early in the movie, gets possessed and starts fighting Autobots - he's basically Hawkeye from the first "Avengers" film. In fact, Hawkeye has a more fulfilling character arch and probably has more screen time in that film than Optimus Prime does in "The Last Knight."
Everything about this film is a bloated mess - which bleeds over to its massive slate of one-dimensional characters. Cade is somehow even more useless this time around than he was in "Age of Extinction." At least in that film, it made some sort of sense that he would be motivated to keep his daughter and friend alive. This time around, he's just hanging out with inert Autobots in a scrapyard. It's not even clear why he's a fugitive or what brings him to Chicago in the first place, where he meets streetwise Autobot ally Izabella. She gets a strong intro - but of course Bay screws that up too. Izabella and her useless Autobot buddy Sqweeks show up when they're not needed and just mess things up in general - they're just liabilities that offer nothing substantial to the film and only clog it up with a frustrating pair of pointless characters. None of the Autobots endear themselves to the audience and all of the Decepticons are absolutely disposable.
Films have survived despite terrible characters and weird plots - but "The Last Knight" is also a clunky disaster of editing and momentum. Every single time the film even attempts to build momentum, Bay injects needless and energy-killing bits - sad attempts at low-brow comedy that bog the film down. When the film beats the audience over the head with some Anthony Hopkins exposition about the Transformers history, the film comes to a screeching halt as three main characters stop to discuss the definition of "chaste" and how it applies to Cade's sex life. And when the Earth is about to end and the heroes are rushing into certain death - the film hits the brakes so the audience can watch one main character struggle with a seatbelt (a moment that doesn't pay off) and another character fire off a quick text message. "The Last Knight" is plagued by a multitude of small, weird moments that don't advance the story or develop characters - and they are unforgivable sins in a movie that is already much too distended.
Final verdict: Nothing about this film works and even less makes sense. "The Last Knight" doesn't even qualify as "stupid fun" because its simply too clunky and confusing to know when the movie is trying to be fun.
"Transformers: The Last Knight" opens in theaters nationwide June 21. This action adventure flick has a running time of 149 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo.