Does Transformers: Rise of the Beasts live up to its name? According to this fan, not that much.
This review contains major spoilers for the film.
Let me cut to the chase, this movie is hardly the worst Transformers film in the history of the franchise, but this is arguably one of the most uninspired to date, coupled with how terribly-billed it is as a Beast Wars film (if the Beast Wars characters showing up over halfway through the film is enough prerequisite to call this film as such).
The premise of the film strains under the weight of different motivations and sub-plots. The Autobots – under Optimus Prime’s leadership – seek a way back to Cybertron after having been stranded on Earth for seven years (picking up from the end of Bumblebee); the discharged army veteran Noah Diaz struggles to find a job that can support his mother and his sickly younger brother; the museum intern Elena strives for appreciation from her fellow academics and workplace superiors; the Maximals themselves, introduced after nearly half the movie has elapsed, are hiding on Earth after a disastrous and fatal encounter with the film’s primary antagonist, Scourge.
Tying all these disparate plot lines is the looming threat posed by Unicron and his Heralds – Scourge, Battletrap, and Nightbird – and the movie MacGuffin the transwarp key, which is described by several characters as a device that can open space-time portals.
The nod to past Transformers media is clear – this is in everything but name a device that can generate a space bridge, which to many older Transformers fans serve as important cosmic gateways and plot devices of their own in other Transformers works. It is also a source of frustration and, presumably, creative fatigue with Transformers.
The franchise’s own mythos, pulled together from different writers across different works, has always relied upon these MacGuffins – be they All-Sparks, Matrices of Leadership, and even Planet Keys (which unfortunately share no connection with the film’s transwarp key beyond the name); this does not mean, of course, that a good Transformers story require such plot devices to be told, or to even be good.
This is unfortunately not one of those stories. The transwarp key, having been discovered by Elena hidden within a museum artifact, is inadvertently activated while – elsewhere in the city – Noah attempts grand theft after several failed job interviews and boosts the disguised Mirage in his sleek silver-and-blue Porsche 964 Carrera form.
Optimus and the other Autobots – with Noah in tow after some back-and-forth between the wisecracking Mirage and the taciturn Prime – attempt to seize the artifact, only to be foiled by the three Heralds besting them in combat and killing Bumblebee in the process. The artifact – now in the Heralds’ possession (because I refuse to call them by their marketing name, the Terrorcons) – executes its secondary function of being a MacGuffin within a MacGuffin.
The key was, prior to the events of the film, split into two, and with the first half in Scourge’s possession, the Autobots must now resort to asking for help from a newly-arrived Airrazor – the arrival of whom is so eyeroll inducing one cannot help but feel ill at the prospect of the deus ex machina being overused for the rest of the film’s 134-minute run-time.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE MAXIMALS
After flying to Peru – featuring what can only be described as a hastily-written Uncharted-esque spelunking adventure that takes Noah and Elena under the streets of the unnamed Peruvian city – the Autobots at last meet the rest of the Maximals. That first meeting between Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal – the former a military commander and legendary hero, and the latter a noble warrior named after a timeless figure in galactic history – should have been treated with as much gravitas and drama as the film could leverage; more so considering this is Primal’s first live-action film appearance in the history of the franchise, despite the character’s popularity among Transformers fans.
Primal himself remarks, with some reverence in his tone, that the Optimus in the film was far younger and less temperate than the Prime he was named after – setting the stage for a kind of mentor-student dynamic with interesting implications considering the Maximals had traveled from the future to hide in the past.
None of that happens.
The Maximals instead kind of just appear to guide the Autobots and the human duo to the next MacGuffin – the other half of the transwarp key – and serve no narrative purpose other than blithely and vaguely inspire the Autobots to succeed (along with some fairly poignant questions from Primal that undercut Optimus’s reluctance to be involved in the concerns of Earth while the war for Cybertron raged on).
In their defense, the Maximals are visually striking – they resemble Earth animals while still maintaining a distinct mechanical visage – though the film, again despite Paramount’s marketing insisting that this film was a Beast Wars film, fails to even explain the ludonarrative behind the Maximals’ animal forms. Ultimately, and rather unfortunately, the Maximals only pad out the Autobots’ numbers in a rather uninspired blockbuster final battle with the Heralds of Unicron.
Rise of the Beasts puts an inordinate and exhausting amount of focus on its human characters, though to the writers’ credit Noah Diaz is a much more relatable and charming character than the previous films’ magnets for human disaster disguised as protagonists. Noah, for one, is hardly driven by the kind of action movie hero egoism that seemed to drive Cade Yeager and Sam Witwicky; earlier in the film, Noah and Mirage cut a deal where Noah would help the Autobots obtain the transwarp key, and in return Mirage will allow Noah to “sell” him for much-needed money that can help with medical treatments Noah’s brother needs.
Though this direction makes Noah compelling enough to follow, this leaves his counterpart Elena as something of an afterthought throughout the film. From explaining Optimus Prime’s motivations to driving the story forward in the group’s search for the transwarp key, Elena’s only role – though delivered well by Fishback – is little more than expository. The stars of the film are easily Noah and Mirage – yet another score against Paramount’s increasingly duplicitous marketing for the film.
Mirage and Noah’s dynamic steal the spotlight from the other characters, and this creates uneven characterization that hurts the film’s roster of characters. Optimus for instance is supremely flat in his insistence that Earth be abandoned in favor of returning to Cybertron, and while such motivations are understandable – they are still in the middle of a war – the immature way the film handled Prime’s growth into a leader that also cared for Earth’s fate in the face of Unicron’s arrival was not a narrative conclusion well-earned.
Wheeljack makes a quip about racism after Noah comments on the scientist bot’s accent, Stratosphere is a cargo plane that resembles a British wartime Royal Air Force pilot so jarring and stereotypical that he would fit right in with the older Transformers films and their racially charged design philosophies, and Arcee is hardly ever given more than a few seconds of screentime.
LOOK AND FEEL
After Bumblebee is revived and the heroes turn the tide of the battle against Scourge and his army of generic robots reminiscent of scrapheap messes that defined the visual language of Michael Bay’s five Transformers films, Optimus puts Scourge to task and kills the Herald – a display of robot-on-robot violence that many dedicated fans wished the films would mantle over the jarring emphasis of human characters. It has been said elsewhere and it will be echoed here: the opening scenes of Bumblebee depicting the war on Cybertron are the closest filmmakers have been to giving Transformers fans what they want.
Unfortunately, even this generic final battle sequence does not salvage the film; the Maximals, so heavily featured in the film’s pre-release marketing, barely have an opportunity to shine and even less of an opportunity to show the distinct and fantastic robot modes hidden under layers of animal fur. Instead, the finale focuses again on Elena and Noah trying to get to the transwarp key, while Mirage and Prime take on Scourge in a confusing slurry of camera angles and fight choreography.
Despite praises sung in this review for the Maximals, the Heralds, and even the Autobots’ distinctly G1-inspired designs, nothing about the film jumped to me as striking. The overall aesthetic of the original 2007 live-action film and its sequels are the subject of many jokes on the internet, but on their own even the amalgam of wiry, alien, and near-monstrous aesthetics of the 2007 Autobots and Decepticons were striking in their own way. Rise of the Beasts – and to an extent its predecessor Bumblebee – show off flashy and colorful robots that I find only successfully appeal to Transformers fans who refuse to grow out of Generation 1.
This is not a fault exclusive to the film – Transformers remains a corporate IP designed to sell, and if anecdotal information is to be believed the franchise’s biggest customers remain older fans who never quite appreciated Transformers beyond the original 1984 cartoon. For a franchise all about change and transformation – heck, it’s in the name – it is saddled with so much stagnation and repetition that the film does not fail to be good so much as it fails to matter.
LESS CHANGE, MORE OF THE SAME
Some of the franchise’s most compelling stories embraced change in one fashion or another. Beast Wars exploded in popularity for adapting three-dimensional computer-generated animation and garnered an Emmy Award for it, all the while fleshing out a template and mythos for transformative (pun unintended) storytelling in Transformers about heroism and sacrifice.
The IDW Comics run of the Transformers starting from 2005 picked up the bones of their Dreamwave predecessor and turned the Cybertronian war from one between freedom fighters and despotic evil to a truly compelling narrative about destroying class-based societies and historical revisionism (with some astounding introspection from Optimus Prime about the dangers of hero-worship and the reputation of his name).
Even Bumblebee was all heart – it spun a fine narrative about the pain of losing a loved one and being left behind and remains the franchise’s best outing on the theatrical scale (don’t let the box office performance be its sole metric for success).
If you are looking for an escape from the drudgery of life with some robotic action packed with an interesting story, you will not find it here. Pick up any copy of the IDW Comics Transformers anthologies; rewatch Beast Wars, which are available for free on YouTube via official Transformers channels; give even the new animated show EarthSpark a spin. Your time will be better served elsewhere.