Ten years ago Paramount and director Michael Bay birthed the big screen Transformers franchise, and I was entirely onboard with it. In hindsight, this would prove to be the solitary shining moment for this series, with everything after a very determined race to the bottom. When the first sequel came out in 2009, I pretty much hated it, as I did the third film two years after that. When the fourth hit theaters in 2014, I...didn't end up minding it as much. But as it turns out, that was nothing more than a momentary blip. What we'd call, in stock trading parlance, a "dead cat bounce."
And now here we are with Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of a series that's practically daring you to care about anything in it or about it at this point. Even with IMAX and 3D being dangled as value-added elements, the big budget series based on Hasbro's long-running action figures has become shorthand for the calcifying corrosion that's befallen summer movie season in recent years. Don't spend time on coherence and clarity on a story level, just go bigger, louder, and explodier. Don't worry, the audiences can always be counted on to dutifully line up at the turnstile and hand over their money -- even if they complain along the way.
After a summer movie season and pre-season that's been gripped by a choking bout of franchise fatigue across the studio spectrum, The Last Knight is the "hold my beer" of cynical calculation. There’s nothing left to say that's new or revelatory. Even Bay, almost unmatched in his ability to imbue pyrotechnics with a pornographic fetishism, feels like he's lost the will to soldier on. And can you blame him? Five movies, ten years, and it's like we've been running on a treadmill while eating a Big Mac. Absolutely worn down without actually going anywhere, and somehow in even worse shape then when we started.
The story this time (the result of a "writer's room" bull session headed up by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman) drops us into Medieval Times, where King Arthur (Liam Garrigan, reprising the same role he's played on ABC's Once Upon a Time -- shared universe?) is waiting for his goodly mage Merlin (Stanley Tucci) to show up and drop some sorcery on an army of ne'er-do-wells. Little does Arthur know that Merlin's "magic" is actually super science on loan from Transformers who've secreted themselves away on Earth to help Earthlings. Why are they there? Because. Why are they helping Arthur? Because. Why is Merlin their chosen vessel? Because.
From there, we pick up a few years after we last left the Robots in Disguise in Transformers: Age of Extinction, and if you don't remember what happened in that one, I'm pretty sure the filmmakers don't either. Mark Wahlberg is back as erstwhile inventor Cade Yeager, now a shadowy figure who travels the country rescuing Autobots hiding from the government's oppressive "Transformer Reaction Force" wiping out whatever robots it finds. Why? See previous answers in previous paragraph. Yeager is working with Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), and other good guy 'bots while taking refuge in a junkyard set in Bay's Land of Perpetual Sunset (tm).
Also in the mix: a street tough surrogate daughter for Wahlberg (Isabela Moner), a love interest (Laura Haddock) made up to resemble series ex-star Megan Fox to such a degree it feels like Bay is in his own version of Vertigo, Anthony Hopkins in full-on "spout the exposition, cash the paycheck" mode, and the quest for a mythical staff that's the designated McGuffin for this go-round. All that, plus the return of Decepticon baddie Megatron (Frank Welker), and a heel-turn for Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced as always by the great Peter Cullen) that's even more outlandish than the exact same storyline for the equally-robotic Vin Diesel in Fate of the Furious earlier this year.
Honestly, I'm not even sure what else there is to say about this. Like its predecessors, it's an endurance-testing 2.5 hours, and like its predecessors it manages to feel twice that length. By now my routine with these Transformers sequels is to spend around a third of the time trying to figure out what the heck is going, another third realizing I don't even care what's going on, and finally just waiting for the thing to finally, finally end. This one is no exception. It's as soulless as the automatons it's ostensibly about, and drips with such apparent contempt for the people watching I was honestly gobsmacked when the crowd I saw it with burst into spontaneous applause at a few points.
By the time we were on the other side of a typically noisome third act, I was practically dead inside. And then, in what felt like more of a threat than a promise, the end credits turned into a tease setting up future installments (among them a Bumblebee spin-off already announced for next year, because why not). While making the promo rounds, Michael Bay has been swearing up and down that The Last Knight is his final go with the big 'bots. And though he's also said that twice previously, it's almost irrelevant whether he's back or not, because the template he's laid down feels so set in stone: Visually indistinguishable title characters, narratively uninteresting human characters, and an unfolding mythology that's increasingly less than meets the eye. D
For even more in-depth Transformers talk with spoilers and all, as well as an in-depth discussion on all the latest out of Hollywood, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via this link or the embed below: