At this stage in the game, you know what you’re getting with these Transformers movies. They’re messy, loaded and overstuffed with all sorts of ideas that are never really explored properly. In a way, it’s the same problems the series has always had that hold this latest installment back. While I certainly had my problems with the previous films, I could at least kind of see what they were going for, even if they didn’t have the skill or patience to see it through. But with Transformers: The Last Knight, I honestly don’t know what the hell it is director Michael Bay and his posse of writers are trying to do.
At this point in the review I usually give a brief outline of the plot to try and set the scene, but having now rewritten this paragraph for the fourth time, I’ve concluded this movie throws way too much at the audience for me to be able to provide a summary in any succinct way. So, instead, I’m just going to list a bunch of things that feel as though they should have been important to the plot: King Arthur, underwater city, robot dinosaurs, secret society, planet-eating planet, robot butler, drunk wizard, orphan with a robot sidekick, evil Optimus Prime, oppressive government, transformer god, magic staff, Anthony Hopkins, Nazis, and a giant three-headed dragon (also a robot).
Wondering how you can fit that crazy list of ideas into a cohesive plot? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you, but I can tell you it’s not by making the majority of your movie’s dialogue a string of incompressible exposition that your cast unenthusiastically runs through off-screen. I like to think I’m able to follow a complicated story, but even with all the characters blurting out explanations of what they were doing, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why they were doing any of it. It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen a script with this many plot holes, and it’s tempting to spend this review picking them apart, but I think I’ve made my point.
The story being all over the place wouldn’t be so bad if The Last Knight was able to make the most of its various components. There are so many toys here begging to be played with, but in almost every circumstance they only hang around long enough to justify appearing on the promotional material. I mentioned in my review of the previous Transformers chapter that this series was losing its ability to capitalise on its premise, but save for one forgettable car-chase, the fact that this race of mechanical aliens can actually transform almost doesn’t factor into The Last Knight. The fact that we sit through a whole section of the movie aboard an Autobot-programmed submarine and we don’t get a single moment of subaquatic robot action is almost sinful.
Which brings us to what is probably going to sully the experience for even the most forgiving of action fans; there’s really not that much action. Personally, I’m not a fan of the action in this series anyway – it’s too chaotic and terribly edited, but at least there was enough of it that those who enjoy Bay’s destructive demonstrations could have some fun. It’s just as messy this time around, but the sequences are so few and far between that you actually start longing for the unending shots of collateral damage of yesterday. I’m actually a little amazed how much of the movie we spend following the cast around as they set up new story concepts, given the one thing these movies have to excuse themselves is ‘big, dumb action’. What I will say though, as silly as the third act is, it does make for gorgeous visuals. The battle itself was in one eye and out the other, but the broken-up, wiry appendages of the alien planet scraping against the lusciously green British landscape was a thing of CG beauty.
For my money, the biggest problem is the total lack of personality the characters – human or otherwise – all seem to have. Say what you will about the onslaught of superhero movies over the last few years, whether they succeed or not, at least they know you have to make your audience root for your heroes. Mark Wahlberg‘s gloriously named Cade Yeager, on the other hand, is about the least effectual protagonist I’ve seen in a big Hollywood blockbuster in years. Last time round, Wahlberg ended up being one of the better parts of the movie, but here he is very much just along for the ride, turning in a quarter-assed performance for a character that doesn’t really have anything to do.
The less said about the Transformers the better. Once again, they all talk like the sound is coming out of an overhead speaker rather than their mouths, with actors lazily reading lines in cartoonish archetypal voices. Bumblebee is almost completely devoid of his playfulness from the first movie; still speaking in irritating soundbites, without actually being any fun at all. The villainous Decepticons could be written out of the movie without affecting things one iota. And God strike me down if this iteration of Optimus Prime isn’t the most boring hero I’ve ever seen. He has almost no impact on the story, despite how important the rest of the cast keep telling you he is– and if I never have to hear another of voice actor Peter Cullen’s overwrought closing speeches, it would be too soon.
The only exceptions are Anthony Hopkin’s Sir Edmund Burton and his autobot butler Cogman (Jim Carter). I was initially wary of Hopkins showing up, assuming he turned up to grab his sack of money and let the film pretend to take itself seriously for a few moments, but he’s in a totally different movie than everyone else. I actually don’t remember seeing Hopkins this giddy in a movie. As an eccentric and slightly crazy guru on all the ancient secrets the Transformers hold, Hopkins bounces around the movie hurrying everyone along and impatiently yelling at people for not understanding what’s going on (and who can blame them there). Cogman, while extremely gimmicky, is about the only member of the robot cast that you can reasonably consider a character. The gags are a bit obvious and his ‘proper-English gentleman with severe anger issues’ shtick is probably humour more for younger viewers, but at least he was a Transformer you could care about (even if he never actually does do any transforming).
This franchise has been a mess for a few movies now, but Transformers: The Last Knight is the most blatant example of how little care the series has in actually telling a story. It gets an extra point for the thrill of seeing Anthony Hopkins in such a strange light, but that’s nowhere near enough for me to recommend this indulgent, patronising mess.