Speaking as only a casual observer of the Transformers franchise, I may be the last person worth asking about the state of its presence on film. I only watched Michael Bay’s 2007 adventure once, avoided the subsequent sequels that preside on a sliding scale, and I remember unashamedly adoring Bumblebee. To the point that the franchise was, from my perspective, starting to turn a corner, and move along a more straightforward path. We only just needed five years for the evidence to emerge, that the standalone spinoff wasn’t a fluke. What comes next maintains that fun atmosphere, albeit taking a small tonal downgrade. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts emerges as the next effort in this series, ready to continue the core principle of man working with machines in the wake of a dangerous conflict. And while its approach might be a hair below faithful, uniting ideas once made clever in cartoon form, the fact this story willingly strips itself of all the cringey quirks Bay tried to make meta in his writing is enough to save the day.
Individual heroics suddenly mean more at the hands of director Steven Caple Jr (Creed II). His narrative voice, against a script primarily helmed by Joby Harold (Army of the Dead), leaves a most distinct echo previously lacking. What they accomplish might appear as a refreshment, until familiarity rears an unpredictable head. With the bots, probably. The humans, there’s a finer differential. Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is no Sam Witwicky, to the relief of many. He’s a bit more mature, professional, and optimistic with a twinge of real-world clarity. A mid-90s Brooklynite tech wiz who deserted his army squadron out of misguided ideas on how to be an effective collaborator, he’s trying to best support his family – hardworking mom Breanna (Luna Lauren Velez) and chronically ill little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vasquez) – but hardly anything is sticking.
Light thievery is a last resort, albeit with its ramifications. Nothing Noah would’ve expected as he crosses paths with Mirage (Pete Davidson), one of a few Autobots hiding away on Earth awaiting the missing piece of a “trans warp key,” their gateway back home to Cybertron. The evil deity Unicron (Colman Domingo), with Terrorcon associate Scourge (Peter Dinklage), is ready for an all-out battle. One needs reinforcements as Optimus (Peter Cullen) gathers his allies, alongside Noah and new mutual friend Elena (Dominique Fishback) to a neutral ground in Peru where clues and hidden secrets converge to truly reawaken the beasts, aka the Maximals.
Caple Jr. proves once more how quick of a study he is in the director’s chair, establishing place and time, and invoking a sustained tone. It does leave a slight drain on pacing, however, taking its time to develop the concise minutiae in play. Fine for Noah’s backstory, but not if it pushes the focus away from the bots. The momentum slows, so too does any impact when the beast bots, anchored firmly by cyborg-like gorilla Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), and bird mech Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) step in to show their support. And knowing there’s far less treacle, more lore-based excitement to play around with in Harold’s affinity-driven script, these technical marvels find the open ground to cut loose and stand out on both feet. Often in equal stride with their human counterparts, though not always. That part of the equation remains perpetually imbalanced, trying to peg down the root cause of a certain skirmish.
The overall camaraderie blooms to heights only Bumblebee could reach before. Grow the ensemble, and that idea magnifies. Ramos and Davidson best emphasize that concept with a consistent wit, helping to bolster morale and solidarity when it’s most key. Nothing unlike what we’ve known before, even harkening back to the classic 80s animation. This duo, even if at times they overextend a joke or CG mannerism, are the lighthearted balm any of these films would long for, only to struggle to lock in the formula. The likes of Perlman, Yeoh (strengthening her character actor muscle), and Liza Koshy as bullish lady Autobot Arcee add mild flashes of uniformity, their performances truly conveying authentic helmsmanship. Of course, Cullen’s legendary character still anchors these films to the ground, always for the better even when the script says otherwise.
Caple Jr. is most keen on reconnecting with a warm nostalgic feeling, without using it as too much of a crutch. The fanbase may be opposed to this matter, and yet to make effective use of classic memory and frame of mind is enough to transcend any ill-minded directive. Anything in Bay’s playbook would pale by comparison, as a fresh vision invites viewers back to basics. Or basic training, really, on how to craft a Transformers film. As if it were an accidental proving ground for budding filmmakers on how not to make similar mistakes more than once. Look past the fact that 20 minutes could’ve been shaved off to improve pacing, and it’s easy to leave in shock over just how significant a difference there can be in breaking from the norm. And often playing that welcome disruption for a fair dose of meta-humor.
The toughest hurdle Caple Jr can’t overcome is a balance in tonality. Yes, Beasts thankfully relish not always having to take itself seriously. However, when it transitions to peak battle time, it’s not without a jarring hesitation. Is this film better as a comedy or a serious war picture? Tough to say, as it tries to delve into both corners with the same aptitude, and often thematic ideas spill over, with one too many zingers encroaching on allotted combat time. Davidson hasn’t reached “Bill Paxton in Aliens” action icon status. Nor has Ramos, for that matter. But they make do until the script can’t make up its mind. At least it’s edited well enough to conceal those indifferences, with William Goldenberg’s (Air) steady hand keeping each beat on level ground. Almost to where it feels out of place in an IP-driven action feature, when really, it’s all for the better.
Noah’s character arc might be just as deserving of its own film, something more military-driven. That all just had to be thrown into what’s otherwise a mindfully crafted return to the straightforward. No more heavy-handed subtext, just a glimpse at determined partnerships and foreboding conflict. Caple Jr. has eliminated nearly all distractions that would pull away from normally easygoing story arcs. The only noticeable issue eventually mellows out as quickly as Davidson’s shtick. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts might be the change of pace this franchise was desperate for, living for the moment as a typical sci-fi action vehicle with lighter notes. Even without completely grazing the bullseye, it’s still miles ahead of the alternative. (C+; 3/5)
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts begins showtimes at 3 PM June 8; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi and violence, and language; 127 minutes.