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Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts review: reboot is long on action, short on ideas

Generic installment continues to prioritize spectacle over character, leaving stars Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback stranded

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Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts
Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts
Photo: Paramount

It’s understandable why most critics and many fans of the popular Hasbro toy line view the five Transformers movies directed by Michael Bay with utter disdain. They’re narratively incoherent, and defined by a lazy, cynical approach to the IP. However, Bay is such a wizard of eye-popping, grand-scale action that he deserves more credit for nailing just how big these epics—centered on giant, robot-like aliens capable of shapeshifting into recognizable vehicles—should be. With IMAX-ready wide shot compositions and go-for-broke action sequences, Bay delivered maximalist spectacle so immersive that it intermittently eclipsed the films’ story and tonal issues, especially in series standout Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, the 2011-released third entry, which spent nearly the entirety of its second half on a thrillingly sustained “battle for Chicago” set piece.

The series’ first non-Bay-helmed outing, 2018’s charming spin-off Bumblebee, didn’t offer much in the way of memorable action, but director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson wisely jettisoned much of what was problematic about the previous films—the narrative bloat, the leering sexism, the queasy-making politics—and infused the story with a welcome emotional sincerity that suited the smaller-scale approach. The result was a likable coming-of-age yarn that just happened to feature giant alien robots, and the first series entry to offer characters worth caring about.


So it seems like a no-brainer that the ideal way to go for the franchise at this point is to combine the endearing heart of Bumblebee with the event movie grandeur of Bay’s installments, which is what the new Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts, set seven years after Bumblebee, strives to do. Unfortunately, this thoroughly generic reboot doesn’t exert enough effort in the attempt, working from the same tired story template of earlier sequels that focused on a quest for a sci-fi MacGuffin—in this case, the Trans-Warp Key, which opens portals in time and space allowing whoever possesses it to travel to distant planets. It’s an easier-to-follow variation on the template than most of its predecessors, but still one dependent on long-winded exposition dumps. And the character-based material here lacks Bumblebee’s sweetness, coming off as cloyingly manipulative instead.


For example, in establishing our put-upon human hero Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), co-writers Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, and Josh Peters feel it’s not enough to make him a military dropout and tech whiz desperately chasing one canceled job interview after another. He’s also stuck living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with his 11-year-old brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), who suffers from sickle-cell anemia so severe that it causes wrist pain when he fiddles with his beloved Game Boy, and their mother (Luna Lauren Velez), who struggles to pay the bills for Kris’ treatment. The amount of buttons being pushed with these crisis-defined characterizations surely exceeds the number found on your average Autobot chassis.

These dire circumstances push Noah to steal a silver Porsche for a neighborhood criminal outfit that’s been looking to exploit his mechanical know-how. Little does Noah know, however, that the Porsche is secretly an Autobot named Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson). Soon enough, Mirage reveals his true, wisecracking robotic alien self to Noah, and whisks the stunned Earthling away on a mission to find and retrieve the Trans-Warp Key before it falls into the hands of the evil, planet-devouring Unicron. They enlist the assistance of archeological researcher Elena (Dominique Fishback), Autobot stalwarts Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, and, once the adventure takes them to Peru, a band of Maximals, which are Transformers who resemble animals instead of vehicles.

Aside from an overcrowded, overextended climax pitting this array of heroes against Unicron’s army of defenders, the Terrorcons, director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) executes the action scenes with flair, making that one department in which this ho-hum blockbuster doesn’t disappoint. While Caple Jr.’s action staging lacks Bay’s unique, primary color-saturated style and is slightly less mammoth-scaled, it’s more visually coherent in its long take-driven, cause-and-effect flow, which will please those who find Bay’s fast-cut-powered action indecipherable. Era-appropriate needle drops (the film is set in 1994) like Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” add even more spice and energy to the fun car chases and robot-on-robot battles.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts | Official Trailer (2023 Movie)

But unlike Creed II, this project doesn’t give Caple Jr. anything to work with in terms of intimate human drama, and the thin characterizations hamper the lead actors’ talents. As charismatic as Ramos was in In The Heights, there are diminishing returns to Noah being a more cliched version of the same character type as that musical’s protagonist—a street-smart New Yorker whose cockiness can’t disguise that he has yet to realize his potential. Fishback, who was so good in Judas And The Black Messiah, seems understandably bored delivering the majority of the film’s exposition.


For anyone curious about where the Transformers franchise can go from here, a fan-service epilogue has the answer which, without spoiling anything, indicates an expansion of the series’ cinematic universe. What really needs expanding, though, are the dramatic possibilities of these movies, because the formula of a convoluted fetch quest with no credible human anchor but spectacular action has become extremely rusty.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on June 9