‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ Is a Generic Mix of Old and New
Jun 9, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Jun 9, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
The Transformers return for their seventh live-action go-around, and this time, the heroes from 1996’s beloved Beast Wars animated series are coming along for the ride. Originally conceived as a brand refresh, with robots that transformed into animals replacing the previous decade’s cars and planes, Beast Wars marked a turning point for the Transformers franchise, proving that it didn’t necessarily need Optimus Prime to succeed. Now, 28 years later, the beasts are back to enthrall a whole new audience for the billion-dollar franchise.
Does Rise of the Beasts live up to the quality that 2018’s Bumblebee brought to the table, or does it take us back to the dark days of Michael Bay’s brain-numbing sequels?
Transform, roll out, and read on to find out!
The year is 1994 (seven years since the events of Bumblebee, and thirteen before the first Transformers’ 2007 setting), and we’re introduced to Noah (Anthony Diaz, Hamilton), a tech whiz and former soldier with a heart of gold. Struggling to make ends meet, Noah learns (the hard way) that the Porsche 911 he was in the process of stealing is a transforming alien robot known as Mirage (SNL alum Pete Davidson). Noah’s shock grows when he meets Mirage’s Autobot compatriots, led by the indomitable Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, otherwise best known as Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore).
Teaming up with museum intern Elena (Dominique Fishback, excellent in Amazon Prime’s Swarm), Noah and the Autobots must embark on a fetch quest to recover the Transwarp Key, an artifact with the power to summon the world-consuming Unicron. With Unicron’s minions in hot pursuit, humans and Transformers alike will find that the Key is being protected by ancient robot beasts known as the Maximals. Under the command of Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman, Hellboy, Blade II), the Maximals will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission.
To its credit, Rise of the Beasts continues in Bumblebee’s spirit of retconning Bay’s execrable sequels while (finally) embracing the elements that made the franchise popular in the first place: iconic characters of good and evil transforming into instantly recognizable forms.
There is perhaps no clearer instance of this than in the designs of Optimus Prime and his cohorts, who — for the most part — resemble their classic ‘80s incarnations, though it’s perplexing why Wheeljack (whose classic form appeared in Bumblebee) has been redone to resemble a stereotypical nerd, complete with glasses, suspenders, and a Latino accent. It’s a perplexing choice, and the decision to have someone lampshade any racist implications just makes it all the more bizarre.
The titular Beasts fare better than poor Wheeljack, yet somehow worse; Optimus Primal, Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), Rhinox (David Sobolov), and Air Razor (Academy Award-winner Michelle Yeoh) look great, all receiving appropriate 21st-century facelifts reminiscent of their small screen looks. Sadly, despite appearing in a movie that literally has them in the title, these beasts aren’t given much to do, reduced to the status of supporting characters.
Of these, only Primal and Air Razor get any meaningful dialogue, most of it expository. At the very least, the Maximals get more screentime (relevant or otherwise) than the fan-favorite Dinobots did in 2014’s Age of Extinction, and their leader isn’t just here to be ridden by Optimus Prime.
Ramos is fine in the role of a son who just wants to do right by his family, and his Noah’s interactions with Fishback’s Elena are ok, at best. In any case, Ramos shares far more dialogue with Davidson’s Mirage, who serves up just enough basic slang and pop culture nods to let audiences know that he’s (supposed to be) the fun Autobot. Though he does announce himself with a Wu-Tang Clan reference while a Notorious B.I.G. track plays in the background, so take from that what you will.
Cullen does his usual solid job as Prime, having played the character pretty much continuously since his first appearance in the 1984 Transformers animated series. Stoic, stable, and noble to a fault, Prime is the robot parent many an ‘80s kid wishes they’d had, though this iteration retains some of the bloodthirstiness that Bay introduced during his tenure. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s genuinely off-putting to hear Optimus Prime constantly proclaiming his desire to decapitate his enemies and/or rip their spines out.
Having successfully ditched the formula in Bumblebee, Rise’s five credited screenwriters inexplicably chose to recycle the basic plot from all five of Bay’s entries here, giving one an inescapable feeling of, “been there, done that, bought the toys”.
As helmed by Creed II director Steven Caple Jr., the action here is massively generic, which is something we never thought we’d be able to say for one of these films. Bay’s movies may have been inane, incoherent messes, but there was always a clear voice behind the camera (whether we liked it or not). When one considers that this is literally the sixth movie where a Transformer artifact lost on Earth can open a portal and/or unleash unspeakable evil, a little style probably wouldn’t have hurt.
By the time we reach the standard-issue climax of a CGI battle where the heroes battle hordes of disposable minions while an energy beam and/or portal looms overhead, any hope of originality and/or creativity is lost. We’ve basically gone all the way back to where we were with 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight — complete with Unicron as the looming threat — and this writer is way past caring.
Even the highly touted pre-credits stinger left much to be desired, as it only served to drive excitement for the potential of things to come, as opposed to paying off anything that happened in this film.
On the one hand, Rise of the Beasts is a solid, inoffensive action flick that will probably succeed in its mission to sell action figures. But on the other, it does precious little to distinguish itself, going about its business in the absolute blandest way possible. Whether this stems from an overall lack of inspiration or from director Steven Caple Jr.’s relative inexperience with blockbusters is best left up for debate, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that moviegoers have seen all this before, and I’ve got better things to do.
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