Transformers The Last Knight (2017)
You have to respect the commitment of Michael Bay for sticking with this series – Gore Verbinski hopped ship after three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Steven Spielberg just lasted through one Jurassic Park sequel, James Cameron abandoned his terminators and even Paul W.S. Anderson let others direct the odd mid-series Resident Evil installment. But, though he might turn out a Pain and Gain or a 13 Hours in his down-time, Bay resolutely stays in the driving seat of this particular juggernaut. Though original star Shia LaBeouf has long since departed – represented here by a photo chosen to make him look demented – and poor old Josh Duhamel has now been in the whole series without making an impression, the tone has been remarkably consistent. If you like big noisy robots causing immense destruction, then here’s another two and a half hours of it. If you don’t, or even if you do and are nit-picky about fidelity to ‘80s toons which are the core of your adult belief system, maybe you should see Hampstead this weekend.
For what it’s worth, Bay is one of the few auteurs at his level who seem to take on board criticism – this episode downplays the sexism (the heroine is introduced wearing tight polo britches and there’s not a single IMAX close-up of her bum) and robot minstrel show business. We do get human and robot caricature Brits, but I think the nation can put up with it without rioting: screenwriters Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan and Akiva Goldsman think ‘Vivian Wembley’ is a credible British character name and a robot butler (voiced by Jim Carter) is so annoying even other robots write him off as a C3PO imitator (incidentally – robots watch movies?). And, in a year when Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur reboot thudded, this at least offers Stanley Tucci as Merlin enlisting the aid of Dark Ages transformer knights – who fuse into something almost actionably like Toho’s Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, gazumping his comeback in the new Godzilla film – to join the round table lads in combat with invading Saxons. If you want mindless, meaningless spectacle, it’s worth conceding that Bay does it better than many competitors – the big effects scenes, especially in IMAX, are so monotonously startling that you can take their cold perfection for granted.
Those four screenwriters just shuffle scenes at random from other drafts – we open with some kids sneaking into a transformer graveyard in the ruins of a Chicago stadium, which establishes that (as in the Independence Day sequel) the events of earlier films have altered history so much that the franchise has to take place in an alternate universe littered with half-crushed ‘bots. The whole point of this is to introduce Izabella (Isabela Moner), a scrappy fourteen-year-old orphan mechanic who becomes surrogate daughter to Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, back for more punishment), the transformers’ current best friend. With the stress on parental bonding, the adolescent perviness of the series is brushed aside – though Vivian (Laura Haddock – I take back that crack about ‘Vivian Wembley’ being an unlikely name), polo-playing Oxford history professor and (as it turns out) last descendant of Merlin, has a clutch of fussy older female relatives who want her to settle down with a nice man as if this were a huffily sexist 1960s career gal comedy. If you want to see British character actresses Maggie Steed, Sara Stewart, Rebecca Front and Phoebe Nicholls (who was killed by a plant back in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964) in a Transformers film, here’s your chance. Anthony Hopkins, with a fixed smile that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing and how much he’s getting paid for it, is a doddering aristo who explains that he’s the custodian of the secret history of transformers on Earth and owns the pocket watch that killed Hitler (it has stabby insect legs). He lists all the great men who have been in on the secret, tantalising us with the prospect of Transformers spinoffs featuring Shakespeare, Churchill and Gustav Mahler and gabbles about the round table even as the identity of the last knight is fudged a bit because there seem to be plenty of them left around.
Meanwhile, Optimus Prime – remember him? – is back on Cybertron – you know, home planet of the transformers, do keep up! – being bewitched by steel-tentacle cybersiren Quintessa (Gemma Chan) and turned against humanity, renaming himself Nemesis Prime as the transformerworld nudges the moon on its way to crush the Earth. When the most beloved character in a saga turns evil and it has absolutely no resonance, it’s probably time for a ground-up rethink of the franchise. The US government cuts a deal with Megatron and the decepticons (boo hiss) that surprisingly goes south – I mean, if you can’t trust people who call themselves decepticons, who can you trust? By now, everyone’s head hurts. Horns sprout from the Namibian deserts … landmarks are crushed by giant machines (the great pyramid, destroyed in an earlier film, is lambasted again) … there’s a geography-defying chase through the streets of London that competes with that Fast and the Furious sequel for silliness … and comedy cutaways to John Turturro in Cuba don’t exactly help. What’s slightly odd is that there’s a surprising shortage of transforming scenes – with unlimited funds, wouldn’t you make sure the WWII flashback (yes, there’s a WWII flashback) included a transforming Panzer tank or other Nazi robot superweapon? And where’s the transforming red Routemaster bus or black cab on the streets of London? Or a scene that makes any use of the fact raised in the bloody title that knights in armour look a bit like robots? If Bay/Hasbro want a cinematic universe, shouldn’t they set up crossovers with GI Joe, Ouija and – um – Jem and the Holograms?
Yes, it ends with a sequel hook …