The soft reboot of the Transformers film series which began with Bumblebee continues in this 1990s-set, relatively self-contained battlebot picture – eventually the saga may have to connect with the Michael Bay excess-of-everything Transformers movies, but I suspect one or two more nostalgia-tinged takes can be squeezed in before a mid-credits tag has characters interact with a digitally de-aged, enormously well-compensated Shia LaBoeuf. As usual, we begin deep in backstory – though the Transformers superfan sat behind me handily drew attention to a throwaway mention of the mcguffin enabling travel through ‘time and space’ so this could actually be the far future – on a planet of robot wildlife hybrids menaced by planet-eating Unicron (once played by Orson Welles in Transformers: The Movie, which this takes a few tips – and music cues – from) and his minions, who best the beastbots (technically, they’re the Maximals) and go Galactus on the place. Those robot transformers – who are of a distinctly different brand than the ones from the other films – head as usual for ancient Earth and conceal their artefacts where archaeologists in the 1990s will find them. Kudos for who of the many credited and uncredited screenwriters put in a line from a robot dissing all those ancient-peoples-couldn’t-make-pyramids-so-it-must-have-been-aliens nutcases.
In 1994 – a few years on from Bumblebee – struggling Brooklynite Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) agrees to heist a car in order to pay for his ailing younger brother’s medical treatment and jacks a Porsche which is actually Mirage (Pete Davidson), this film’s featured robot hero. They bicker and bond and Noah falls in with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the rest, while putupon museum intern Elena (Dominique Fishback) finds half the magic space-time key in an Egyptian Maltese Falcon lookalike object she shouldn’t be messing with. The badbots – Scourge (Peter Dinklage) is their boss – show up, and clash with Transformers … then it’s off to Peru where the other half of the doodad is to be found, and the Autobots get together with the Maximals, who include the Mechani-Kong lookalike Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) – as Matthew Turner remarked, ‘Optimus Primate’ was right there – and high-flying Airazor (Michelle Yeoh). Third-billed Luna Lauren Velez gets her second NYC hispanic Mom-to-a-son-struggling-with-heroic-destiny role of the month.
Like Bumblebee, it’s a concerted attempt to scale down Michael Bay’s overblown yet weightless epics and add in wit. The period setting is nicely used – jokes about Marky Mark’s acting prospects might be a barbed reference to the star of Transformers Age of Extinction and Transformers The Last Knight – with some evocative needle-drops, and Ramos and Fishback are engaging presences amid the machine carnage. It does eventually become a big battle between robots the uninitiated will find hard to differentiate, though a couple of capper scenes – including a nice bit of Hasbro cross-promotion – get back to the human scale. Incidentally, Noah Diaz becomes a) a crook and b) a hero solely because of the inequities of the American for-profit healthcare system – so can we expect MAGA protests against the film? Directed by Steven Caple Jr of Creed II.