Michael Bay (Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys) has spent the last decade spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $1b to bring Hasbro’s toy line to CGI life. Worldwide, moviegoers have embraced Bay’s emphasis on slo-mo, explosives-heavy action, robot-on-robot action, and crude, low-grade humor. Of course, those same moviegoers have proven time and time again that story, character, and dialogue mean next to nothing to them. Here’s the thing: They have a point. Mute the dialogue in Bay’s latest contribution to another “Summer of Sequels, Prequels, and Reboots,” Transformers: The Last Knight, and it’s almost a tolerable experience. Bay’s special set of skills put him in unique company. He can deliver massive, massively scaled controlled chaos like few other directors can. But he’s also a limited moviemaker, incapable of finding or developing scripts with recognizably human characters, believable dialogue, or humor above the second- or third-grade level.
SOME SPOILERS BELOW
With Bay, of course, what we see is what we get and with Transformers: The Last Knight, we get another ultra-convoluted storyline involving King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, and Merlin’s scepter, here recast as a long-lost Cybertronian artifact that can save or end the world, depending on who’s wielding it. Lost for 1,600 hundred years, it becomes the object everybody wants, from the U.S. military, to the Megatron-led Decepticons, to the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), and the Creator, the Quintessa (Gemma Chan), Optimus Prime finds on his devastated homeworld. The Quintessa promises Prime a reborn Cybertron, but for Cybertron to live again, restored to its former, prewar glory, another world (ours), has to die. Once again, Prime has to choose between his new world and the old, hope for an unforeseeable future or nostalgia for a long-lost past.
For Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, making his second – and if recent reports are any indication – last turn in the Transformers series), the last three years post-Age of Extinction have turned him into a fugitive from the law. After a nearly successful alien robot invasion, humanity has definitively turned against the Transformers, hunting and exterminating the Transformers, Autobots and Decepticons alike, with extreme prejudice (insert intentional/unintentional commentary about the current state of immigration policy in America). With Prime off doing the Superman Returns thing and the Autobots leaderless, it’s left to Cade to protect the remaining Autobots from the TRF (Transformers Reactive Force), a paramilitary group tasked with hunting down the Transformers. Cade finds a temporary home for his band of misfit toys, including a handful of kid-friend Dinobots, in a junkyard. Hard to believe the TRF can’t easily find Cade and the Autobots (they’re hiding in plain sight), sure, but if we’ve learned anything over the last ten years and five movies, it’s this: Never, under any circumstances, try to apply logic to anything Transformers-related, least of all the story, the characters, or even the dialogue. You’ll regret every minute.
On one of his excursions into the ruins of Chicago, Cade acquires an ancient-looking talisman from a fallen Transformer and a spunky Latina teen, Izabella (Isabela Moner), he practically adopts. She’s prone to dropping Spanish words into English haphazardly (in case we’re not sure she’s Latino) and her mini-bot companion says exactly one word, “Chihuahua.” It’s not the Transformers without racial insensitivity and cultural stereotypes, but points to Bay for being consistent at least. Cade eventually crosses paths with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a fourteen-year-old boy’s idea of an English-educated, Oxford professor. Like Cade, Vivian hold the key (in her case, literally) to saving the world, but once Prime returns, with Cybertron and the Quintessa literally in tow, all hell inevitably breaks loose over England, setting off a massive, CGI battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, with a few, mostly useless humans thrown into the mix for scale.
This time out the Transformers series has a not-so-secret MVP: Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Anthony Hopkins‘ performance as Sir Edmund Burton, the Earl of Something and the Exposition Giver-In-Chief, the keeper of a super-secret history involving the Transformers, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Roundtable. Hearing Hopkins as Burton deliver one ridiculous story after all, all with his plummy, soothing, British-accented voice, rarely with a hint of wink-at-the-audience sarcasm, repeatedly elevates Transformers: The Last Knight above the sensory-overloading, brain-melting bludgeoning of its predecessor, Transformers: Age of Extinction. The more time Burton spends on screen, the less time the Transformers: The Last Knight has to spend on the Cade-Vivian romance (insert yawn here) or on his father-pseudo-daughter relationship with Izabella.
On the plus side, there’s nothing like the bizarre, cringe-inducing scene involving Izabella and an older boyfriend pulling out a get-out-of-jail-free card to prove he’s not breaking any statutory consent laws to a shocked, dazed Cade like Transformers: Age of Extinction did three years ago. Izabella’s age puts her in the safe zone, leaving Wahlberg free to play a stand-up father figure type. It doesn’t save him, though, from a bad haircut or aggressively stupid dialogue it’s a miracle Wahlberg didn’t storm off the set at some point or quit altogether. He’s a pro, of course. He knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on for two entries in the Transformers universe. It’s also understandable why Wahlberg would swear off the Transformers series: He’s claimed he’s two and done. Someone else will have to pick up the thankless hero-in-name-only role for the sixth entry.