(Don’t look so surprised. You knew this was coming.)
There really is nothing like a new “Transformers” movie. It’s the high fructose corn syrup of cinema, an overwhelming deluge of tasty, tasty artificial garbage. In a diseased way, I find this series enjoyable because I know exactly what I’m in for. (I went to see “Dark of the Moon” in IMAX 3D roughly six years ago, and I’d like to say my taste has gotten better over time. Clearly it has not.)
For “The Last Knight,” I trekked out to one of the largest IMAX 3D screens in the country, and I wasn’t disappointed. If you’re going to watch one of these movies, you might as well go all the way.
This time around, Bay really doubles down on the saga’s incoherent internal mythology. As the dapper English gentleman Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) helpfully informs us, Transformers have figured in human history for centuries (in the film’s opening minutes, King Arthur and a three-headed robot dragon incinerate an army of Saxons). Secret human societies—counting everyone from Beethoven to Harriet Tubman as members—have defended the secret of the Transformers ever since their first emergence.
Skip forward a few generations. After the last film’s battle of Hong Kong, Transformers are falling to earth from space more and more frequently, causing enough devastation to justify a “TRF,” or Transformer Response Force. Any interaction or collaboration with the robots is outlawed. But that doesn’t stop Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) from defending a small team of Autobots against prying government agents. He’s joined by new character Izabella (Isabela Moner), a tough-talking 14-year-old whose character arc goes precisely nowhere (she’s entirely inessential to the plot, and more of a reflection of Bay’s penchant for casting ever-younger actresses than anything else).
Meanwhile, our beloved hero robot Optimus Prime returns to his ruined home planet of Cybertron, where he meets the metallic sorceress Quintessa (who looks kinda like the T-1000 from “Terminator 2”). Quintessa’s interested in rebuilding the decimated Cybertron, which means she requires the Transformer artifact that served as “Merlin’s staff.” But it soon becomes clear that the only one who can wield Merlin’s staff is Oxford don Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), the last descendant of Merlin’s bloodline. (She’s about as convincing as a distinguished professor as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in “The World Is Not Enough.”)
Many explosions ensue all around.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: this is not a good movie. It’s abundantly clear that no one involved with this film’s production had any idea that the series would reach this point, because the plot holes are legion. More questionably, as the film’s three acts unfold, the movie veers from a dystopian sci-fi thriller (a la “District 9”) to a historical fantasy (a la “National Treasure”) to a cosmic-scale epic (a la “Independence Day”). None of it ever really coheres into an integrated whole.
Yet for all its outrageousness, “The Last Knight” is a significant step up from its immediate predecessor. Yes, it relies on a berserk amalgam of narrative devices. Yes, there’s still tons of product placement, vague sexism, deafening global destruction, and so on. But for the first time in the series, there’s a winking self-awareness underlying the whole thing. Hopkins’ presence isn’t degrading to the venerable actor: it’s a joke that everyone’s in on. And if we’re all honest, the whole idea of Transformers interfering with history is so deranged that it circles back around to being kind of amazing (I fully expect the inevitable Transformers 6 to feature Transformers cameoing in various Bible stories.) And as cacophonous as his work can be, no one does explosive mayhem quite like director Michael Bay. The best way to view these movies is as very expensive Saturday morning cartoons, and they’re pretty fun if you just kind of…allow the experience to wash over you.
At the end of the day, there’s no other film saga in existence that is so willing to embrace its own apocalyptic absurdity. No one here is pretending, a la Zack Snyder, that this is the stuff of Greek tragedy or biblical narrative. Everyone involved realizes that this is a CGI-drenched apotheosis of techno-carnage, the stupid, primal, lowest-common-denominator of modernity. Yet, to paraphrase the immortal Galileo, “eppur si intrattiene.” And still it entertains.
A noisy, ludicrous spectacle. Good summer fun.