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I saw footage from Transformers: The Last Knight and it didn’t make me angry

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It’s a CinemaCon miracle!

Paramount Pictures

Here at the CinemaCon trade show, movie studios love to show off footage that they think is going to get theater owners hyped for the months ahead. For Paramount Pictures yesterday, that meant an assortment of different movies, from comedies and thrillers to clever, tongue-in-cheek satires. It also meant more than 15 minutes of footage from the upcoming Transformers: The Last Knight, and here’s where it gets complicated: I didn’t hate the footage.

To back up for a second, I’ve never really been a fan of the series. I thought the first film was barely serviceable, and things steadily went downhill from there. By the time Age of Extinction came around, I was practically yelling at audiences for buying tickets and perpetuating this cycle of cinematic sadism. (What can I say; emotions ran high on that one.)

So I guess I just expected to be infuriated by footage from The Last Knight. It was coming after Paramount pointed out its investment in medium-budget thrillers, including the new Cloverfield movie, coming October 28th, and Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! It was after the studio played an extended clip of the upcoming Alexander Payne film Downsizing, which takes place in a future where people have themselves medically shrunken to five inches in height in order to battle food shortages and economic inequality. (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig starred in the clip, which was subtly hilarious.)

It was also after the audience was treated to some mesmerizing footage from Annihilation, the new film from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland. In that film, Natalie Portman plays a woman whose military officer husband (Oscar Isaacs) shows up after being missing for a year, and after he gets violently ill she discovers that he’s been exposed to some sort of force that has put his life in danger.

Hell, it was even after Paramount kicked things off with a groan-worthy bit with the cast of Baywatch, which had me wondering if everyone had given up on the teleprompter script, or if some sort of real, deep-seated personal animus toward co-star Zac Efron was surfacing in real time. But the point is, there’d been a lot of interesting and weird things beforehand, and a letdown seemed almost inevitable.

But that never happened. Now, I’ll be honest: the footage from The Last Knight looked absolutely insane. Not “that’s a killer fight scene” insane; more like “a crazy person made pictures and I’m watching them” insane. The film starts with King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable... who apparently hung out with Transformers whenever they were summoned by Merlin? (That’s what the scene seemed to indicate, at least; frankly, I spent the first few minutes thinking somebody had started the wrong promotional reel.)

But then the film switched to the modern day, where a young girl named Izzy (Isabela Moner) and her robot sidekick try to save some troublemaking boys from a sentry droid that looks like ED-209 from Robocop. There’s actually a fun John Connor vibe to the young girl’s combination of street-smart fighting and vulnerability, and that feeling is only emphasized when it becomes clear the film is set in some sort of near-future dystopia, where the loss of the Autobots have created a Terminator future-war scenario when humans fight against all machines, no matter what side they happen to be on.

That is, of course, when Mark Wahlberg appears as Cade Yeager, and things get all Transformers-y — and by that I mean there are many explosions, everything is loud, and robots are jumping, diving, and rolling all over the place. At some point Cade tells Izzy that she’s family now, and a robot butler that’s totally ripping off C-3P0’s look shows up and leads the gang to Anthony Hopkins, who has secret information that will help advance the plot.

Ultimately, around five or six scenes were screened — enough to make it clear that Optimus Prime gets evil, actress Laura Haddock gets paired up with Wahlberg for the inevitable love story, the King Arthur thing does come back around as part of the mythology, and that Transformers fought the Nazis during World War II. (See my above comment re: “insane.”) But despite all that madness, I could clearly understand the on-screen action from a visual perspective. I could grasp the basic character dynamics in play. And there was a character, Izzy, that I actually cared about. For a Transformers movie, those are epochal advances.

Yes, I’m sure the final film will be 14 hours long, make no sense, and be so overwhelming that audiences will want to read Deepak Chopra in an anechoic chamber afterward. But yesterday at least, Transformers: The Last Knight didn’t seem like the worst thing ever. In fact, what I saw looked like perhaps the least-worst Transformers since the very beginning.

And I suppose it better be. We’re going to be getting one of these a year for the foreseeable future, after all.