One thing you can say for Michael Bay’s work: it’s consistent. Bay’s name on a film project guarantees a fast-paced story filled with explosions and visually arresting action happening almost too fast to track. So it’s no particular surprise that Transformers: The Last Knight — Bay’s fifth Transformers movie in 10 years — unapologetically offers more of the same. It’s a quintessential summer film: a big-budget romp requiring low brain activity. Even viewers who’ve never seen a Transformers movie before will kindly be handed everything they need to know in the first 20 minutes. Bay only asks that the audience shows up with enough fortitude to sit through Last Knight’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
The franchise’s previous installment, 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, handed the story over to a new hero, Cade Yeager, played by everyman actor Mark Wahlberg. Cade is a wisecracking inventor (“patents are pending”) who has become a wanted man. To avoid capture by a group of commandos known as the T.R.F., he spends most of his time hanging out in a desolate junkyard and placing one-ended phone calls to his daughter simply to hear her voice. That gives him more time with his friends the Autobots, the transforming alien robots at the center of the long-running Transformers TV, comics, games, and movies franchise. The Autobots are constantly at the mechanical throats of their brethren, the sinister Decepticons. The two groups fight for a variety of reasons, which usually boil down to the Autobots fighting to protect Earth, while the Decepticons would sooner see it destroyed. Meanwhile, in the continuity of Bay’s movies, humanity’s leaders have decided all Transformers are bad news, and should be attacked on sight.
This time around, Cade’s loyalty to the Autobots leads him to ownership of an alien artifact, a key to an upcoming conflict. Soon, he’s teamed with history buff Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) and Oxford professor Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock), as they work to figure out why Transformers keep crashing on Earth.
The Last Knight is exploding at the seams with plotlines. It opens with a callback to King Arthur and his knights of the round table, and the dabbling of alcoholic wizard fraud Merlin. That’s the backbone for the film’s central conflict. Early on, the movie introduces a surrogate daughter for Cade — a scrappy little girl who’s lost her family and has a preternatural knack for robot repair. Then it pushes her to the back seat when Viviane’s character starts to get real screen time. Viviane, like every other character in the film, is never short on wit, and has a key role to play… but she’s also predictably set up as a chemistry-light love interest for Cade, from the minute they’re on-screen together. Sir Burton acts as the plot’s shepherd, tying together its mythical past and its explosive present, but once his role is fulfilled, his character is shuffled offscreen so unceremoniously that it’s laughable, in the most painful sense.
The Autobots and Decepticons don’t fare much better. Autobot leader Optimus Prime has gone sailing off through space to find his creator. Decepticon leader Megatron has a plot to revive the Transformers’ home world. Their respective followers fall somewhere in between, with fan favorites like Bumblebee returning to round out a collection of otherwise-unremarkable mech faces. The film’s Transformers have always been larger-than-life characters, like John Goodman’s cigar-chomping, gun-toting Autobot, Hound, or the “C-3PO knockoff” robot butler Cogman. But their roles boil down to the same position they’ve always been in: they have to protect Earth and keep endlessly fighting Decepticons.
Even at its best, The Last Knight feels like a series of action scenes wrapped up together in a thinly stretched narrative. The characters are always in some sort of mortal peril, whether they’re being shot at, nearly getting crushed by errant bots, or on a free fall collision course with solid ground. Everyone has one-liners ready to go, though a lot of them are cringeworthy. (In a triumphant moment, Bumblebee punctuates a punch by shouting, “Sting like a bee!”) The introduction of the King Arthur legend and its corresponding mythos is a paper-thin tie with no satisfying revelation, an excuse to play with a few Game of Thrones-style battles and a big robot dragon.
Last Knight’s setpieces are visually stunning. The film’s climax is a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly ridiculous action sprint that’s predictable, but entertaining. But the film is unashamed in working to set up yet another sequel, leaving the door so wide open that multi-story robot Optimus Prime could tumble through it with ease. It’s an exhausting way to conclude a film whose runtime already feels too long, with a director who has spoken freely about having more than a dozen more storylines clanging around his head.
Transformers never asks whether viewers want more. It just force-feeds the audience the same ideas this series has been rehashing for the last decade: generic heroes and big robots racing at breakneck speed toward a continually disappointing conclusion. Nothing about it feels novel or innovative: not the hints at a greater force than the Transformers, or even Optimus Prime beheading foes with a single sword swing. It wants to be a funny action flick and a heartfelt drama, hammering down the idea of family and hope with all the subtlety of a Transformer’s punch. But it can’t nail any sort of graceful balance between humor and sincerity.
But Age of Extinction was a billion-dollar box office hit, and the Transformers movies as a whole have financially outperformed what their actual quality should dictate. The Last Knight is described as easily as the film’s iconic robots. It’s beautiful, bombastic, and nearly indistinguishable from those that came before it.