The Transformers return to the big screen this week and despite some issues, uses it’s impressive action and likeable characters to bring tons of fun.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Directed By: Steven Caple Jr.
Written By: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, ean Scott Vazquez, Peter Cullen, Pete Davidson, Ron Perlman, Peter Dinklage
Release Date: June 9, 2023
Generally speaking, I’m a fairly casual Transformers fan. I wasn’t into the original series and most of my exposure to Transformers lore comes from the live-action films and looking stuff up after watching them. In fact, the only Transformers I watched (and really got into) as a kid, was Beast Wars. As such, Rise of the Beasts has been the first time in a while that I’ve found myself eager to return to the Transformers universe.
Don’t get me wrong, Bumblebee was (surprisingly) great, but I skipped it in theaters following burnout from the other “Bay-verse” films. Taking the goodwill from that film and throwing the Maximals into the fray made for an exciting prospect…one which Rise of the Beasts mostly lives up to.
Rise of the Beasts, as has been pointed out in the trailers/marketing, takes place in 1994, telling a story after the events of Bumblebee and well before all the shenanigans of the previous live-action films….Maybe. The movie, and Paramount themselves, are being nebulous about whether or not the film is indeed connected to the Michael Bay Transformers films, but I’ll talk more about that later.
The Autobots are still stranded on Earth, but when the legendary Transwarp Key (which could bring them back home) is unearthed, they see opportunity. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who’ve been looking for it. The Terrorcons (led by the ruthless Scourge) have been searching the universe for centuries in search of the key in order to bring their master, Unicron, anywhere he desires.
In order to secure the Transwarp Key (which has been split apart for safety reasons), the Autobots will have to work alongside a pair of humans. There’s Noah (Anthony Ramos), a down on his luck ex-military man trying to take care of his sick brother. And there’s Elena (Dominique Fishback), a young archeologist, who’s pivotal in tracking down the final piece that’s needed.
I won’t get into how the humans come into the story, as that’s part of the fun, but it was handled in a pretty solid way. It manages to make enough story sense to keep you from dwelling on it, while serving the greater themes. Regardless, their travels bring them to discover the Maximals (animal Transformers who look ridiculously cool), who’ve been watching over/protecting the pieces of the Key.
As the Terrorcons continue to haunt their every step, the humans, Autobots, and Maximals will have to work together in order to save not one world…but all of them. That’s pretty much the overall basics. Pretty standard Transformers stuff, and I don’t want to get into any spoilers, so that’s where we’re leaving it!
Saturday Morning Popcorn Adventure
By and large, watching Rise of the Beasts was much like sitting down and enjoying some Saturday morning cartoons. I mean this for all the good, and not so good, things this might imply. The story is highly entertaining and pushes the theme of working together, and doing the right thing even at personal cost. Like those old cartoons, it’s not exactly subtle in its messaging, but that doesn’t take away from its impact.
Pretty much all things within Rise of the Beasts goes to serve those two things: entertainment and theme. As such the story just kinda plows ahead and doesn’t waste time with a lot of explanations or exposition. Things happen and it just pulls you along for the ride.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hell, a major problem of the previous Transformers movies is how it got bogged down in the lore/backstory elements which continued to get exponentially more convoluted as it went. Beasts skipping a good chunk of that is fairly refreshing and allows the action and character beats more chance to shine through.
The downside, however, is when you actually want more explanation of what’s going on, the film doesn’t give it to you. While the story beats are sound enough to let your imagination take you from point A to point B, the film makes some big leaps at times (in both timing and logic) where a dash of exposition would have been beneficial.
This becomes more noticeable thanks to a middle area that’s surprisingly sluggish. There’s a whole section, which ultimately leads to the discovery of the Maximals, that feels too long. Almost as if it exists to allow for one extra fight/action sequence that isn’t necessary and manages to kill the sense of urgency rather than increase it. I would have gladly traded it out for some more depth on certain story bits.
Action and Heart
Despite some of the pacing issues and overly simple elements, Rise of the Beasts still manages to be a whole lot of fun. A big reason for that, comes down to two factors: the characters and the action.
Both of the human characters are instantly likable and manage to offer audiences two different, but relatable, perspectives from which to view the events taking place. I found it much easier to empathize with them than many of the human characters from the previous films. Mostly they just felt…well, real.
Strange as it sounds, the same could be said for the Transformers this time around. In general, everyone felt more like actual characters, rather than props used to move the story forward. Even those who don’t get as much screen time (some of the Maximals were sorely underused) you still got the sense of them having a history/life outside of what we see within the film.
Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson, was a surprising standout all around. He’s the bot the humans (and thus audience) interact with the most throughout the story, essentially taking up the role Bumblebee has for most of the films. I was impressed at how quickly I became endeared to him. Seriously, if you’d told me the “new” Transformer voiced by Pete Davidson would end up being among my favorite characters, I’d have called you a liar. And yet…here we are.
He brings plenty of humor (all around the film is surprisingly hilarious), but also gives Mirage a lot of heart. His interactions with Noah feels natural, allowing for the emotional moments to have genuine impact later on.
On the action side of things…it’s gorgeous. There are a number of “holy shit” moments sprinkled throughout the film that had me (and everyone else in the theater) cheering/gasping/reacting while sitting on the edge of my seat. Gone is the chaotic action that’s a trademark of ‘Bayhem,’ and instead we’re given fights that are easy to follow and well choreographed.
The final action set piece alone is worth the price of admission and basically had my blood pumping right through the end credits. Combine all of that with some excellent bot designs (Unicron is all sorts of awesome and suitably terrifying), and Rise of the Beasts easily brings the best Transformers action we’ve seen on screen so far.
The only other real hang-up in Rise of the Beasts has to deal with it’s legacy. While it outright references events in the Bumblebee movie, serving as a sequel (though not in any direct fashion). Yet Paramount is reluctant to clarify whether or not its all still set within the same live-action universe; or Bay-verse if you will.
Ostensibly, Bumblebee takes place in that same continuity and meant to serve as a prequel to the original live-action film. Yet, there are many things within that story which directly contradict the lore of the other films. Sure, much of that can be handwaved away, or ignored, as there’s no denying the elements that directly connect them together.
As such, Rise of the Beasts seems to be in an even weirder place, continuity wise. As it builds upon stuff from Bumblebee, it begins to diverge even more from the previous films’ lore. Namely, The Last Knight showed that Unicron was INSIDE the Earth, while that’s clearly not the case in Beasts.
Even so, between the designs and other tidbits mentioned in the film, it feels like they’re still somehow connected to the Bay-verse. It’s almost like they’re trying to straddle the line between rebooting and still keeping things connected and it’s not doing them any favors.
The events in Beasts make things that happen within the other films (taking place over a decade later) make little sense. You’re telling me while Optimus Prime and his crew were getting their asses handed to them time and again, Primal and the Maximals were just chilling in Peru? Conversely, why wouldn’t Jazz be in Beasts if he’s a central part of Autobot crew during this period of time.
Beyond the confusion, it also feels like it’s hamstringing the story. It’s hard to get into specifics here without inadvertently spoiling things. Suffice it to say, there are moments where other Transformers characters would have made more sense to be utilized, but it feels like they weren’t just in case they wanted to keep the Bay-verse continuity going.
It feels like a small thing, but there were a couple moments where connections, or lack there of, gave me pause. For the most part, based on all that’s changed, I don’t see HOW they could be connected anymore, but it would be nice for them to clarify that and thus give the stories a bit more freedom.