At one point towards the end of Transformers: The Last Stand, a scientist character screams out “That is the dumbest idea you could possibly have!” It would be forgivable to think that in that moment the entire film became sentient and started screaming at itself.
To try and summarize the film’s story line could be a tough exercise given the crazy stretches and left turns the film makes at various times. Suffice it to say, there is a secret history of the Transformers having been on Earth since Arthurian times. There’s also a staff that was brought here from their homeworld of Cybertron that has the ability to restore that war-ravaged world, but at the expense of life here on Earth. The military feel that this staff is a weapon and we know that because they repeat that belief in multiple, redundant scenes. Meanwhile a group of good guy autobots and humans Cade (Mark Whalberg, holding over from the last Transformers film) and Vivian (Laura Haddock), the last descendant of Merlin and the only one alive who can use the staff, are racing to find it in order to keep from the evil decepticons. All the while, Cybertron is moving towards Earth where it will cause global devastation. Just the same old assemblage of flat characters, ridiculous action sequences and hilariously over-inflated stakes that we have come to expect in a Transformers film.
But I do want to give the screenplay a modicum of credit. Does take the events of the previous films and extrapolates them out. We see humanity pretty much afraid of any transformer be they the good autobots or the evil decepticons. To that end they have established a world wide military force – which looks to be about twenty to thirty guys – who respond to all reported transformer sightings. The destruction wrought on Chicago in the last film is not swept under the rug either, with that battleground now a restricted zone. Unfortunately, the rest of the script doesn’t share this glimmer of intelligent thought. I know I anxiously await pop astrophysicist Neil DeGrass Tyson’s tweet storm about how the gravitational tides from Cybertron would have wrecked catastrophic havoc to Earth long before it actually brushes up against it.
Amazingly, there are six screen credited editors on this film and yet it is still an incomprehensible mess. Dialogue scenes are rushed through as if Bay promised the actors a thousand bucks to whomever reaches the end of a scene first. The movie is awkwardly paced and as it always seems in a Transformers film, the idea that any of this is happening in any kind of coherent space. There are moments that can be recognized as comic relief, but are delivered in the same flat and hurried way as everything else that they fail to illict a chuckle. There are even scenes that seem to jump to an establishing shot midway through, as if the film thinks the audience has such a goldfish-like short term memory that they’ve forgotten that everyone is talking in a castle.
One particularly grating part about the film’s editing stems from the fact that a portion of the film was shot with an eye towards being displayed in Imax theaters. This has been done with several films in the past, allowing whole sequences to play out in the larger screen format before shifting back to a more theatrical wide screen ratio. But Bay just randomly jumps back and forth between the Imax ratio and his main theatrical wide screen composition in a way that offers no reasons for the switches. The result is even more visual confusion than what Bay is normally constructing in his action sequences.
Yes, this is a Michael Bay Transformers film and among certain demographics there is an expectation of awfulness. It certainly displays all of Bay’s usual filmmaking issues and peccadilloes that have been on display in this franchise in the past. There’s the expected CGI and explosion porn. There’s the fetishizing of military hardware. There’s the casual racist robot caricatures, though the usual misogyny in the way that the main female lead is treated has been dialed back somewhat. And there will be those who will defend it with the weakest of arguments – “It’s just a summer movie.” But just because it is a big blockbuster summer film doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. We can still have a smart script and engaging characters while the film dances across our optic nerves as we munch popcorn in the dark.
Recently, Bay stated that this film would be his last for the Transformers franchise. After five films, I would say that he has overstayed his welcome by at least four movies. And I hope he isn’t just teasing us here. But The Last Knight is the first in the studio’s planned next wave of Transformers films. Up next is a solo Bumblebee film that is already in production. More spinoffs are set to follow. And this film certainly leaves some plot threads waving in the wind for the inevitable next sequel to pick up on. And maybe, with Bay gone, someone can bring some actual respectability to this franchise at long last. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?