Sixteen years removed from Michael Bay’s original foray into live-action robots in disguise and if one were to only watch that initial film and the latest from Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) they would be accurate in feeling like we haven’t come nearly as far as the journey has felt. There would be more to it than meets the eye if you will. As the interim between these two films has offered four sequels and a spin-off though, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts doesn’t feel so much redundant as it does refreshing; the franchise growing from the humble reset that was Bumblebee while never allowing itself the arrogance of believing it takes anything near two hours and forty-five minutes (yes, that’s the actual runtime of 2014’s Age of Extinction) to tell what would easily be a three episode arc in the cartoon. 

Rise of the Beasts is, for all intents and purposes, another Transformers film where the thing a bad guy needs to complete/destroy/take over has somehow made its way to earth and the stranded autobots must help a couple of humans who’ve become tangled in the intergalactic mess defeat the antagonist and save the world. The film adheres to these familiar archetypes while executing them in clear and endearing ways. This is especially true when it comes to the action sequences as well as the human characters. Both Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback are so appealing with Ramos lending his effortlessly cool aura to the tone of the film while Fishback infuses things with a certain amount of gravity that feels more authentic than put upon. The New York-based nineties setting doesn’t hurt either as Caple and his set designers go all in on the pop culture references, specific car models, and of course - the soundtrack. Wu-Tang, Tribe Called Quest, Biggie, and LL Cool J tracks all drop at opportune times, enhancing the procedural nature of the plot points and invigorating the vibe again and again.

Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Wheeljack, and Arcee join the fight in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
Photo by Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. - © 2023 Paramount Pictures. Hasbro, Transformers and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro. ©2023 Hasbro

While the human characters genuinely work in more involving ways than they have since probably that original ‘07 film, this is still a Transformers movie, and the robots are still the stars. The big change-up/draw of this latest film being that they have brought in the “Maximals” who have a lot of history as I’ve learned but can best be summed up as robot animals and descendants of the Autobots. That said, this new line of toys - I mean characters - while theoretically the marquee attraction of this latest installment are the crux of the plot they are not brought into the fold until the second hour of the film which is just enough time to not develop them into actual characters. Instead, Optimus Prime (once again voiced by Peter Cullen) is actually given an arc this time around beginning as a responsibility-bearing leader who doesn't trust humans and blames himself for things beyond his control ultimately making his objectives more narrow than non-discriminatory and growing into a more balanced, dare I say more mature leader that learns the value in listening rather than assuming his courage and confidence will solve everything. This theme of developing the autobots as more than plot devices doesn’t stop with Optimus though as Pete Davidson gives maybe his (best?) most nuanced film performance since his debut as a wise-cracking robot named Mirage that, given the film’s nineties time stamp, appropriately develops an Iron Giant-like dynamic with Ramos’ Noah. Davidson also squeezes in a pretty solid Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch joke, so everyone wins. There isn’t enough real estate to devote the same development to Arcee (voice of Liza Koshy) and Bumblebee, but each get equally cool moments thanks to a few of those aforementioned needle drops. 

The tension throughout the whole of the movie is somewhat moot due to the fact we know the autobots survive (a given), but to Caple and his team’s credit we really feel the threat of the planet eating machine Unicron (get that money, Colman Domingo) and his cronies led by Scurge (voice of Peter Dinklage) whose menacing determination and how this is presented give the impression they might at least give Optimus and the gang a run for their money. Caple also infuses the film with an energetic pacing that doesn't focus too much on the silly plot and instead uses the standard archetypes and structure it's relying on to produce a fun adventure flick reminiscent of the type of films more prominent during the time in which this film is set. And while I'm not sure why Shia was never gifted the opportunity to be an Iron Man or where the implication of the final scene might lead I do know that Peru was a really inspired location choice, that it was utilized well, and if Paramount and Hasbro can continue to rely on filmmakers who keep the tone in check and the fun intact I would happily watch another six of these movies over the next decade and a half.

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