Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is like an old car outfitted with some new accessories. The spoiler and the hubcaps change it up a bit, but it has the same chassis underneath.
The seventh (!) film in an action franchise launched in 2007, Rise of the Beasts introduces some new characters (human and robot) who liven up things enough for the first half. Yet it ultimately devolves into a big smashing robot movie that’s so-so, with a final showdown that could have been avoided if a character behaved the way we’ve seen in other films.
Set in 1994, Rise of the Beasts is another prequel in the series and essentially a sequel to 2018’s warmhearted Bumblebee, set in the 1980s. It’s also the first film in the franchise to have two people of color, Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah), as the main human characters. They have about as much to do as other humans in these films—dodging explosions and enemy robots, yelling things like, “Optimus!”—but both are likable, and my screening audience laughed and applauded at their interactions.
First, though, we’re treated to some backstory involving the Maximals, a race of transforming robots that resemble different wild animals. The peaceful Maximals fall under attack when Unicron, a giant, planet-eating orb, arrives with its minions to devour their jungle world. Unicron wants the “transwarp key,” a glowstick-like gizmo that will enable it to travel throughout the universe, where it can snack as much as it wants.
Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio), a gorilla with gravitas, manages to escape with the key and some of his species before the frustrated Unicron gobbles up what’s left.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Noah Diaz (Ramos), an Army veteran and electronics whiz, struggles to find a job to help pay for medical care for his younger brother (Dean Scott Vazquez). A neighborhood buddy talks him into helping steal a silver Porsche, but Noah’s conscience rears its head. Before he can balk, though, the car takes off on its own, leading police on a chase where it generates holograms of itself.
The Porsche is in fact an Autobot named Mirage, voiced by an enthusiastic Pete Davidson (Bodies Bodies Bodies). Mirage is happy to meet a new friend instead of being undercover, and Rise of the Beasts has some nice moments in the banter between Noah and Mirage, some off-color jokes aside.
At the same time, museum intern Elena Wallace (Fishback) becomes intrigued by a falcon statue that she inadvertently breaks, discovering the special key inside. It emits a beacon, drawing Mirage and the other Autobots, a magnificent Maximal who’s a peregrine falcon (Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once), and Unicron’s flunkies, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage, American Dreamer).
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is most enjoyable when director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) establishes a sense of place, complete with early 1990s needle drops such as the Wu-Tang Clan, the Black Sheep, and a well-timed dose of LL Cool J. The script by writers Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, and Josh Peters reintroduces fan favorites such as Bumblebee (who speaks in film lines from watching drive-in movies), Arcee (Liza Koshy), and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), a father figure grumpy about being on Earth. Optimus Primal, who has an amiable relationship with some indigenous people in Peru, seems noble by comparison.
The film starts spinning its wheels when one character suggests a common-sense way to keep the universe-hopping key out of Unicron’s jaws, and another talks them out of it, bucking everything we’ve learned about this character through other installments. Then again, that also would have ended the film too early.
The climax involves a battle that becomes tough to follow, as the Maximals transform from beasts into kaiju-size humanoids, blending in with all the other robots.
Die-hard fans and younger viewers might enjoy Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, but others might want to give it a rest.