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In 2007 Michael Bay brought Tomy/Hasbro’s Transformers toys to live action with Transformers. Although there had been a series of animations Bay’s film kickstarted the cinematic franchise and allowed it to devolve into complete dross by the time the last film came around in 2017. That’s not to say that Transformers was any kind of marvel; typically shot in the frenetic ‘Bayhem’ fashion, the film was also uncomfortably exploitative of Megan Fox’s body and Revenge of the Fallen doubled down on the particularly predatory male gaze. Travis Knight’s 2018 Bumblebee corrected Bay’s formula and was genuinely good as an action film with an emotional core. Now we have Steven Caple Jr.’s Rise of the Beasts which avoids Bay’s worst directorial instincts but doesn’t measure up to Bumblebee in terms of quality.

The new big bad is a planet eating entity called Unicron (Colman Domingo) who commands an army of Terrorbots led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage). We begin on the home world of the Maximals, whose leader Apelinq sacrifices himself and the planet so other Maximals led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) can take the Macguffin – a Transwarp key out of the system and keep Unicron trapped and prevent him from devouring other worlds.

Switch to Brooklyn in 1994 and our Sam Witwicky for the journey is the far more charming Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) who has recently left the army and is somewhat of a tech genius. He spends his time caring for his little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) who has sickle cell anaemia and doing his best to get a job to help his struggling mother and pay Kris’ medical bills. When legitimate enterprises fail, Noah ends up agreeing to steal a car for his friend Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) who has no issue with taking from “the man.” Of course, the car, a special edition silver 1993 Porsche 911 Carrera, is more than meets the eye.

In a prestigious Ellis Island private museum another Brooklynite Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) is interning for her vapid boss. Elena is somewhat a genius herself with art and antiquities. She comes across something that appears Egyptian but isn’t. In investigating it she reveals part of the Transwarp key which sends out an intergalactic symbol awakening the Autobots still led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the Terrorbots, and a lone Maximal, the falcon-like Airazor (Michelle Yeoh).

What follows is the usual melee of action, adventure, and hit and miss comedy. Mirage (Pete Davidson), the Porsche that Noah attempted to steal is the new Bumblebee (although Bumblebee is in the film but sits a lot of it out). His hijinks are going to either amuse or wear on you depending on your tolerance for Davidson’s style of performance. Other Autobots include Arcee (Liza Koshy), Wheeljack (Cristo Fernández), and Stratosphere (John DiMaggio). The movie presents a particularly cynical Optimus Prime who doesn’t like working with humans and Mirage acts as his opposite.

It all comes down to a huge showdown in Peru where Optimus Primal and other Maximals have been living embedded with the indigenous people. Between Optimus Primal, Optimus Prime, and Noah the question of how to deal with the Transwarp key (destroy it to save Earth and other planets or use it to get the Autobots home) is debated until they have to face Scourge and his team, and somehow also Unicron – for a screenplay that has five writers a lot is either communicated via clumsy exposition or just “happens.”

Despite the generally messy script and the at times awful CGI, Rise of the Beasts does some things right. Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) is clearly influenced by the Beast Wars animation series and the design of the Autobots and Maximals reflect that well. He also avoids Bay’s shaky-cam, drone reliant, and discombulatingly edited style to shoot the action in a clear and vivid manner. Both Ramos and Fishwick are charming leads who don’t need to suddenly pair up romantically to make their interactions work. There is also a message about environmental cooperation that is resonant, and the family dynamic between Noah and Kris is sweet and authentic.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is a promising if imperfect soft reboot for the franchise. Steven Caple Jr. mostly manages to balance spectacle with characters we care about. Of course, Transformers movies really don’t need humans, but if they are going to be set on Earth it is great when the audience is given a Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee) and a Noah Diaz to root for. It makes a welcome change from whatever Michael Bay was serving to the masses.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.