Directed by: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Gemma Chan
With the voice talents of: Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, Frank Welker as Megatron, Erik Aadahl as Bumblebee, John Goodman as Hound, Ken Watanabe as Drift, Jim Carter as Cogman, Steve Buscemi as Daytrader, Omar Sy as Hot Rod, John DiMaggio as Crosshairs, Tom Kenny as Wheelie
Plot: Optimus Prime has disappeared. Autobots and Decepticons alike are being hunted down. The Autobots and their human friend Cade (Wahlberg) find a mysterious talisman that holds the key to the location of a powerful artefact. Hunted by Megatron, Cade and the Autobots must place their trust in Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), guardian of the secret history of Transformers and in Oxford Professor Vivian (Haddock). As the evil sorceress Quintessa (Chan), with a brainwashed Optimus in her control, approaches intending to destroy Earth; the race is on to find the artefact, which is the Autobots and humanity’s only hope of saving the planet they call home.
I’ll put it this way. If you’re not on the Transformers bandwagon yet, Transformers: The Last Knight is incredibly unlikely to convert you. Despite being the first film from Paramount’s Transformers Writers Room (a team of writers plotting out the next few movies in the series), The Last Knight fails to offer anything significantly new, which makes it a very hard movie to review. So much of the movie feels so familiar that it struggles to find its own identity. But that said, I did enjoy it. Now, does that mean I would say Transformers: The Last Knight is a good film? Probably not. Would I watch it again? Yes I would. Despite the film’s inherent problems, there are things to enjoy here. Does The Last Knight heavily signal that Michael Bay should move on from the franchise to allow the series to find a new voice and carve out a new identity? Yes. Definitely. But does that mean Transformers: The Last Knight is the cinematic abortion other critics have made it out to be? Well that answer is a little more complicated.
It’s very easy to focus on what’s bad about The Last Knight. It’s a Frankenstein of a film at times; with characters and plot elements dipping in and out of the story and being forgotten about every time they’re off screen. Iconic characters such as Optimus Prime and Megatron are largely forgotten about for most of the film’s runtime; Optimus himself disappears after a few short scenes in the first act and doesn’t appear again until the start of the third act (which is about an hour or more of the character being off-screen). In fact, this happens with other characters at an alarming rate. The heavily marketed Isabelle (Moner) likewise disappears for most of the film, as do the rest of the Autobots. To say the film is called Transformers, the only Transformers who emerge with a significant role in the film are Bumblebee and new character Cogman. And this is perhaps the largest problem with The Last Knight, one that has been steadily growing worse as the series has gone on; the Transformers themselves are being reduced to side characters in their own franchise, despite the fact that the Transformers themselves are much more interesting characters than the humans the film focuses on so much.
During a fight late in the movie, Megatron tells Optimus “We were brothers once!” continuing on from the reveal the two were brothers in the first movie. However, this dynamic has never been explored in the movies and indeed, this is the first time it’s been mentioned since the reveal in the first film. Wouldn’t exploring that dynamic between Optimus and Megatron, two brothers who are opposite sides of the same coin, be a much more interesting relationship to explore than Cade and his daughter, who doesn’t even appear on screen due to Nicola Peltz not returning for more than a voice cameo? It’s not even an issue of the voice actors not being good enough, Peter Cullen and Frank Welker have been the official voices of Optimus Prime and Megatron for over 30 years. It’s confusing that a more interesting storyline is being continually pushed to the side. Since Paramount is actively searching for a new director for Transformers 6, it might be worth them finding a director who actually wants to make the Transformers characters in their own movies rather than the set dressing they are for most of The Last Knight.
The film also squanders its potential. The film’s most interesting element; the secret history of Transformers on Earth, is glossed over. The idea that the Transformers have been shaping human history since the Dark Ages is a fascinating one and flashback sequences of Autobots fighting alongside King Arthur and his knights and fighting the Nazis in World War 2 is incredibly imaginative stuff. It’s just a shame it amounts to less than 5 minutes of the movie and ultimately doesn’t have much bearing on the plot apart from the origins of the film’s McGuffin and a running joke involving a Transformer disguised as a pocket watch that apparently killed Hitler. A lot of thought went into the movie lore, so it’s a damn shame not to explore it. A WW2 set prequel with Bumblebee fighting Nazis is so much more interesting than yet another sequel.
Another plotline that is squandered is the heavily marketed “Nemesis Prime” storyline. With Optimus having very little screen time, it’s hard for the storyline to take any effect. More scenes of Quintessa slowly brainwashing Prime would have gone to good lengths to resolve this, but instead Optimus is apparently instantly brainwashed and doesn’t appear again until he arrives on Earth as “Nemesis Prime” at the start of the third act. While the heavily marketed fight between Nemesis Prime and Bumblebee is excellent, being one of the more entertaining sequences in the film, there’s no doubt that the emotional attachment required for this scene is missing due to the film limiting Prime’s screentime and not allowing Bumblebee to show any character development at all. And after this, we are left no time to dwell on events because the Autobots quickly charge off to fight Quintessa for another lengthy action scene with no time for the characters or the audience to have a moment to breathe.
I am wondering if Transformers: The Last Knight would have been better served being divided into two films; one dealing with the Nemesis Prime arc and the search for the artefact (Transformers: Nemesis perhaps?) and another dealing with the rest of the Quintessa storyline. Doing this would have perhaps helped the film feel a lot less cramped than it does and allowed the valuable time for the characters and story to breathe.
As for the human characters, they’re a mixed bag. Wahlberg’s Cade is very much the same as he was in the preceding film and shows no change of development across the film making it very hard for audiences to invest in him as a protagonist. Haddock’s Vivian however is much stronger and there are times where I wished the film was more focused on her instead of Cade; Vivian has more personality and plot relevance. While the film makes great leaps and excuses to keep Cade around, Vivian is always naturally part of proceedings. Despite a few moments where Vivian is reduced to nothing more than her looks (when he meets her Cade calls her “British stripper lady” due to her dress), Vivian does manage to emerge as one of the strongest characters in the film.
As for the heavily marketed Isabella, she doesn’t actually do much apart from be an audience viewpoint character for the first act. After that she vanishes from the film for most of the second and third acts, which raises the question as to why she was even included. While the character shows promise, despite being an obvious knock off of Star Wars’s Rey, it’s confusing that a human character that’s barely in the film was heavily marketed – and indeed heavily marketed as a feminist character. It’s strange then that Michael Bay’s attempts at a feminist character would be quickly abandoned and side-lined for most of the film. Perhaps Isabella was a very late addition to the story, meant to set up a larger role in future sequels and spin-offs?
The real star of the show though is Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins has a blast in the role and emerges as the film’s funniest character, again making you wonder why the film isn’t about him instead of Cade. Hopkins gets the biggest laughs in the film; from giving police cars and Decepticons the finger during a high speed car chase, to telling Cade and others to “shut up” (including the British Prime Minister) to casually apologising to a poor museum clerk as Cade and Vivian jump over the barriers to reach a submarine of great importance, “Young people today. They just really like submarines”. Hopkins has so much fun in the role that I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t the best thing in it.
Other actors from previous Transformers films make a return, but their role is so minimal or has so little impact it’s barely worth mentioning them. Josh Duhamel returns as Lennox, but despite having a lot of screen time doesn’t actually do anything of importance. John Turturro returns as Agent Simmons and despite being heavily hyped only appears in two short scenes (bizarrely featuring two Autobots trying their best to get him to play football with them) making his return feel slightly pointless but worth it for a shouting match with Hopkins’s character that is hilarious. Stanley Tucci however is wasted in only one scene. While Tucci is excellent in the film, he does not reprise his character from the previous film instead playing Merlin in the prologue. Tucci is hilarious in the role but I couldn’t help but wish he had a larger role making Transformers: The Last Knight the second film this year to waste Tucci in a mostly secondary role after Beauty and the Beast.
Gemma Chan is decent as villainess Quintessa but never actually gets enough time to play around with the character. After a few scenes in the first act, the character vanishes until the third act when she simply stands around spouting vaguely threatening sci-fi nonsense leading her to be the most underdeveloped antagonist in the series so far and feeling almost like an afterthought.
The action scenes, as ever, remain enjoyable, if incredibly exhaustive. Bay doesn’t seem to know when to call cut, leading the action scenes to drag on. And on. And on. And on. Eventually it gets to the point where the action stops being entertaining and you become slightly aware how much all these explosions are extending the films already bloated runtime. With each action sequence feeling the need to “outdo” the last, it almost tricks you into thinking the film is nearly finished with some sequences only for the film to go on for another half hour. With perhaps a stricter hand in the editing suite, the action sequences could have been something special. That said however, a climatic action sequence in a zero gravity situation was surprisingly inventive.
The real star of the films however remains Steve Jablonsky’s scores and his score for The Last Knight is no exception. Perhaps his finest score for the series yet, Jablonsky reprises old themes (including the main theme for the films not heard since the second movie) and creates several new great ones; all of it culminating in the beautiful track We Have To Go, which deserves a listen.
The special effects are gorgeous however. The Transformers are beautifully designed, even obsessively so. Lots of detail is worked into these characters along with attempts at making each character distinct and memorable; to the point where a Suicide Squad-esque run through of Megatron’s team of Decepticons seems included purely to show off all the different character designs.
Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what it sets out to be; another entry in the series. No more. No less. For this reason alone, I can’t really fault it. It achieves exactly what it wanted to be. On a filmmaking level it falters. The film is too long, has too many underdeveloped ideas and characters, suffers from having too much going on for one film (to the point where characters just vanish from the film for periods of time) and seems to continually misunderstand exactly why people want Transformers movies, namely for Transformers. But the film does have some great action sequences, some great ideas (even if they aren’t developed) and sets a good framework for the series going forward (without Michael Bay). With Transformers 6 and 7 planned as well as various prequels and spin-offs, The Last Knight is certainly not the last Transformers film, but it certainly heralds the last Michael Bay Transformers film. The Last Knight hammers home how outdated and out of touch some of Bay’s thoughts and ideas are. While Bay may claim his films are for “teenage boys”, there’s no denying teenage boys have much better choices today. In a world where Marvel dominates with high quality film after high quality film, making films just for teenage boys won’t cut it. Transformers needs to… well transform and prove there’s more than meets the eye to this franchise. As it is, The Last Knight is a passable entry in the franchise, one that will entertain fans and those who have enjoyed previous entries. However, with slightly sexist attitudes to some female characters, an underdeveloped plot and characters and not offering anything really different from previous entries, anyone looking for anything more may want to look elsewhere.